Review | ‘I Love You, Miss Huddleston: And Other Inappropriate Longings of My Indiana Childhood’

The author and minister relates a simpler and more innocent time — with a few exaggerations.

Published in the Miami Herald, 5.10.09

I Love You, Miss Huddleston: And Other Inappropriate Longings of My Indiana Childhood. Phillip Gulley. Harper One. 201 pages. $21.95.

Minister and author Phillip Gulley reports that his ”childhood was one of unrelieved and happy chaos,” and details this life with just a few acknowledged, humorous exaggerations in his engaging memoir. While the title may be a tad misleading — Miss Huddleston is but a flash in a starry sky of coming-of-age memories and anecdotes — Gulley’s book transports readers to a simpler period in Danville, Ind., population 5,000.

This is a time (the ’60s) when, after shooed outside to play, children ”would consult with the other children about world affairs,” and because communists were the greatest world threat, Gulley ”would lie awake at night, worrying about . . . their near proximity.” In his town, the hoodlums played pinball and taught parrots swear words; Gulley’s crew’s biggest misdeed was hurling tomatoes at passing cars. When the carnival arrived it was the main event in town. Humiliation came in the form of learning to dance in school and showering in the locker room.

Reminiscent of the film A Christmas Story, Gulley’s idyllic narratives are woven from a loom of folksy conversation and good-natured humor. Occasional footnotes allow him to insert a funny aside about beef jerky, say, or reveal the future of friends Peanut and Suds Norton, but Gulley mainly organizes his rapid-fire childhood anecdotes around an innocuous theme or event, like Halloween or driving.

Through these a portrait arises of life, friends and family, though while idiosyncrasies create memorable caricatures, people are spared probing psychoanalysis. Instead readers can chuckle at his parents’ bad car purchases (think Edsel and Gremlin), at how Phillip tricks his neat-freak brother Doug into mowing the lawn by doing it sloppily.

At the same time, Gulley’s father emerges as a central influence, an exaggerator for the sake of a good story. ”Dad had a flair for enriching the most mundane events with bald exaggerations,” says Gulley, like the time his father told them they were moving across town because he’d won a house in a poker game. Gulley’s book continues this tradition, conflating everyday events to the momentous, by his own admission “the history I preferred.”

All times are good times, and it seems impossible to the cynical that there wasn’t anything more significant to regret or complain about other than the unfortunate fate of having girls who ”loved me like a brother, thought of me like a dear friend, and didn’t want to risk our relationship by engaging in any activity that might lead to hurt feelings.” But Gulley inhabits the mind of his former, childhood self with immediacy, using descriptions and the innocent viewpoint of that age while also commenting with the cleverness of his older, wiser adult self who has the benefit of experience and hindsight. The result is a fond meditation on a place he holds dear, and still calls home — a positive, feel-good escape in times that aren’t so simple anymore.