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King of the Hill: A Memoir

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King of the Hill is the emotionally powerful story of a 12-year-old boy coping with the hardships of life in St. Louis in the summer of 1933.


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King of the Hill is the emotionally powerful story of a 12-year-old boy coping with the hardships of life in St. Louis in the summer of 1933.

30 review for King of the Hill: A Memoir

  1. 4 out of 5

    Rebecca McNutt

    With its front cover graphics and seemingly innocent premise of growing up and making the best of the 1930's, I wasn't really expecting King of the Hill to be as sad as it was. Following a child who has to cope with his parents struggling in the bad economy, a shortage of food and the overwhelming stigma of poverty, this story features things that nobody, least of all a child, should ever have to go through. Still, Aaron responds with resilience despite his anger, his goal being that one day his With its front cover graphics and seemingly innocent premise of growing up and making the best of the 1930's, I wasn't really expecting King of the Hill to be as sad as it was. Following a child who has to cope with his parents struggling in the bad economy, a shortage of food and the overwhelming stigma of poverty, this story features things that nobody, least of all a child, should ever have to go through. Still, Aaron responds with resilience despite his anger, his goal being that one day his family will be complete and he'll be back in school with friends who respect him and see him for more than a charity case. It was also adapted into a really brilliant film that's worth watching alongside the book, too. I don't know if I'd recommend either to younger readers since some of the themes are very dark, but nonetheless it's definitely an excellent tale of the importance of self-worth and being resourceful.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Evan

    Highest Recommendation! Any adolescent's coming of age is tough enough, but Aaron Edward "A.E." Hotchner's 12th summer of life was spent largely alone in dire poverty in a transient hotel in the sweltering heat of St. Louis in 1933 at the height of the Great Depression. This absolutely charming, robustly written, alternately sad and funny, and ultimately hopeful memoir chronicles those trying months of his life with the flourish of a fine novel and reads like lightning. Its ups and downs come wit Highest Recommendation! Any adolescent's coming of age is tough enough, but Aaron Edward "A.E." Hotchner's 12th summer of life was spent largely alone in dire poverty in a transient hotel in the sweltering heat of St. Louis in 1933 at the height of the Great Depression. This absolutely charming, robustly written, alternately sad and funny, and ultimately hopeful memoir chronicles those trying months of his life with the flourish of a fine novel and reads like lightning. Its ups and downs come without cloying sentiment or emotional manipulation, and that's because Hotchner's remembrance of himself as a youth is of a kid forged by fire at an early age, eyes wide open and ever-resourceful in the face of impending disaster, beaten down but never for long and always ready to bounce back. He's always bemused at the ways of the adult world, puzzled and often angered by it, yet never allows the endless injustices to define or warp him. He has become too street smart to ever let his guard down, yet too young and naive to know how bad it can get or to abandon hope. Just like Charles Portis' crowd-pleasing novel True Grit (also about an adolescent facing adversity who seems smarter than the adults around her), the non-fiction King of the Hill is one of the very few books I can recommend without reservation to everyone, to readers of all ages and skill levels. It should be far better known, and is easily worth your time. This is one of the very rare times I'm giving a book my 100%-satisfaction-guaranteed recommendation, and I *never* do that. You will like it. Before I say more about the book, a few might want to know how the movie adapted from it made in 1993 by Steven Soderbergh (which made a lot of 10-best-films lists that year, including Gene Siskel's) compares. The movie does the book justice. It is wonderful in its own right, and is also highly recommended. I saw it many years ago before I was even aware of this original book. As always, though, try to read the book first. Young Aaron's Sisyphean struggles to survive in seemingly insurmountable circumstances are not only animated by desperation but by a sense of opportunity and curiosity about trying new things. His breeding of canaries, for instance, is not just a way to make money, but also a way to learn about nature and life. Every survival skill he learns generates whole other skill sets he can use. But don't think this book is some kind of Horatio Alger propaganda. At the same time, it never becomes a screed against the system. The book remains apolitical throughout, and is coldly observant and on-the-ground in its focus. If anything, the book's major theme is not poverty, per se, but the stigma of it. As Aaron fends for himself and lives his life alongside wealthy schoolmates (his shabby hotel residence falls barely within the edges of the well-to-do sector) he has to constantly find serpentine ways to keep this graduation dance date and his golf-and-tennis-set male friends from finding out the truth about his situation. In a world where being down can be compounded by cruelty, he realizes the need to keep his secret. And this is just one of many complications besetting Aaron, because his sickly mother is away at a sanatorium and his father is always on the road selling glass candles and watches that nobody wants or can afford. Meanwhile, the hotel bill is falling into arrears, and all the neighbors of the Avalon Hotel where he lives are being locked out mercilessly, day after day, one by one, by a bank that no longer has patience. It's not a matter of whether Aaron and his family will lose their digs, but when. This, too, necessitates a series of clever ruses to make sure someone is in the unit at all times, because if you're not inside when the sadistic bellboy comes with the padlock, you'll find yourself out on the street. The sense of transience and impermanence hangs over Aaron and his fragile neighbors like a curse. The only safety net is one's wits. On especially bad days, Aaron eats paper or grass just to feel full. (He's learned which routes not to travel on city streets to avoid smelling food aromas wafting from restaurants). On OK days, he and his friend Lester convert a nickel into hot water and tea, and use the restaurant's hot water and free ketchup packages and soda crackers to make tomato soup. On good days, he lucks into decent meals with neighbors or crashes random parties. One of the best meals comes when Aaron's mother gives up a gold filling for cash; resulting in a rare feast. Petty thievery often comes in handy. Finding ways to outsmart the car repossessor or the pesky beat cop become art forms. Aaron's need to resort to petty crime is doubly sad in light of his obvious potential: he plays violin and is an honor student. He may find certain glee and satisfaction in getting back at the world in his small criminal triumphs, but not because he really wants to. As the story progresses, he begins to see far worse crimes being perpetrated at higher levels all around him, and often against him personally (even the school fund he worked hard to save for is stolen by a bank), with no punishment forthcoming for them, only for people like him. Despite the many sad episodes and setbacks in the story, the book contains disarming humor on nearly every page. Aaron is a sassy kid, with a knack for '30s vernacular speech and a biting observational wit. Some of the funniest moments concern the contrasts between his tastes and those of adults, particularly aesthetic ones. His sometimes quirky encounters with the eccentric denizens on the hotel's third floor also are mined for their rich comic possibilities. Also, the daydreams and fantasies he uses to cope with his harsh realities are suffused with black humor and cathartic revenge fulfillment. Sometimes these fantasies blur with reality and throw the reader for a moment before we realize that it's all in his head. The book also has tender moments, as when Aaron begins to socialize with girls for the first time, particularly Ella, whose epilepsy seems to spark his curiosity and his fears. Another fine moment comes when Aaron becomes a neighborhood hero by procuring a cache of expensive fireworks that leaves everyone in awe on the Fourth of July. Even with all his tribulations, Aaron is still a boy, and manages to live a life filled with play. He snags interesting trinkets from the sidewalk, plays tennis when he can find an errant ball, chews hot tar from the pavement and plays street ball with a broom handle. Through it all, it seems, Aaron is not only smarter than his absentee parents, but seems to do more for them than they do for him. Even when he's misunderstood, Aaron takes it in stride. The book deftly avoids pitfalls it could easily fall into, never resorting to cheap angst or simplistic vilification or polemic. By perfectly balancing its elements, it tells a warm and exhilarating story of human resilience. The book delighted and satisfied me fully. It goes on my favorites list. ([email protected] 2016)

  3. 5 out of 5

    Rhonda Rae Baker

    This was a quick read but powerful in meaning and character. The family went through so much but it was the determination and resilience of the young boy that made the story! Through many hardships, he still maintained his spirit. I've seen many go through hard times and some become stronger while others become perpetual victums...it's interesting. We can survive many circumstances that come our way and the secret to most of this is to maintain integrity...karma comes around. My mother spoke of tim This was a quick read but powerful in meaning and character. The family went through so much but it was the determination and resilience of the young boy that made the story! Through many hardships, he still maintained his spirit. I've seen many go through hard times and some become stronger while others become perpetual victums...it's interesting. We can survive many circumstances that come our way and the secret to most of this is to maintain integrity...karma comes around. My mother spoke of times like were described in this book and I'm thankful that I was born in a different generation. A great memoir...true to life in the thirties and encouraging!

  4. 5 out of 5

    Don Rea

    I'm not sure I can actually vouch for my rating. This was the first adult novel I ever read that wasn't some genre trash or other, and so it was the first book that opened my eyes to why people might get so worked up about literature. I've re-read it several times (the date shown is the first time I read it in the summer between 7th and 8th grades), but I can never separate it from the awe of that awakening.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Lori Galaske

    Being familiar with the setting and growing up in south St. Louis with parents, aunts, and uncles who were close in age to Mr. Hotchner (and who told stories about their childhoods) made this memoir all the more enjoyable. The harsh realities of life during the depression are overshadowed by humor and the thought-life of a twelve year old boy.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Angela

    One of my favorite books of all time.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Googz

    Having been a fan of the movie for many years now, and stumbling upon a paperback of this at The Archive on their penultimate day of being open, I had to snag it. And I'm glad I did! I thought it would be of interest mostly or merely as a specifically Saint-Louis thing, but it didn't hit you over the head too much with locations and sights to be seen in 1930s Saint Louis or anything, in spite of what some other reviewers have said. Yes, street names and intersections and the like are offered, but Having been a fan of the movie for many years now, and stumbling upon a paperback of this at The Archive on their penultimate day of being open, I had to snag it. And I'm glad I did! I thought it would be of interest mostly or merely as a specifically Saint-Louis thing, but it didn't hit you over the head too much with locations and sights to be seen in 1930s Saint Louis or anything, in spite of what some other reviewers have said. Yes, street names and intersections and the like are offered, but that's no different from any/every book you might read (especially about New York or Los Angeles, but really about anyplace). Yes, the city plays an important part in the story, but yes, the story could also easily have happened in any major city during the depression. The story differs some in content and characters between the novel and the movie, but overall the major themes are the same. It's an impressive period piece and at times, a real page-turner. The step-by-step description of the dog race is way more gripping than anticipated, and as exciting a passage as I've read in recent memory. I was impressed to find while researching the book a little that Hotchner is still alive and writing at 93 years old. Maybe I'll have to read some more of his work... And, I hear there's a Criterion Collection DVD of the movie version being released--I'll be excited to get my hands on that one!

  8. 5 out of 5

    Frank

    I enjoyed this acccount of Depression-era St. Louis. In 1933, the adolescent Aaron Hotchner lived in the Avalon Hotel at Delmar and Kingshighway, and he walked streets whose names I recognize. His consumptive mother ends up in a sanatorium, his father out on the road hawking watches with little success, but Aaron perseveres and tells his tale in a voice reminiscent of Huck Finn's. It seems to me that, as Huck might put it, this is mainly a true book, with some stretchers. It's funny, episodic, a I enjoyed this acccount of Depression-era St. Louis. In 1933, the adolescent Aaron Hotchner lived in the Avalon Hotel at Delmar and Kingshighway, and he walked streets whose names I recognize. His consumptive mother ends up in a sanatorium, his father out on the road hawking watches with little success, but Aaron perseveres and tells his tale in a voice reminiscent of Huck Finn's. It seems to me that, as Huck might put it, this is mainly a true book, with some stretchers. It's funny, episodic, and unsentimental.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Colette

    As a St. Louis city transplant, I found this book truly fascinating. Though the story was excellent and the characters were so real they broke my heart (Creve Coeur), I could help but read this as some historical study on the poverty lines in the city, lines that have not really changed over the past 80 years. I have lived in A Hotchner's neighborhoods and roamed through his schools. I wonder if that much has changed. Kids are still hungry in that part of the city and East St Louis still looks l As a St. Louis city transplant, I found this book truly fascinating. Though the story was excellent and the characters were so real they broke my heart (Creve Coeur), I could help but read this as some historical study on the poverty lines in the city, lines that have not really changed over the past 80 years. I have lived in A Hotchner's neighborhoods and roamed through his schools. I wonder if that much has changed. Kids are still hungry in that part of the city and East St Louis still looks like Hooverville. I am quite sure an outsider would still enjoy enjoy the book, but for a St. Louis urbanite, this is a must read.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Kay

    People who think they have it bad now should all read this book to get a taste of what a really bad time is. Set in the Depression the book tells the story of a family living in one room in a run down hotel from the point of view of a 12 year old boy. With a sick mother, a brother who is left with relatives in Iowa and a father who mostly lives on hopes this kid has more sense than most adults today. I live in St. Louis so that made the story even more interesting to me. A pretty accurate descri People who think they have it bad now should all read this book to get a taste of what a really bad time is. Set in the Depression the book tells the story of a family living in one room in a run down hotel from the point of view of a 12 year old boy. With a sick mother, a brother who is left with relatives in Iowa and a father who mostly lives on hopes this kid has more sense than most adults today. I live in St. Louis so that made the story even more interesting to me. A pretty accurate description of Depression life. It should be a " must read" in schools today.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Ron Palmer

    Steven Soderbergh's excellent 1993 movie led me to the original source: a memoir of growing-up broke in 1930s St. Louis. What sets this apart from memoirs of a more recent vintage (This Boy's Life; Liar's Club) is the vernacular: the expressive, archaic way people talked in 1930s America, with its colorful slang and popular-culture references that are fast-becoming lost to history. The book also gives you a clear sense of what hardship was truly like for much of this country's population during t Steven Soderbergh's excellent 1993 movie led me to the original source: a memoir of growing-up broke in 1930s St. Louis. What sets this apart from memoirs of a more recent vintage (This Boy's Life; Liar's Club) is the vernacular: the expressive, archaic way people talked in 1930s America, with its colorful slang and popular-culture references that are fast-becoming lost to history. The book also gives you a clear sense of what hardship was truly like for much of this country's population during the Depression, and one boy's determination to survive it on his own.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Brenda Cregor

    After reading this novel, I feel like I had the EASIEST adolescence EVER! KING OF THE HILL is set in 1933---a time of economic devastation in the U-S-of-A. If you've read A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN, this novel has many of the same challenges of childhood during the Great Depression: death, depravation, depravity, etc. It does not take place during a long span of time, and there is definitely more humor. More books like this need to be read in our public schools. I think Generation X-Y-Z-it's-all-abou After reading this novel, I feel like I had the EASIEST adolescence EVER! KING OF THE HILL is set in 1933---a time of economic devastation in the U-S-of-A. If you've read A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN, this novel has many of the same challenges of childhood during the Great Depression: death, depravation, depravity, etc. It does not take place during a long span of time, and there is definitely more humor. More books like this need to be read in our public schools. I think Generation X-Y-Z-it's-all-about-me would be counting their blessings, one by one.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Ricardo Sierra

    King of the Hill is about a kid named Aaron from St. Louis that is living through the great depression. I really like this book because it describes how life was in the great depression for a kid. It shows how Aaron's life was at the lowest point it had ever been, his mother was sick, his father had no job, and he was living in a old hotel. The book shows the amount of courage and strength is needed to get through big problems. I recommend this book because it will teach everyone that reads it a King of the Hill is about a kid named Aaron from St. Louis that is living through the great depression. I really like this book because it describes how life was in the great depression for a kid. It shows how Aaron's life was at the lowest point it had ever been, his mother was sick, his father had no job, and he was living in a old hotel. The book shows the amount of courage and strength is needed to get through big problems. I recommend this book because it will teach everyone that reads it a lesson about never giving up even when life is at its lowest.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Jobie

    Not a bad read, but just didn't grab my attention like I thought it would. Maybe if I had some connection to St. Louis, or to Hotchner (other than realizing he's partnered in "Newman's Own," brand.) I thought it would be a nice gesture, so I tried to read it for my friend Carol, to see if she might like it with her recent move to the city. Sorry Carol, can't recommend it... but again, maybe you'll recognize locales in the book.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Michelle

    One of my long time favorites. Ive read this book so many times i have needed numerous copies of it. I love how real it is and how it tells you exactly how it was. There is one part where he tells half a story and never finishes it. And you have to assume its because he never learned the whole truth himself. It really gives you a young persons view of what it was like during the depression and you cant help but love the author.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Margy

    Perfection, nothing less. The voice of an 11 year old boy is so authentic for that time. A boy left to fend for himself in the one hotel room while his parents were absent for several months was only part of the set-up. The drama, tragedy, and humor held me from page one to the reluctant end. I was the reluctant one. Cannot wait to read more of this fine writer's work.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Seth

    I read a lot of memoirs and this is one of the better ones. An easy-going prose that doesn't get bogged down in think-talk. Lots of action, great characterization, and just enough self-awareness to turn this into a great little memoir.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Janis Gilbert

    4.10 · Rating Details · 167 Ratings · 21 Reviews King of the Hill is the emotionally powerful story of a 12-year-old boy coping with the hardships of life in St. Louis in the summer of 1933.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Erica

    A memoir of the author's childhood in St. Louis during the Depression. I liked reading about local places, and Hotchner has a wonderful style of prose that is easy to read.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Tomstuber

    Much like Angela's Ashes but not as depressing. Set in St Louis during the depression

  21. 5 out of 5

    Tamra

    My husband's grandfather wanted me to read this book because he said it was such a close and accurate description of his life growing up. Sad and powerful.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Susan Hyde

    A poignant yet funny memoir of a 12 year old during the depths of the depression in St. Louis. You have to read it to believe it!

  23. 4 out of 5

    Diane Wachter

    A. E. Hotchner, RDC-M, #2, 1994, @ 1972, 1/95. A memoir of Hotchner's childhood in St. Louis during the Depression. Slow, I didn't like it.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Mommalibrarian

    See review for The Boyhood Memoirs of A. E. Hotchner: King of the Hill and Looking for Miracles

  25. 5 out of 5

    Brandon

    I started out enjoying this for its tone and humor quite a bit, but at some point it seemed like this kid just can't catch a break. Almost every anecdote and reminiscence seems to end in some kind of ironic failure in which fate conspires against Aaron at every turn. *** Spoilers *** At some point it felt like the tone was getting progressively darker and I was really wondering if things were going to turn out well. The absence of both parents, hunger, arrests, deaths, beating and possible murder I started out enjoying this for its tone and humor quite a bit, but at some point it seemed like this kid just can't catch a break. Almost every anecdote and reminiscence seems to end in some kind of ironic failure in which fate conspires against Aaron at every turn. *** Spoilers *** At some point it felt like the tone was getting progressively darker and I was really wondering if things were going to turn out well. The absence of both parents, hunger, arrests, deaths, beating and possible murder of elderly neighbors, Aaron's confused attempts to get work with the dance hall pimps to try to feed himself... this is not Little Orphan Annie. Somehow, though, the moment that actually made me the saddest was when he won the school award at his graduation and even got a date to the dance with the girl he was in love with the entire book, but decides to break it off and let his rival take her instead because he doesn't have a dollar to chip in for a hamburger and milk shake. Someone here mentioned the them of the 'stigma of poverty'. I think that's what this book is really about more than simple memoir.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Susan

    Precursor to the Amazing Adventures of Aaron Broom. Much of the same material but without the gangster plot. Still cheerful and optimistic, but the situations are more dire - not all the endings are happy. A good portrait of a Depression era St. Louis childhood when sometimes a kid has to parent himself.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Rich Engel

    Depression memoir set in St Louis - great. Told with verve from the perspective of his 12-yr-old self. Makes you glad to have a pantry full of canned beans and peanut butter.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Kvbw17

    Really enjoyed the story.......and especially the ending......hero son!!!

  29. 5 out of 5

    QueenBookWorm

    no plot

  30. 4 out of 5

    Richard Jespers

    I love this book. It has so much more content than the 1993 film of same title although director Steven Soderberg probably puts together the best events/images into the film and threads them into a subtly insistent plot. The book is a memoir and as such is not plot driven. Interesting diction; though the prose is third person retrospective, Hotchner uses a twelve year-old’s speech: “Me and Lester did such and such.” It seems to work, taking the reader back to 1933.

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