Reading Southern Women

“I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.”

“What it do when it pissed off?” I ast.

“Oh, it make something else. People think pleasing God is all God care about. But any fool living in the world can see it always trying to please us back.”

– Alice Walker, The Color Purple

Earlier last year, I was stumped by a Facebook request to name favorite Southern women writers. Since then, I have binged on women from the American South. I read Flannery O’Connor for the first time, and Carson McCuller’s The Ballad of the Sad Café. I reread Gone with the Wind, and The Color Purple, and Their Eyes Were Watching God. I made lists of books I’ve read in the past that were written by Southern American women. If you are a fan of powerful writing, rich language, languid scenery, human complexity, colorful humor, and emotional depth, read these women. Any of them. All of them. You won’t be sorry.

The Color Purple by Alice Walker Alice Walker: (1944- ) Born in Eatonton, Georgia, a tiny town in middle Georgia where I grew up eating scuppernongs on my Grandaddy and Nannie’s farm, Alice Walker was the first African American woman to win a Pulitzer prize. She won it with The Color Purple, and if you read it, you will see why. A story that could be devastating, she makes funny and hopeful, deep and spiritual. The dialect, the characters, the beauty, the humor, the equanimity in the face of hardship and abuse that would break most of us, and the wisdom Walker writes into these pages is a wonder and a gift. If I had one book on this list that I thought everyone should read, it would be The Color Purple. It is a masterpiece.

Still I Rise by Maya Angelou, coverMaya Angelou: (1928-2014) Angelou was born in Missouri and was raised in St. Louis and Arkansas. The list of prizes she’s been nominated for or awarded for her work is long, and includes a Pulitzer nomination and three Grammys for her spoken albums. She writes the South, and womanhood, and the African American experience, and the civil rights movement with poise and deep soul. I read I know Why the Caged Bird Sings many, many years ago, and I highly recommend it. But what I remember most about Maya Angelou is her poems. Read them. Or better yet, listen to the poet herself, here reading “Still I Rise.”

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg, book coverFanny Flagg: (1944- ) Born in Birmingham, Alabama, Flagg is best known for Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe. With Whistle Stop, Flagg delivers a fun (and funny) read that sets you squarely in the small town South with parallel stories of a pair of 1980’s middle-aged women, and another set of friends, Idgie and Ruth, who ran The Whistle Stop cafe in the 30s. It’s a page-turner, and the characters are irresistible – Harper Lee, author of To Kill A Mockingbird, remarked “Idgie Threadgoode is a true original: Huckleberry Finn would have tried to marry her!”

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale HurstonZora Neale Hurston: (1891-1960) Hurston was born in Alabama, but was raised in Eatonville, Florida, the first incorporated black township in the nation. In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston tells the story of the town’s origins, of it being built from the ground up by the black community, but more importantly, it tells the story of Janie, who wanted life and living, not riches and sitting idle on a porch. It is a deeply moving novel about love and what makes it real, and damning the “shoulds,” and how everyone needs something different in life to make them feel alive. This was one of my favorite reads of the year. Hurston also wrote a book about voodoo, Tell My Horse, that I may have to read for a Halloween capsule.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee book coverHarper Lee: (1926- ) Lee was born in Alabama, the setting for her Pulitzer prize winning novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. She only had one novel in her, but thank God for that one. Lee studied law before changing paths to pursue a career in literature, and that background prepared her for the iconic courtroom scenes of Atticus Finch who, with grace and eloquence, defends Tom Robinson, a black man who is falsely accused of raping a white woman. One of the many beauties of To Kill a Mockingbird is that is told in the voice of a child, Scout, who innately knows justice – “that’s not fair!” – but who is also susceptible to buying into other peoples’ prejudices (think Boo Radley). To Kill a Mockingbird is one to read and reread, as you age, as you mature. Scout is a funny and refreshing character who gives us an innocent yet wise perspective on the issues of what is right and what is wrong. To Kill a Mockingbird is considered to be a work of Southern Gothic† literature.

The Ballad of the Sad Cafe and other stories by Carson McCullers, book cover Carson McCullers: (1917-1967) McCullers, also known for Southern Gothic fiction, was born in Columbus, Georgia. McCullers felt “other” as a young woman growing up in the South, and with outcast characters, she explores that isolation and deep desire for connection in her fiction. I read The Ballad of the Sad Café this year, a beautiful, haunting novella of unrequited love involving a huge manly woman, a hunchbacked midget, and an ex-con, and which climaxes in a small-town brawl. This story, and particularly its characters, will stick with me for a long time. McCullers also wrote The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, which I have not read, but I plan to.

Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell book coverMargaret Mitchell: (1900-1949) Born in 1900 in Atlanta, Georgia, Margaret Mitchell was a flapper who, according to her biography on the Margaret Mitchell House website, “scandalized Atlanta society by performing a provocative dance at a debutante ball.” Mitchell was also, obviously, a writer. And a Pulitzer prize winner. She wrote and published Gone With the Wind over a period of 12 years, beginning at the young age of 24. As a Georgia native, I have read and reread Gone With the Wind and credit this book with helping me understand the often frustrating paradoxes of Southern culture. It is a novel that will teach you about the South, about its ways, its people, its stubbornness, its charm, its beauty, its old and its new, its prejudices, its weaknesses, its strengths, and its land. Always, the land.

Flannery O'Connor, the collected works, book cover Flannery O’Connor: (1925-1964) Ah, Flannery. I’m so glad to have found you. You have converted me on short stories. Flannery O’Connor was born in Savannah, Georgia, and like Carson McCullers, is considered a Southern Gothic writer. Her fiction is sharp, witty, and full of dark humor, and I am constantly amazed by her titles – “The Violent Bear it Away” – and her ability to punch in the space of a very short story. My favorites so far have been “The Crop” (read it – it’s only 9 pages), “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” and “The Barber.” I look forward to reading more of her work.

Ecology of a Cracker Childhood by Janisse RayJanisse Ray: (1962- ) Ray, born in Baxley, Georgia, is the only nonfiction author on my list (I know – shame on me!). Her book, Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, was one of those treasures in memoir that made me realize that truth can be as well-written, and as fascinating, as fiction. Ecology of a Cracker Childhood tells Ray’s story of growing up in an evangelical household in a junkyard along Highway 1 in south Georgia. In the book, she weaves the stories of the vanishing Cracker population with that of a dying ecosystem: the vanishing longleaf pine forests. A powerful read.

The Optimist's Daughter by Eudora WeltyEudora Welty: (1909-2001) Welty, yet another Pulitzer winner, and another Southern Gothic writer, was born in Jackson, Mississippi. She was awarded the Pulitzer for her novella, The Optimist’s Daughter. I think I was in a tired place in my life when I read the novella this year, and I had a hard time gaining traction with it. Either that or I just didn’t like it. Welty also writes short stories about the American South.

Sarah Addison Allen, (1971- ) born in Asheville, North Carolina. Allen is a modern writer who sprinkles magic and light into her Southern set novels. I enjoyed Garden Spells and The Peach Keeper for quick, bright reads, and I have The Sugar Queen on my To Be Read (TBR) list.

Mary Kay Andrews, (1954- ) born in St. Petersburg, Florida. Andrews was a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and covered for the AJC the events in Savannah, GA that inspired John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. She writes fun beach reads like Savannah Breeze and Deep Dish which are set in and around Savannah.

Olive Ann Burns, (1924-1990) born in Banks County, Georgia. Burns is the author of Cold Sassy Tree.

Susan Gregg Gilmore born Nashville, TN. Listen here as she discusses the Southern Literature genre: Books on the Nightstand episode #245: What is Southern Fiction?

Sue Monk Kidd, (1948- ) born in Sylvester, GA. Best known for The Secret Life of Bees, which I loved and need to reread now that I have a daughter.

Barbara Kingsolver, (1955- ) born in Annapolis, Maryland, raised in rural Kentucky. Kingsolver writes the natural world beautifully (and manages to weave evocative stories as well.) Her novels generally address issues of biodiversity, social justice, and ecology (including the human role in it). My favorite Kingsolver titles are Prodigal Summer, The Bean Trees, and The Poisonwood Bible.

Katherine Anne Porter, (1890-1980) born in Indian Creek, Texas. I have not read any of Porter’s work but kept coming across her name in conjunction with Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, and William Faulkner as a Southern Gothic writer, so I’m thinking I should read her. Oh, and also, she won a Pulitzer.

Eugenia Price, (1916-1996) born in Charleston, West Virginia. Price wrote historical fiction romance novels, and I read her St. Simons Lighthouse trilogy years ago. I couldn’t tell you anything about it now, only that I enjoyed it, probably in large part because of the setting (I lived the first five years of my life on St. Simons Island.)

Anne Rivers Siddons, (1936- ) born in Atlanta, Georgia. I have not read any of Siddons’ work yet, but in the space of a week, I was gifted two of her books by two separate people. My Uncle Syd recommends Peachtree Road, which tells a story of the city of Atlanta.

Kathryn Stockett, (1969- ) born in Jackson, Mississippi. So far, Stockett has published one book: The Help. She is young – we will likely see more from her.

Edited to include suggestions from readers:

Adrian Blevins (Abingdon, VA), Carrie Brown (Blue Ridge Mountains, VA), Kate Chopin (Louisiana), Moira Crone (Goldsboro, NC), Ellen Douglas (Mississippi), Claudia Emerson (Chatham, VA), Dorothea Benton Frank (Sullivan’s Island, SC), Kaye Gibbons (Rocky Mount, NC), Shirley Ann Grau (New Orleans, LA), Melissa Fay Green (Macon, GA), Beth Henley (Jackson, MS), Mary Hood (Brunswick, GA), Joshilyn Jackson (Georgia), Gayl Jones (Lexington, KY), Holly Goddard Jones (Russellville, KY), Tayari Jones (Atlanta, GA), Mary Karr (Groves, Texas), Bobbie Ann Mason (western Kentucky), Sharyn McCrumb (Wilmington, NC), Ann Patchett (Tennessee), Dolen Perkins-Valdez (Memphis, TN), Sherri Reynolds (rural South Carolina), Anne Rice (duh! how could I forget?! New Orleans, LA), Lee Smith (Grundy, VA), Ruth Stone (Roanoke, VA), Donna Tartt (Greenwood, MS), Natasha Trethewey (Gulfport, MS), Adriana Trigiani (Big Stone Gap, VA – see Appalachian Capsule), Olympia Vernon (Bogalusa, LA), Margaret Walker (Birmingham, AL), Jesmyn Ward (DeLisle, MS), Stephanie Powell Watts (Rebecca Wells (Alexandria, LA ), Bailey White (Thomasville, GA), Crystal Wilkinson (Kentucky)

†According to Wikipedia:

Southern Gothic is a subgenre of Gothic fiction unique to American literature that takes place exclusively in the American South. Common themes in Southern Gothic literature include deeply flawed, disturbing or eccentric characters who may or may not dabble in hoodoo, decayed or derelict settings, grotesque situations, and other sinister events relating to or coming from poverty, alienation, racism, crime, and violence. It is unlike its parent genre in that it uses these tools not solely for the sake of suspense, but to explore social issues and reveal the cultural character of the American South.

This is a follow up to Reading Southern Women, published March 26, 2013.

Andrea Reads America: Arkansas

Andrea Reads America Arkansas Book Map
Andrea Reads America: Arkansas

I was excited to get to Arkansas on my reading-road-trip of the US. Despite my mom living in Blytheville for a couple of years when she was growing up, I knew nothing about Arkansas except that President Bill Clinton hailed from that state. I couldn’t even locate it on the map.

Now, I know that Arkansas borders Louisiana in the south, Oklahoma in the west, and Missouri in the north, and the Mississippi River marks Arkansas’s eastern border with Tennessee and Mississippi. What fascinates me about its geography, and I saw this reflected in the books I read, is that Arkansas is both a Southern state – with deep South sensibilities and a history of cotton, slavery, and Baptist faith – and a Western frontier state with outlaws and cowboys and a border with the Indian Territory. Its literature reflects both of these histories: True Grit is bandits and gunslinging (with one of the best female protagonists in the Old West), Ark of Bones is the smoldering legacy of slavery, and The Homecoming of Samuel Lake is rural riverbanks, biscuits, and the family of a preacher man.

True Grit by Charles Portis book cover on andreareadsamerica.comNovel: True Grit
Author: Charles Portis, born 1933 in El Dorado, Arkansas
Setting: 1870s Dardanelle, Arkansas and the Oklahoma Territory
Categories: Western

True Grit, set in Arkansas and the Oklahoma Territory in the years just after the Civil War, when Texas Rangers chased fugitives in Indian Territory and the frontier was pushing west, is the story of Mattie Ross, a fourteen-year-old girl who seeks a man “with grit” to help her apprehend the man who killed her father.

Mattie Ross is one of the most endearing female characters I have come across – not because she is sweet-natured and charming, but just the opposite: she is hard and blunt. It does not take long to figure out who in the book is the one with True Grit:

“You are impudent.”
“I do not wish to be, sir, but I will not be pushed around when I am in the right.”(Mattie)

“You have misjudged me if you think I am silly enough to give you a hundred dollars and watch you ride away.” (Mattie)

“I had not the strength nor the inclination to bandy words with a drunkard. What have you done when you have bested a fool?” (Mattie)

Before reading this book, before I even knew True Grit was a book, I watched the John Wayne movie of the same title. The movie tickled me – I loved the characters and the wandering through Indian Territory in pursuit of a murderer – but then when I read the book less than a month afterward, I heard the actor’s voices when I read their lines, and I saw their faces as the characters moved through the story. The movie was very true to the book, so that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing – I was delighted to see some of my favorite lines in the movie were quoted directly from Portis’s pages:

“I would not put a thief in my mouth to steal my brains.” (Mattie to Rooster when he offered her whiskey)

  • it’s more that I’m not sure what my experience of the book would have been had I not seen the movie first. It is unusual for me to experience literature in that order: movie then book. It is almost always the other way around. Either way, both stand up as everything you want from a rolicking Western tale: drunkards, bandits, campfires and horses, and frontier women with sand and true grit.

Ark of Bones and Other Stories by Henry Dumas book cover on andreareadsamerica.comCollection: Ark of Bones and Other Stories
Author: Henry Dumas, born 1934 in Sweet Home, Arkansas
Setting: 1950s and 60s Arkansas and Harlem, New York
Categories: African American Literature, Short Stories

Ark of Bones and Other Stories is a collection of nine short stories by Henry Dumas, an Arkansas native whose family moved to Harlem, New York when he was ten. These stories, some set in Arkansas and some set in Harlem, are dark and smoky, and are infused with mojo and a deep spirituality. His characters and his ghostly magic were refreshing to me in their differentness: the strong, male, African American voice was not strictly of the here and now; there was an ancientness to it, as if these stories came up from the depths of the earth and through a long line of African-rooted souls. Spirit magic swirls thorughout the stories, as in “Ark of Bones”, when the Mississippi River rises to carry the Ark – Noah’s Ark? our character wonders – to Headeye, a chosen one from Arkansas:

“Only river people know how to talk to the river when it’s mad. I watched the light on the waves way upstream where the old Sippi bend, and I could tell that she was movin faster. Risin.”

At the same time, in “Boll of Roses” Dumas paints beautiful, earthy scenes of his Arkansas roots:

“That little brown girl bout the prettiest thing I ever seen in a cotton field.”

“He was off the porch, into the sun, passing the garden, when the smell of cotton… then the rose garden, and then wet dew…”

Never far from the surface is the struggle of the young black man in the pre-Civil Rights South – the struggle to escape the vicious cycle of servitude, of poverty, of ignorance, and the cotton fields that kept him shackled to all three:

“He felt ashamed of staying out of school just to pick cotton.”

Ark of Bones and Other Stories reminds us that many Southern blacks were still stuck in the cotton fields as recently as the 1960s, missing school, missing out on education, so that they could eat. Unlike farmers’ children, whose lives look the same during harvest time, pickers do not own the land, they do not own the cotton, they cannot sell the cotton. There aren’t more hours in the day to earn more money, there are not opportunities to get ahead, to educate themselves, to move on to something better. Not until the Civil Rights movement:

“‘I picked cotton all my life, chopped, planted, cleared land, and I aint got nothin to show for it. You younguns oughta get out of the field and get with them rights people. They got the Lord on their side.'”

These are important stories. They are vivid reminders of not just our history, but our recent history, and the effect this history has on a significant portion of the American population.

For more about Ark of Bones, please see Arkansas woes, post-Goldfinch spiral, and Henry Dumas is my savior.

The Homecoming of Samuel Lake by Jenny Wingfield book cover on andreareadsamerica.comNovel: The Homecoming of Samuel Lake
Author: Jenny Wingfiled, born Fountain Hill, Arkansas
Setting: 1950s Columbia County, Arkansas
Categories: Southern Literature, Southern Gothic, Christian Fiction?

Set in 1950s southern Arkansas, The Homecoming of Samuel Lake is reminiscent of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird: it is a story of both vileness and tender beauty, told from the perspective a a spunky eleven-year-old girl.

Swan Lake is the daughter of Methodist preacher Samuel Lake, and though the novel shows us the lives of the adults, and bedrooms, and other people’s homes, it is Swan who is the heroine of this story. Normally Swan and her brothers move every year when their father is transferred to a new parsonage, but this year he has been let go all together. He has no church, and the Lakes move from Louisiana back to Arkansas, to the childhood farm home of Willadee, Samuel’s wife and the children’s mother.

The summer is filled with the antics of children, as summers should be, but it is also filled with tensions: seduction, suicide, Samuel’s feeling he has been abandoned by god, and most stomach-turning, the entry of Ras Ballenger, a cruel child-beater of a man. The characters are entertaining, the plot is well-paced, and the narrative, while sometimes making me hold my breath, gave me a sense of hope. Wingfield does a wonderful job with the landscape of southern Arkansas, and she made me nostalgic for my grandparent’s farm in middle Georgia; I felt at home on the banks of the creek, in the woods, on the land as if I were eleven again, ranging Grandaddy and Nannie’s hills:

“He stood out in the yard, sucking in air tat smelled of damp earth and autumn, and he wondered why people even had houses.”

“I think sitting in the backyard watching the kids catch lightning bugs is a pretty good way of worshipping God every once in a while.”

For a large portion of the book I wondered if The Homecoming of Samuel Lake would be considered Christian fiction – it is unflinching and unapologetic in placing God and Christ, church and faith at the center of Samuel Lake’s life – but by the end of the book I wasn’t sure if that was enough to classify it as Christian lit. There are miracles and Samuel Lake’s faith, but there are many “good” characters who don’t give a whit about religion, who don’t share Samuel’s fervor, and who are treated just as well by the author without depending on Christ to get them through. Because I have never read Christian fiction, I was curious about the author’s intention, and when asked in an interview about her reaction to some reviewers labeling it as such, she answered, “To Samuel, God is as real as his wife and children are, and nothing is more important…None of the other characters care one way or the other about religion…This is not a religious story. It’s a story with one main character who is deeply religious.”

The Homecoming of Samuel Lake was a compelling read that kept me turning pages.

For more about The Homecoming of Samuel Lake, please see Poor preacher’s child.

For further reading in Arkansas:

Books I have read and can recommend:
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
Books that have been recommended to me and I have not yet read:
Daisy: Between a Rock and a Hard Place by Janis Kearney
Cotton Field of Dreams by Janis Kearney
Butterfly Weed by Donald Harington
The Choiring of the Trees by Donald Harington
The Architecture of the Arkansas Ozarks by Donald Harington

I am reading America: 3 books from each state in the US with the following authorships represented – women, men, and non-Caucasian writers. Follow along on Goodreads and here at andreareadsamerica.com.

Andrea Reads America: Alabama

Andrea Reads America Alabama_book_map
Andrea Reads America: Alabama

I didn’t look at an Alabama map when I selected books set there for my Andrea Reads America project, so I didn’t realize until I started reading that two of my three picks took place on the coast. Boy did they make me miss home. All that talk about herons, and shrimp, and the salt marshes took me right back to the coast of Georgia. Only – and I never knew this until I read these books – in Alabama they don’t call it the marsh, they call it the bayou. Even though Georgia and Alabama share a border, even though geographically they are neighbors, I never once heard anyone call our marsh the bayou growing up in Georgia. I guess it’s because we were on the Atlantic, colonized by the English. We don’t have the French history of those Gulf coast states. I always associated bayou strictly with Louisiana, but the Cajun and Creole sensibilities must stretch along the marshy shoreline of the Gulf of Mexico.

I was pleased that all three picks for the inaugural state of this tour – To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, Forrest Gump by Winston Groom, and Train Whistle Guitar by Albert Murray – evoked Alabama landscapes, mannerisms, dialects, and the racial frictions inherent in all Southern states. Now, as I move forward into the unknown, the exotic, the slightly terrifying state of Alaska in winter, I’m glad I started someplace familiar.

To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee book cover on andreareadsamerica.com Novel: To Kill a Mockingbird
Author: Harper (Nelle) Lee, born 1926 in Monroeville, AL
Setting: 1930s Maycomb, Alabama, northeast of Mobile
Categories: Literary fiction, Pulitzer Prize winner, Southern Gothic

Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird takes place in 1930s Alabama, in the small town of Maycomb (based on Lee’s home town of Monroeville). In addition to being a wise work of fiction in its own right, with iconic characters, racial struggles, and a funny, refreshing childlike point of view to gently show us, as adults, to be alert to our hypocricies, To Kill a Mockingbird does a fine job of setting us smack in the middle of the small town South. Lee accomplishes this not just through a story of racial tension and prejudice, but through dialogue, scene descriptions, and my favorite device of all, which she writes masterfully, dialect.  Since I’ve written about To Kill a Mockingbird several times on my blog, I’ll change it up this time and leave you with some my favorite quotes for making you feel like you’re in Alabama:

“North Alabama was full of Liquor Interests, Big Mules, steel companies, Republicans, professors, and other persons of no background.”

“The class was wriggling like a bucketful of catawba worms.”

“That boy’s yo’ comp’ny and if he wants to eat up the table cloth you let him you hear?”

“The usual crew had flunked the first grade again, and were helpful in keeping order.”

“If I had my ‘druthers I’d take a shotgun.”

“In Maycomb, grown men stood outside in the front yard for only two reasons: death and politics. I wondered who had died.”

For more posts about To Kill a Mockingbird, please see Literature Capsule: Southern women and Atticus Finch is my parenting role model.

Forrest Gump by Winston Groom book cover on andreareadsamerica.comNovel: Forrest Gump
Author: Winston Groom, born 1943 in Washington, DC, and raised in Mobile, AL
Setting: 1960s-1980s Mobile, AL, the world, and outer space
Categories: Humor, Southern fiction

Before I say anything else, I have to say this: Forrest Gump made me laugh so hard I cried. Written by Winston Groom, Forrest Gump paints a portrait of contemporary Alabama from the point of view of an idiot savant. I grappled with whether to include this as part of my project because technically, Forrest Gump does not take place wholly in Alabama. In fact, most of the time Forrest isn’t in Alabama at all.  He fights in Vietnam, where as he tells us, “Somewhere in all this, I got myself shot, an, as luck would have it, I was hit in the ass.” He travels to Washington, DC, an island in the South Pacific, Indiana, China, Hollywood.  But even though he travels the world (and outer space) in the novel, I’m keeping Forrest Gump as an Alabama read because Forrest, through his dialect, his harmonica, and his Southern manners, carries Alabama everywhere he goes.

Whether he’s rasslin’ in Indiana or playing ping pong in China, Forrest is a walking representation of his Alabama roots.  In every country, and even in space, Forrest recollects his aim to get a “srimp boat,” and every time he does, we’re back on the bayou. When his spaceship crash lands on an island of cannibals, and savages are banging on their hatch but Major Fitch wants to pretend nobody is home, Forrest displays classic Southern hospitality by saying, “It ain’t polite not to answer the door.”

But more than anything, in addition to the fact that it contains genius commentary on the way we view “idiots” and how stupid the rest of us really are, I wanted to keep Forrest Gump in my version of the Alabama canon because of some of the final passages. A lot of non-Southerners might not get the South, might find it charming but backwards, like Forrest appears to be when really he’s quite deep. But Winston Groom gets it. In our rare glimpses of life on the marsh, he captures the lowland perfectly:

“They was a nice breeze blowin off the bayou an you coud hear frawgs an crickets an even the soun of a fish jumpin ever once in a wile.”

In that sentence, and in the final pages, Groom captures what it’s all about, what Alabama, and the whole of the Southeast coast, are all about. Why those who visit are enchanted by it, and why we who know it crave it, and are ever questing to get home to it.

For more about Forrest Gump, please see Thanks Forrest. Now I miss seafood.

Train Whistle Guitar by Albert Murray book cover on andreareadsamerica.comNovel: Train Whistle Guitar
Author: Albert Murray, born 1916 in Nokomis, Alabama
Setting: 1920s Gasoline Point, Alabama, just north of Mobile
Categories: African American fiction, Southern fiction

Set in 1920s Gasoline Point, Alabama, a fictitious town based on author Albert Murray’s hometown of Magazine Point, Train Whistle Guitar is a coming of age story of Scooter, a young black boy who with his friend Little Buddy, learns about life by hopping a train, wandering the woods, listening to grownups at garden fences and fireside circles, hiding underfoot at the barbershop, or perching in trees at night to watch dancing in the jook joint. In each of these settings, Murray not only captures the feel of African American kinship within a small town in the South, but what to this white woman is the foreign experience of children who are raised not just by their parents, but by an entire community. Regardless of blood relationships, all of Scooter’s elders in Gasoline Point play the role of Auntee or Uncle, as when their train-hopping guitar idol, Luzana Cholly, sat Scooter and Little Buddy down for a talk when he found them trying to jump a train:

“That was when we found out what we found out directly from Luzana Cholly himself about hitting the road, which he (like every fireside knee-pony uncle and shade tree uncle and toolshed uncle and barbershop uncle since Uncle Remus himself) said was was a whole lot more than just a notion.”

This was perhaps my favorite element of Train Whistle Guitar, this entrée into a childhood unlike my own, where a people shared a common history, a common struggle, that brought them together into a community that was so tight-knit the barbershop men made decisions about when young boys were old enough to hear man talk. This sense of community-as-family made me think of one of the most memorable pieces of parenting advice I’ve heard: it’s important that children have adults in their lives they can turn to and trust for perspectives beyond Mom’s and Dad’s.

While Train Whistle Guitar certainly has moments and undercurrents of racial tension, the book was gentle and showed love instead of hate, eagerness instead of anger. And while Murray is skillful in evoking the Alabama bayou and the thickets that skirt it, my favorite passages are from the jook joints, places I’ve only come across in African American fiction:

“Stagolee moved over to where the piano was and put his fruit jar [of whiskey] on top of it and stood clapping his hands and snapping his fingers with the women around him doing the shimmieshewooble and the messaround.”

Murray’s language is alive with rhythm and swing, and he was able to show me an Alabama I would never have access to without him.

For more about Train Whistle Guitar, please see White girl dancing.

For further reading in Alabama

Books I’ve read and recommend:
Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg
Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake-Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia by Dennis Covington (nonfiction; for more on this and other Appalachian books, see Literature Capsule: Appalachia)

Books that have been recommended to me but I have not yet read:
Boy’s Life by Robert R. McCammon
Crazy in Alabama by Mark Childress
All Over But the Shoutin’ by Rick Bragg (nonfiction)

This was originally published November 25, 2013 on Andrea Badgley’s Butterfly Mind.

I am reading America: 3 books from each state in the US with the following authorships represented – women, men, and non-Caucasian writers. Follow along on Goodreads and here at andreareadsamerica.com.