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.

Atticus Finch is my parenting role model

left to right: Scout, Atticus, Jem from To Kill A Mockingbird movie, black and white photo, on andreareadsamerica.com

“When Jem an’ I fuss Atticus doesn’t ever just listen to Jem’s side of it, he hears mine, too.” – Scout, from Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird

My most recent reading of To Kill a Mockingbird was my first reading as a parent – at least as a parent with children old enough to talk – and Atticus Finch is my new hero.

Atticus, father to Jem and Scout, the children from whose perspective To Kill a Mockingbird is told, is one of the fairest men I’ve come across in literature.  He has always been a hero: for defending Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman in 1940s Alabama; for his calm in facing a mob of his own friends and neighbors; for his reluctance to claim the title “One-Shot Finch” dispite his marksmanship skills, and for subsequently laying down his weapon because “he realized God had given him an unfair advantage over most living things.”

He has always been a hero for these reasons, but now that I’m a parent who struggles with equipping our children to navigate their world, with knowing what to talk to them about and when, with gentling them into the inconsistencies in human nature, with teaching them to treat people with respect and fairness, and most importantly, with how to model right behavior to them, Atticus Finch is my hero all over again.

Atticus respects his children as individuals and as equals. This is not something we normally do as parents. We often put ourselves above our children, trying to make them mind, to do our bidding because “we know best.” Atticus, though. Atticus knows that sometimes the children know best.

“So it took an eight-year-old child to bring ’em to their senses, didn’t it?… Hmp, maybe we need a police force of children.”

Throughout To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus respects his kids by talking straight with them. He answers their every question without flinching. When his eight year old daughter, Scout, asked “What’s rape?” Atticus “sighed, and said rape was carnal knowledge of a female by force and without consent.” He did not dodge. He did not shroud the topic in mystery and discomfort. He defined rape for her, and if she’d had any follow up questions he would have answered those, too.

He reacted with similar equanimity when Scout started swearing. When at the dinner table Scout said, “Pass the damn ham, please” to her uncle, Atticus told him, “Don’t pay any attention to her, Jack.  She’s trying you out. Cal says she’s been cussing fluently for a week, now.”

But the thing I love most about Atticus as a parent is that he not only respects his children and their right to be themselves – he allows Scout to read the newspaper even though her teacher prescribes against it, he permits his kids to hear the verdict in Tom Robinson’s case despite his sister’s wailing protests, he allows them the freedom to be children rather than forcing them to respect their “gentle breeding” by making them “behave like the little lady and gentleman” they are –  no, not only does Atticus respect their right to be themselves, but he encourages their exploration and independence because he recognizes the preciousness of children, and what a great gift they are in teaching us, as grownups, how to be humane. When Jem struggles to understand the injustice served to Tom Robinson by his own friends and neighbors, people he thought were good folk, he says to Atticus,

“How could they do it, how could they?”

“I don’t know, but they did it.  They’ve done it before and they did it tonight and they’ll do it again and when they do it – seems that only children weep.”

Now, after reading To Kill a Mockingbird as a parent, I have been humbled by yet another layer of its wisdom. Now, when I am struggling as a mom, when I’m not sure what answer to give, or which battles to fight, I will ask myself, What Would Atticus Do? And then I’ll know what’s right.

This was originally published November 13, 2013 on Andrea Badgley’s Butterfly Mind.

When I covered my around-the-US reading project on my Butterfly Mind blog, I was reluctant to publish posts of favorite quotes. I thought, “Those aren’t my words – they don’t fit here.” Now that Andrea Reads America has its own site, I am breaking that silence. The authors’ original words do their work more justice than any book review I write, and when grouped together, the quotes become atmospheric of the state they are set in. I hope you enjoy this new addition to my Andrea Reads America coverage.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee book cover on andreareadsamerica.comFrom Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird

Scout:

“Pass the damn ham please.”

“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.”

“Looks like if Mr. Arthur was hankerin’ after heaven he’d come out on the porch at least.”

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

“Miss Maudie’s old sunhat glistened with snow crystals.”

“When Jem an’ I fuss Atticus doesn’t ever just listen to Jem’s side of it, he hears mine too.”

“Jem, how can you hate Hitler so bad an’ then turn around and be ugly about folks right at home?”

“He gave us two soap dolls, a broken watch and chain, a pair of good-luck pennies, and our lives.”

Calpurnia:

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

Atticus:

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view.”

“I just hope that Jem and Scout come to me for their answers instead of listening to the town.”

“People in their right minds never take pride in their talents.”

“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’ve been licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.”

“They’ve done it before and they did it tonight and they’ll do it again and when they do it – seems that only children weep.”

Forrest Gump by Winston Groom book cover on andreareadsamerica.comFrom Winston Groom’s Forrest Gump

“Mos of them writer fellers got it straight – cause their idiots always smarter than people give em credit for.”

“‘The Romantic Period,’ [the professor] say, ‘did not follow a bunch of ‘classic bullshit.’ Nor were the poets Pope and Dryden a couple of ‘turds.””

“Bubba an me, we has got us a plan for when we get outta the Army. We gonna go back home an get us a srimp boat an get in the srimpin bidness.”

“Somewhere in all this, I got myself shot, an, as luck would have it, I was hit in the ass.”

“When the srimp bidness first started up, I kind of enjoyed the work, an goin down to the ponds an puttin up the nets an then harvestin the srimp an all… Now it aint nothing like that. I got to go to all sorts of dinner parties where people servin a lot of mysterious-lookin food and the ladies wearing big ole earrings an shit.”

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

“At night I would set out on the porch of the shack an play my harmonica an on Saturday night I would go into town an buy a six-pack of beer an me an Sue [the male oranguntan] would get drunk.”

Train Whistle Guitar by Albert Murray book cover on andreareadsamerica.comFrom Albert Murray’s Train Whistle Guitar

“You could smell the mid-May woods up the slope behind us then, the late late dogwoods, the early honey-suckles, and the warm earth-plus-green smell of the pre-summer undergrowth.”

“Woodpeckers always sounded as if they were out in the open in the very brightest part of the sunshine.”

“We were still in the bayou country, and beyond the train-smell there was the sour-sweet snakey smell of the swamp-land.”

“And as he talked, his voice uncle-calm and his facts first-hand and fresh from the getting-place, he kept reaching out every now and then to touch the guitar.”

“A preposition is relationship; and conjunction is membership; and interjection is the spirit of energy.”

“The light near the piano was bright enough for you to see them dancing and see Claiborne Williams at the keyboard with his hat cocked to the left and his wide silk four-in-hand tie flipped back over his right shoulder, spanking and tickling his kind of blues.”

“All he ever drank during the daylight hours was black coffee, but now he was holding the fruit jar of whiskey that he called his percolating juice, and every now and then one woman would take it and help herself to a sip and then hand it back and give him a kiss on the cheek.”

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

“Deljean McCray… was as cinnamon-bark brown as was the cinnamon-brown bark she was forever chewing and smelling like.”