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Pulling the Chariot of the Sun

Shane McCrae

Canongate Books (2023)


Review by Andy Bay

In 1979 at the tender age of three,  Shane McCrae was abducted by his well-meaning grandparents and relocated from Oregon to Texas. Since McCrae was the product of a failed, short-lived interracial relationship, his grandparents decided to conceal the fact that his father was an African-American to protect him from discrimination and rejection. Pulling the Chariot of the Sun is the captivating account of the author and poet’s disturbing story. This memoir is a real life narrative woven from the threads uncovered by McCrae in his relentless quest to salvage coherence about his real life story. 

McCrae, a professor of Literature at Columbia University, writes with great precision. At times, he favours vivid imagery and  symbolism and puts the character’s deeper emotions on hold, for example: ‘My grandmother glared at my grandfather, her eyes unrecognisable, like two hands slammed on a tabletop.’ McCrae is also capable of shorter, sobering insights, which leave us under no illusion about the intensity of the emotional damage he experienced: ‘Whenever my grandfather and I drove anywhere alone together, we brought along the enormous, everyday silence that had grown between us, or had always separated us.’ McCrae’s writing mirrors his early attempts to engage with a process of self-discovery: ‘Did this really happen, or is it just my imagination running away with me?’ By repeatedly revisiting these haunting memories , his grasp on reality becomes entangled with emotional confusion, and this is the puzzle McCrae will try to resolve until he eventually meets with his father. 

In the early chapters of the book, the author weaves together memories from secondary school, occasional visits to family members across the US Southern states, and moving to California with his grandparents at the age of 11. At 13, McCrae is briefly reunited with his mother before moving back in with his grandmother (who has left her husband at that point) in Oregon, until the age of 17. The narrative is fractured and the author’s sense of continued disorientation is only exacerbated by being constantly on the move with his family: ‘I seemed to live in Beaverton forever, but I think I only lived there a year and a half’ or: ‘We arrived at our new house but I don’t remember arriving. We arrived in winter, but I don’t remember winter’ and ‘Shouldn’t I remember whether my grandmother picked me up? But the memory is conditional.’ The distant hope of meeting his father, his love of alternative rock music, and skateboarding with his teenage friends are the only threads that bind the complex narrative together. ‘The day I found my father might have been…’ is the refrain which punctuates the beginning of the last few chapters, just before McCrae meets his father for the first time, with his skateboarding best friends, Mark and Aaron.  

McCrae’s memoir is solidly entrenched in the new American narrative of inexorably dis-United States, where racial harmony and unity can no longer reasonably be envisaged. The author’s grandparents and mother seem to be fully committed to erode and wreck his non-European identity, for no other reason than that is who they are. They appear to be hollow, harrowing characters, whose emotional or humane capacity is deliberately withheld from McCrae to enforce the cultural domination they seem predestined to impose on him. 

Against all odds in this labyrinth of deception and fading memories from his childhood, McCrae embarks on the arduous task of reconstructing his own narrative and redefining his identity. Whether he was successful or not is somewhat unclear because the book ends as he makes a first connection with his father through a telephone call and we don’t get to discover how their relationship unfolds, in contrast with his relationship with his mother and grandparents. But McCrae must certainly have endured appalling torment and confusion, growing up as the product of a short lived affair, in a cultural environment from which he immediately felt instinctively alienated. Perhaps the family that he grew up around were simply distant, psychologically damaged individuals, cut off from their own emotions and deeply fearful, confused and dissatisfied with their own lives, regardless of their background. The fact that McCrae found  the inner resolve to courageously reconstruct his story, in spite of these frightful obstacles, is a testament to his incredible will to survive.