Carrying Albert Home, the Somewhat True Story of a Man, his Wife and Her Alligator
by Homer Hickam
Vicki Burger, Co-owner of Wind City Books
(Photo provided by Vicki Burger)
Homer Hickam, Jr. is most well-known as the author of the memoir, Rocket Boys-later made into the movie October Sky, recounting his youth in Coalwood, WV and his avid pursuit of amatuer rocketry techniques which led to his and his friends winning a National Science Fair gold medal. Hickam, Jr. went on to distinguish himself as a NASA engineer but also became an accomplished author. In Carrying Albert Home, Hickam delivers a delightfully spirited telling of his parents efforts to return his mother’s pet alligator to the swamps of Florida.
How many of us have wondered about our parents lives together prior to the joyous arrival of our little selves? Growing up, Homer Hickam, Jr. heard many stories of his parents’ times — most of which he had to put in the “tall tales” category. However, just like any good tall tale, there was always an element of truth to the stories he was told and that is what makes this biographical novel of a particular period early in his parents’ marriage so appealing.
The truth: prior to marrying Homer Hickam, Sr., Elsie Lavender lived for a brief time in Florida and dated the as yet unknown Buddy Ebsen. On returning to Coalwood Elsie married Homer and Buddy went on to fame in New York City. On a lark as a memento of their time in Florida, Buddy sent Elsie and Homer a baby alligator as a wedding present. Elsie raised this alligator in her bathroom in West Virginia, even going so far as to build a concrete pond in the backyard for his summer sunbathing pleasure.
The fiction: just about everything else, but then again, it is really hard to tell. The story opens with Homer being chased from the bathroom with his pants around his ankles by four year old Albert. It is at this point that Homer delivers the ultimatum (“Me or that alligator!”) that sets them off on the adventure of a lifetime as they seek to restore Albert to his natural habitat. Thus begins a 1,000 mile journey of hilarity involving high speed car chases, bank robbers, the Red Scare, baseball, labor strikes, Hollywood movies, and a hurricane, as well as appearances by Buddy Ebsen (true), Ernest Hemingway, and John Steinbeck.
The reader will cheer for the indomitable Elsie and the somewhat hapless Homer as they seek to do the right thing by an amazingly cheerful Albert and in turn get to know each other far better and cement their commitment to one another. This carefully woven tale told with warmth and charm is funny, tender, and sometimes tragic but ultimately a triumphant testimony to love. Carrying Albert Home can be enjoyed alone but also makes an excellent book club selection.