The Life of Mikey

The Life of Mikey

A Memoir

Non-Fiction - Memoir
302 Pages
Reviewed on 08/25/2017
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Author Biography

Michael K. Willis was born and raised in the Appalachian region of the Blue Ridge Mountains in western North Carolina.

Willis received his bachelor’s degree in political science and history from Western Carolina University and his master’s degree in public administration from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. He currently lives in Asheville, North Carolina.

    Book Review

Reviewed by Viga Boland for Readers' Favorite

Have you ever read a book blurb, decided you’d like to read that book, gotten into the first section and thought, “This is going to be good!’ Then you move on a bit, change your mind, nearly chuck the book, but then something makes you pick it up again? That’s what might happen for you with The Life of Mikey by Michael K. Willis. Whether you persist will depend on three things: how you like Willis’ style, his love of describing the geography of the Appalachians where he grew up, and whether you enjoy remembering the political, economic and social changes from the 50’s to the 70’s.

Michael K. Willis has a most engaging and endearing style. His memoir of physical abuse is lightened by humour and acceptance of that is just how it was back in those days. He was one of eight children born to a Baptist country pastor and his foul-mouthed wife, both of whom believed in whipping their kids, both physically and verbally, into goodness and godliness. It was a rough life for Michael and his siblings, but one he feels toughened him up to face the future in a world where social injustice and terrorism in all its forms is rampant. There was no love lost between the author and his parents, and yet, as he says in his epilogue, he recognizes after writing The Life of Mikey why they did what they did and acknowledges that all of us make mistakes, especially when raising children, thinking we are doing what is right when it isn’t.

What prevents The Life of Mikey from being a depressing read is Willis’ style: it’s lightly reflective, often humorous, and moves at a fast pace. The Willis family changed homes and locations many times during the author’s journey into adulthood. Willis provides quick looks at the beautiful landscapes and towns in which the family lived. He barrels through important political events like the assassinations of Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy and his brother, and all the turmoil surrounding the same. He reminds those of us who lived during those decades of the wonder we all felt at seeing our first televisions, or later, men landing on the moon. And all the while, he has us smiling in remembrance of our own childhood shenanigans and confusion about the adult world, not to mention the raised eyebrows at girls in mini-skirts!

The Life of Mikey is a trip down Memory Lane, but not just for Michael K. Willis. While the geography of his upbringing and the family may differ from our own, there is much here on a personal level with which readers will identify. And that will keep them reading and enjoying The Life of Mikey.

Dr. Oliva Dsouza

The Life of Mikey by Michael K. Willis starts off as an ordinary memoir of the life of a boy stuck between a rock and a hard place. Mikey is born and raised in a Baptist preacher's family. His parents have a big brood to take care of with limited resources at their disposal. This ensures that all the children become objects on which the parents vent their frustrations. The children are subjected to violent beatings and verbal abuse on a regular basis. In spite of the bitterness at home, the kids get into a lot of mischievous endeavors and have their own mechanisms to cope. The family keeps moving and the kids get to experience poverty, rural life and urban life in all forms. Changing schools and making new friends becomes a way of life for Mikey and his siblings. Mikey struggles with a lot of stuff, but emerges a victor by getting through college and keeping himself together. But, you need to read the whole story to really know the main factors that help him survive and cope

Mikey is a true hero. After having faced so many hardships at a young age, it takes someone with grit and determination to get on with life and, at some point, find enough grace to look at things from a different perspective and forgive. Though his childhood stories about smoking, fishing, rolling down a hill in a barrel are endearing, it is what he makes of his life that is the most extraordinary part of this memoir. Being able to look back and see the love and point behind the strict disciplinary measures they were subjected to, and move on to better things, is a story worth reading.

Raanan Geberer

"All right, all you young’uns!" The Life of Mikey by Michael K. Willis tells the story of the author growing up as one of eight children of a minister in the Blue Ridge Mountains area of North Carolina in the 1950s and ‘60s. The family moved around a lot, eventually settling in Asheville, but Mikey and the others made friends wherever they went. The family’s life can be described as being in transition to modernity—they had a car, electricity, a telephone and eventually a television, but Mikey’s mother still canned vegetables herself and killed chickens by hand. Mikey, his brothers and their friends mainly spent their time outside school playing baseball and other sports, getting into mischief (such as finding a nest of snakes), riding their bicycles once they got to Asheville, and last but not least, fighting with other boys, especially bullies.

The Life of Mikey is told in a straight narrative style. It is very entertaining, but it leaves some questions unanswered—for example, why Mikey and his brothers were so well-adjusted, despite the fact that their father was somewhat distant and sometimes whipped them just “on general principle,” and that their mother not only whipped them too but regularly cursed at them. It could be that the support of the close-knit community was enough to overcome these problems. Particularly interesting was Mikey’s parents’ reaction to the civil rights movement of the early ’60—his mother hated black people and warned her kids against having anything to do with them, while his father disliked racial discrimination but was uneasy about Martin Luther King’s use of civil disobedience. All in all, The Life of Mikey by Michael K. Willis is a fascinating look at a particular place and time in recent American history.

Gisela Dixon

The Life of Mikey: A Memoir by Michael K. Willis is an autobiographical novel about growing up in rural North Carolina as well as the impact that early childhood experiences, abuse, and neglect can have on someone forever. The Life of Mikey is written in a more or less sequential manner and follows Michael’s journey as one of several siblings who grew up in and around the Blue Ridge mountains. Michael’s father is a preacher and Michael writes about his father's external life as a respected member of the community and the frequent beatings and abuse that Michael endured within the confines of his home. His mother also deals with her own issues, along with raising several children, and the result is a childhood full of unhappy memories and neglect. The story is divided into several chapters and discusses Michael’s childhood, the beauty of the outdoors and the mountains of North Carolina in the '50s and '60s, their daily lifestyle, abuse at the hands of his father and occasionally his mother, becoming a teenager, young love, school life, and much more.

I liked reading The Life of Mikey and the story, although simple, is told so candidly that its simplicity itself is the highlight of this book. A lot of the episodes described in this tale are simple things in the life of anyone living in a rural area, especially 50 years or more ago, such as fishing in the creek, raising and killing their own food, etc. I also liked getting a glimpse of how it was growing up in an era where racial segregation was officially ending and the ensuing racial tension in the South. The writing style is genuine and engaging and definitely kept me interested throughout. I also appreciated how Michael has drawn attention to issues of mental health and how early upbringing can affect someone in profound ways as an adult. All in all, I would certainly recommend this book.

Deborah Lloyd

Many small towns near Asheville, North Carolina are the setting for this poignant memoir. Author Michael K. Willis shares his story of growing up in the 1950s and '60s as the son of a Southern Baptist minister in The Life of Mikey: A Memoir. Mikey is one of eight children of John Ralph Willis, Jr. and his wife, Mildred. This large family moved frequently from one church to another as the father’s goal was to work with larger congregations. The houses where they lived were often small and rustic. Both parents were physically and emotionally abusive, affecting all the children greatly. Mikey, the fourth oldest child, was often involved in schoolyard fights and conflicts with teachers. There were also good times, too, as the children found ways to entertain themselves, and the whole family visited relatives and took day trips. The ending of this book is memorable in many ways.

This memoir is unique in how it blends in the current events of the time period with the attitudes and beliefs within the family. One example is how the minister father believed in racial equality (although he did not support the civil rights movement), while the mother expressed racist beliefs. In The Life of Mikey: A Memoir both cultural and personal experiences are relayed in vivid detail. The author gives a detailed account of growing up in this era, and many readers will enjoy reading his memories. At times, the difficulties with which he lived can be challenging to read. People who are familiar with the Appalachian culture, or simply curious about it, will appreciate this book.