"The Book of Charlie" | Reviewed by Chris Stuckenschneider
Wise advice and delightful anecdotes abound in “The Book of Charlie: 109 Years in the Pursuit of Happiness.” This non-fiction read might be slim, but it packs an inspirational punch as it details the life of a centenarian who lived across the street from the book’s author, David Von Drehle, an opinion columnist for the “Washington Post.”
Drehle first notices Charlie White in 2007 when he sees the 102-year-old shirtless, outside his home, washing his girlfriend’s car. Drehle, his wife and four young children had just moved to Kansas City, Mo., from Washington, D.C., seeking a quieter lifestyle in a place where the “…skies are bigger than the egos.”
Drehle enjoyed a fulfilling 7-year-friendship with Charlie, a relationship that left a lasting impression and resulted in a book many will enjoy, a heartwarming treasure that’s witty, rich with historical details and stories of the changes in our nation and world that Charlie witnessed in his 109 years of life.
There’s the story of Charlie’s 1922 cross country trip from Kansas to Los Angeles with two buddies in a Model T they’d have to hand crank on roads barely passable. Two weeks later, they reached Los Angeles. Needing money to eat, the young man who owned the Model T sold it, and when the trio’s cash ran out, he wired his mom and she came to get him on the train. Charlie and his other buddy, still in California, had to get creative about getting home. They rode the rails, on top of box cars, alternately freezing in the mountains and sweltering in the desert, even resorting at one point to perching on the cowcatcher.
Of course, Charlie’s mother cared about his safety and well-being too, but she gave him free rein, teaching him to “Just do the right thing,” her “…trust in his resourcefulness, powerfully nourishing his confidence.” Charlie’s dad was a minister who served a number of congregations in the Midwest before moving to Kansas City, where Charlie and his sisters were raised.
Tragically, his father died when Charlie was just a boy, falling down an elevator shaft through no fault of his own, an accident that forever changed Charlie, reminding him of the brevity of life, and forming the bedrock of his philosophy of optimism. “If you’re negative, your whole body suffers. A negative person falls apart, because of the food that is supplied with optimism is not present.”
Drehle treats readers to the life path of Charlie, whose circuitous route eventually takes him into a career as a physician, initially a doctor who makes house calls, one who knows his patients and their families, and accepts trade for payment when the Great Depression leaves people strapped for cash. Charlie eventually becomes a respected and renowned anesthesiologist, a field in which he excels well into old age.
Charlie’s grit, acceptance and ingenuity shine in “The Book of Charlie” the author’s admiration of his friend, and the lessons he learns from him, heartwarming, true words of wisdom to refer to time and again.