- CELEBRATING: John Grisham at book party in Blytheville.
John Grisham, author
Black Oak and Parkin
John Grisham, the author known for his best-selling legal thrillers, spent the first seven years of his life on a farm outside of Black Oak, Ark., which “was — and is — a very small town in Craighead County, about 30 miles from Jonesboro.”
In 2001, Grisham departed from his previous work to write an autobiographical novel, “A Painted House.” His own house “was on a small farm, three or four miles out of Black Oak, though it seemed like a thousand miles from anywhere,” Grisham remembers. “The description is fairly accurate in ‘A Painted House.’ The book was very autobiographical. But I can’t say I grew up in a small town in Black Oak, because we didn’t spend a lot of time in town. There just wasn’t much to do there.”
Grisham’s parents moved to the farm outside of Black Oak just after they married in 1952. It was “a bad piece of land that was constantly flooded,” according to Grisham. Eventually his father had enough of farming, and in 1962 he took a job with a construction company, which brought the family to Mississippi, Louisiana and back to Arkansas in the summer of 1963.
“The childhood I really remember was in Parkin, Arkansas. We spent three years there. I spent the third, fourth, and fifth grades in Parkin, Arkansas, and those were the fondest years of my childhood.
“It was just a wonderful town back then. It had everything a small town is supposed to have, first and foremost, an undefeated high school football team. They won 33 straight games — 11 games a year for three years. The whole town, in the fall, everything revolved around Friday night. If it was a home game, the whole town was electrified all day Friday. We couldn’t wait for the game. If it was an away game, the whole town packed up and went to the game. We were just unbeatable. A lot of guys on the team went to our church, which was the First Baptist Church of Parkin. They were like Greek gods to us, real heroes.
“The schools were very safe and secure. We knew our teachers, they knew your parents. It was just a very warm, cozy, safe world. We were very sheltered. We didn’t worry about crime or the problems around the world. We weren’t supposed to. We were kids.
“The Arkansas Razorbacks were a national powerhouse in the early 1960s, and again, that was life and death. We would listen on the radio. That was very much a part of every Saturday. There was football on Friday, football on Saturday, and then on Sunday you’d go to church and talk about football.
“It was the type of town, as most were back then, where you would get up in the morning, grab your baseball glove, get on your bike and take off. You might come home for lunch or you might not, but no one cared. We never thought about a bad thing happening to us. The whole town was ours to play in. We came home when we came home. Our mothers let us be kids.
“We lived in a small little house in town. You could walk to church, walk to school. The house still exists. It looks a whole lot smaller now than it did then. … The house was just off Main Street, and we lived there from the summer of 1963 to the summer of 1966. And we cried when we left. We did not want to leave Parkin. But my father got transferred again.”
Grisham used to return to Black Oak and Parkin more often than he does now, but the people he knew died, Black Oak has withered and Parkin, too, has changed.
Grisham occasionally comes to Mountain View to visit his parents, who moved there about 15 years ago.
“One time I went to see them, and I had my kids with me. We drove to Parkin and found the small house I had lived in. It was kind of a shock to my kids to see something that small and very much run down. They were very surprised.”
Did the places where he grew up influence his life?
“I can’t say anything from childhood inspired me to write books, except my mother didn’t like television, so we read books. We were taught to read early and encouraged to read books. I grew up doing a lot of reading.
“I think the work ethic, the notion of having a dream and working tirelessly to achieve it — I think that came from both parents, who were very hard workers. My mother especially — just like in ‘A Painted House,’ she did not want a life on the farm. She wanted her kids to go to college. So we grew up with that goal. We grew up believing we had the ability and capacity to achieve it.
“You kind of are where you came from. I guess if I had been raised in New York City, I’d have written something completely different. Thank God that didn’t happen!”
— Warwick Sabin