In Dog Bone Soup: A Boomer’s Journey, Maine author Bette A. Stevens reminds us that being poor should not define who we are as individuals. With determination as well as the helping hand and guidance of those who care, we can become the person we aspire to be. Herself a boomer, Stevens takes us back to America of the 1950s and 1960s. On leaving home to enter the U.S. Army, eighteen-year-old Shawn Daniels looks back on growing up in Lebanon, Maine, where his family was scorned as “nothing but poor white trash.”
Shawn’s narrative contains no mention of the year or his age. Only his school grade records the passing years. His earliest memory is of watching mice scamper across the rafters as he lay in bed at nights. Having one as a pet appealed to him. Their home was a two-room log cabin with two small windows. About four years old at the time, he was too young to understand how harsh conditions were for his mother to raise three kids without electricity and indoor plumbing.
When his mother moved out, taking only his baby sister with her, Shawn’s life and that of his younger brother took a downward turn. Gone were his days of fishing with his dad. For about a year or so, the brothers lived in a foster home with strict rules. They went hungry and were often confined to their room as punishment for misbehavior or bad table manners.
The year Shawn started kindergarten, they became a family once more. His father had won his mother back by moving to Lebanon where he got a job in the tannery. He rented a third-floor apartment with two bedrooms, electric lights, hot and cold running water, flush toilet, and a giant bathtub. [According to the 1960 U.S. Census, the town of Lebanon in Maine had a population of 1,534 of mostly white Americans.] Shawn’s carefree days of playing with his newfound friends lasted for about three years. The cost of living in town was too much for his father.
Shawn was eight years old when their days of the good life ended. To cut down on their living expenses, his father built a makeshift house in rural Edden, three miles away. No running water. No indoor flush toilet. His mother insisted on electric installation for powering the refrigerator and radio. As the eldest, Shawn’s day began with fetching several buckets of water from the well and splitting wood to fit in the stove.
When Shawn’s best friend since first grade discovered that he had to pee in a pot at nights, their friendship was never the same again. So began the teasing and bullying because Shawn’s family was poor and his father a drunkard. He hated school. Saturday was his favorite day of the week. He went bike riding, fishing, hunting, and sledding in the winter.
Throughout Shawn’s narrative, we see a boy who does not shirk his responsibilities as the eldest child. Always respectful towards adults, he is open to learning new skills and taking on odd jobs to earn money to help his mother with expenses. During the days of dog bone soup and onion sandwiches, he holds onto his dream to become a better man, husband, and father than his dad.
Author Bette Stevens describes well the family dynamics of parents whose values and goals are miles apart. She puts to excellent use her experience as a teacher in encouraging and guiding a good student who struggles to overcome the odds stacked against him. She makes clear that being poor should not prevent a child from developing their full human potential. What’s more, it takes more than the family to steer that child in the right direction. Shawn Daniels is never alone on his grinding, boomer’s journey to adulthood.
Bette A. Stevens is a retired elementary and middle school teacher, a wife, mother of two and grandmother of five. Stevens lives in Central Maine with her husband on their 37-acre farmstead where she enjoys writing, reading, gardening, walking, and reveling in the beauty of nature. She advocates for children and families, for childhood literacy, and for monarch butterflies, an endangered species. Learn more at https://4writersandreaders.com/