American Culture

Book Review: Hank: a Storyteller’s Story by Rick Burnham

Hank: a Storyteller’s Story tells a tale of identity theft of the most literal kind and how, as victims discover their true identities how much our pasts inform our futures.

Rick Burnham’s brief novel Hank: a Storyteller’s Story is an exploration of two questions.

Hank: a Storyteller’s Story by Rick Burnham (image courtesy Southern Yellow Pine Publishing)

The first of these questions is one of identity: the novel’s heroine, Jennifer Johnson McCarthy is unhappily married and at loose ends. She feels as if she has lost who she is and the life she is leading as the wife of a controlling husband makes her both desperate and determined to find herself again. By chance, on their way home from a beach vacation, Jennifer and her husband Emerson, a driven corporate attorney, stop at a gas station/convenience store on the outskirts of Oak Springs, Florida. It is there where Jennifer begins a journey of self-discovery that changes not only life, but the lives of her entire family.

The impetus for Jennifer’s journey is hearing an old man named Hank Chatman tell a story. Chatman is a charming storyteller who appears once a week at the store and tells stories about local residents, stories which may or may not be true. Hank’s storytelling serves multiple purposes. The stories themselves provide a tall tale folklore of rural Florida culture – and amusement for his listeners (one about a chicken farmer and government experiments that create giant chickens is particularly good). More importantly, Hank’s storytelling allows him to connect with those who come to hear him.

Like Jennifer.

Hank Chatman’s history becomes a central element of Burnham’s novel. As a young man Chatman and his bride Ellen moved to Oak Springs from North Carolina to make a new life for themselves. They became vital members of the community; Ellen operated a successful bakery and Hank eventually became mayor of the Florida hamlet. Both were known for their civic activism and willingness to help their neighbors. They had three children, a daughter Tonya and two sons,  Henry Jr. and Teddy.

Then disaster struck. A massive tornado struck near Oak Springs, obliterating Hank’s home and killing Ellen, Henry Jr., and Tonya. Teddy, the youngest child, disappeared and his body was never found. Hank, distraught after the tragedy, eventually reached such a low point that he voluntarily committed himself to a mental institution where he remained for 40 years. He returned to Oak Springs from the institution as an old man, penniless. Adopted by a family with members who remembered him as a young man, Hank lives in a small trailer within walking distance of the little store where he tells the stories mentioned above. There Jennifer begins to attend his his weekly storytelling – and drawn to him, as he is to her, begins a friendship that forms the spine of the novel.

By now, astute readers have enough clues to begin unraveling the novel’s questions. Jennifer’s search for her identity leads to revelations, reunions, and separations that ultimately lead to discoveries that change both her life and the lives of others. Hank’s personal story has a happy ending.

The reader will have a good time learning what Jennifer’s discoveries are and how Hank’s story ends.