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Colonel Bull Meecham is a top-gun Marine fighter pilot whose life and family are driven by his dedication to the Marines' way of life. While he has reached almost to the top of his career, his personality is still back in boot-camp which he brings home every day to his long-suffering family. His immaturity, egotistical, and personal excesses dominate the book. Even his family nickname, "The Great Santini", displays his inability to accept his parental responsibilities. He rules his family like a boot-camp sergeant and has no understanding of parental responsibilities for nurturing and providing love to his four children.
Lillian Meecham is a beautiful Southern gentlewoman with a love of literature, who unsuccessfully tries to defend her children from the excesses and abuse of their father. After moving from base to base each year, the Meecham's finally settle down in a fictional Marines base in Southern Carolina and try to live a normal life. Ben, the eldest, struggles to adulthood with a father both telling him he is a sissy and attempting to get him to act like a man (according to the rules of the Great Santini). The love- hate (or more the hate-love) relationship with his Father dominate the book.
While Ben is the main recipient of his father's pressures, his other children, especially Mary Anne the eldest daughter, suffer in other ways. They survive and protect themselves through a ritual of mutual self-degradation and black humour.
Despite all of this there are glimmers of hope. Ben shows that he can mature independently of his father and can defy him at moments of crisis. But at other times he succumbs to the pressure with painful consequences. I really felt sorry for Mary Anne, who does not have her mother's beauty and protects herself by immersion in literature and self-degradation.
One thing that does shine through is Ben's discovery of the beauty of the rivers, creeks and swamps of Southern Carolina and the surviving antebellum architecture of the region. This love of SC is ever-present in Conroy's other books.
I have read and enjoyed most of Conroy's later books and somehow missed this one. I am glad that I finally had the chance to read it and strongly recommend it to anyone who wants a challenging book to read which will make you sad and happy and you will remember for a long time.