AN AMERICAN LIFEWhile this is the story of one man's life, it is also the story of many American families. The trip from the dusty farm fields of west Texas to the streets of San Francisco does not follow a straight line. The transferring of the values one builds his or her life upon begins in childhood. We now know from contemporary neuroscience and research on rhythms of the heart that it is the full emotional presence of the parent and not the words alone which plant and nurture the seeds of character in the heart of the child.
When young Johnnie rode with his dad on the big Deere tractor plowing the straight lines, much more than words were exchanged. These moments and similar times with his mother became the root-source of the integrity, courage and compassion evident almost a lifetime later on the streets of San Francisco.
When I first began reading John Montandon's By His Own Blood, I thought it would be a bucolic story about growing up in a farming community in the years after WWII. I had comfortably settled into images of the dusty roads of west Texas when an unexpected, indeed, unpredictable and unthinkable tragedy occurred. From his youth, Montandon's reaction to the tragedy was as might be expected. What was not expected was how his reaction gradually and gently changed. At one level, this calm man from rural Texas was transformed by honestly examining himself and what had happened to him and to his family. The seeds planted while riding the big tractor next to his daddy were bearing new fruit.
This American democracy is built upon the lessons, as well as the assumptions learned in childhood and lived-out through the stages of adulthood. John Montandon's By His Own Blood is not just the story of one life, nor of the life of a single family. It is the story of the shaping of the American character in how events experienced in one form or another by just about all of us are interpreted. With the skill of a master storyteller, Montandon effortlessly takes us through the often unexpected experiences in the life of one family. What is experienced as a sudden unjust tragedy leads to a personal transformation. These are the events, or variations on the kinds of events that happen in every family. In his telling, we are given fresh and deeper insights into the things that shaped our own lives. What at first seems like a quiet whisper suddenly shakes one awake with the stark reality of life. There is no pretence here. There is no drama for the sake of drama. It is rather the natural pulse of the heart, sometimes soft and sometimes roaring.
The author did not write a book about the way things 'are supposed to be.' By His Own Blood is an open and direct telling of the raw truth. It is the sometimes simple and easily forgotten happenings of the past that give us the understandings needed if we are to make sense and cope with what happens today. Sooner or later tragedies come into just about everyone's life.
Where does one's integrity or courage come from? The seeds are planted in childhood. They are shaped and either quelled or pushed forward by how we have learned to interpret the unexpected that comes into every life. When tragedy comes, as it will, learning through the living of the tragedy is what gives character a lasting stamp.
Written in a style that interweaves the head and the heart, I found myself living the experience as if sitting beside John, or perhaps being present in his consciousness as he wrote. John Montandon has given us a gift with this book. I felt the full range of human emotion as I read. When I turned the last page, I felt I had been deeply connected with my own humanity. I reflected on my own family and how their gentle manner shaped the person I have become.
As I read his story, I began to recognize the degree to which each of our lives are framed and shaped by the cultural milieu, or feeling tone present in the family. The transfer of values from parent to child is not accomplished by words alone. The actual transfer occurs by a kind of osmosis, or contagion. When young Johnnie Montandon sat on the tractor next to his daddy as they plowed the fields of that west Texas farm, that is when the transfer of values had its start.
In the reading of these pages, there arises a recognition that American values survive because of the character and integrity of men and women who, like John Montandon, absorbed some inner strength from watching and walking with their daddies and mommies! Life does not come at us with some easily predictable flow. Rather it surprises us, sometimes with quietness, as before a storm. Then there are the ferocious times when it seems as if there is nothing to hold onto. About the time we begin thinking we are safe, the outrageously unthinkable is in our faces. Whatever else one may choose to write or to believe, raw life is the truth. John Montandon's story is that raw truth. From placid days in a small Texas town to the harshest reality from unexpected sources. That is the truth told in By His Own Blood.
It is only human to seek reasonably logical explanations. But life is not ruled by logic. It is with the harshest injustices of life that we have the most difficulty comprehending and understanding. When an author pours out his heart on to paper, it is hard to put the book down and stop reading. Anyone who has watched his or her parents struggle to overcome significant challenges will be present with John Montandon as he puts these words on paper.
The heart, in this case, the heart of author John Montandon, carries us through to the time of compassion made possible, only by the strength of character and integrity first planted as seeds while riding on that John Deere tractor in the fields of west Texas.
I heartily recommend this book to anyone who cares about family and the values that see families through the many and varied challenges of life.
Wayne L. Strom, Ph.D.
Professor of Behavioral Science
The Graziadio School