Tag Archives: southern literature

“THE RISING PLACE,” by David Armstrong

Review by Philip K. Jason

The Rising Place, by David Armstrong. The Wild Rose Press.  198 pages. Trade paperback $13.99

The premise of this highly original novel is as follows: A young lawyer has moved to Hamilton, Mississippi to begin his career. His first job is to draft a will for a seventy-five-year old spinster named Emily Hodge. Emily has spent her life in this town. She is well-known, but she is clearly pretty much a loner. In the course of doing his job, David comes across a box of letters: these are love letters written by a much younger Emily to a man named Harry, who has chosen not to reply.

There is heartbreak and hope in each of Emily’s letters, especially since she finds herself pregnant with Harry’s child. As it happens, Harry is part Negro. And in this town during the 1940s, such a relationship was frowned upon, to say the least.

However, Emily was and is colorblind. She does not understand how race should make a difference in relationships or esteem.

Lawyer David makes the letters, along with several related documents, available to us, the readers. (Note that the lawyer’s first name is the same as that of the book’s author).

The revealed letters, providing the young Emily’s point of view about what’s going on in her life and the role that racial prejudice plays in it, constitute the story.

Through the letters, we learn that Emily is a woman of great passion; that she is a disgrace to her parents; and that she offers the truest brand of friendship to the very few friends that she has, some of whom are Negro.  To most of the town, she is simply a sorry joke. Readers will find her principled, but more than a bit naïve. Her beautiful letters reveal her beautiful soul.

The temporal setting is wartime, a time when young men are called to serve their country. World War Two, in which Harry serves, brings his life to a crisis, and it also supplies an intermediary of sorts between Harry and Emily who would marry Emily if given the chance.

Though Emily is the filter for almost every detail that reaches the reader, and though she is a larger-than-life dominant figure given the book’s structure, the novel is populated with a great number of carefully drawn and highly distinctive characters. It is through Emily’s interactions with these others that our portrait of her (and of the town of Hamilton) deepens. Ultimately, we are assured that Emily really knows who she is and that she accepts her outcast destiny. Readers cannot help but be sympathetic toward her.

David Armstrong

Many, including yours truly, will question whether times have changed at all. Today’s media regularly broadcast the injustices done to Afro-American citizens. However, this awareness takes nothing away from the book’s power and grace.

A particularly striking feature of the book is the author’s the presentation of the town’s Negro community, particularly its church and many of the individual worshipers. Emily is more at home with friends she has made there than she is in her parents’ house. Her few white friends, like Emily herself, are seen my most townspeople as misfits.

Author Armstrong provides a great deal of suspense through his shrewd pacing of revelations. He also includes several surprises before and after the final resolution of the plot

The novel has the musical feel of a tone poem; the brief, passionate letters sing out and echo one another, helping to make the emotional dimension astonishingly powerful.

Prior to being published, The Rising Place was made into a film by Flatland Pictures and won sixteen film festival awards before opening in both New York and Los Angeles. The film is available on DVD.

This review first appeared in the Southern Literary Review and is reprinted with permission.

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“BELLS FOR ELI,” by Susan Beckham Zurenda

BELLS FOR ELI, by Susan Beckham Zurenda. Mercer University Press. 280 pages. Hardcover $25.00

Review by Philip K. Jason

Coming of age narratives, particularly about young women, have long been a staple in the literature of the American South. Zurenda’s marvelous book is a major achievement in this genre. It is deeply moving, troubling, and gloriously poetic. It brings to life small town South Carolina during the 1960s and 70s in a gorgeous and profound tale of the heart’s competing destinies.

Eli Winfield and Delia Green are first cousins, almost identical in age, growing up in and sharing the often-conflicting values of Green Branch, a small town with a long history.

The core drama of the novel begins with a serious accident. Eli swallows some lye, and the consequences are a severe physical and psychological handicap. The lye burns everything in its internal path through his body, and Eli only partly emerges from a trauma that follows him through his life. He endures a tracheotomy and is hospitalized for six months. He requires and tube in his throat.

Among the other children, he is a freak – a misfit. He needs special accommodations in order to make his young way in the world. His breathing and speech are strange. His accident has raised being different to a higher power.

Photo by Anna Beckham

Cousin Delia remains close and supportive to him, but Eli, with a mixture of resentment and bravado, remains a boy apart.

The author’s skill at bring readers into Eli’s changed world, and Delia’s part in his steps toward various stages of recovery, is remarkable. We get to know the cousins (and the larger extended family) extremely well.

As they mature socially, physically, and intellectually, the cousins’ abiding love for one another undergoes many tests and modifications. Eli strives to assert his likeness to the other kids, but for years he remains a freak, and he overcompensates to assert his worth and dignity. He is remarkable in what is essentially a losing fight. He’s been judged, taken advantage of, belittled, and humiliated. You know how kids can be. Well, the worst of rotten kid behavior is thrown in Eli’s path.

As the narrative builds, the attraction and love between the first cousins raises the issue of how, given religious strictures important to Delia, they cannot consider marriage. . . .

To read the full review, as first published in the Southern Literary Review, click here: 

 

 

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“The Moonshiner’s Daughter,” by Donna Everhart

Kensington Books. Trade paperback $15.95.

It’s 1960 in Wilke’s County, North Carolina and sixteen-year-old Jessie Sasser has a problem. In fact, she has several problems. One is an awkward and demeaning relationship with her father. He seems remote and silently critical. Jessie has asked him over and over to explain the death of her mother, which occurred when Jessie was four years old. However, she never gets a meaningful response. Her questioning is basically ignored. Her father resents her questioning, and Jessie interprets this to be, in part, the result of his complicity in her death.

The relationship is further complicated by Jessie’s rebellion against the family business of making and selling moonshine – illegal alcoholic beverages. This business supports her family, and many other families, in this place and time. It supports Jessie’s uncle, aunt, and cousin. This lazy trio does little assist Jessie’s father. They thrive on complaining.

Her younger brother, Merritt, idolizes their father and the moonshiner culture he proudly represents. Thus, Merritt cannot relate to his sister in any positive way.

In her high school, Jessie is almost totally without friends. She connects this condition of being left out or made fun of with the disgrace of the family’s low social status. Her one friend betrays her in various ways. Jessie also sees her isolation as being a consequence of her appearance. She perceives herself as obese, and to fight this vision of herself she has developed poor eating habits. She alternately binges, starves, and purges. The author’s fine, sympathetic delineation of the teenager’s severe eating disorder, along with its causes and consequences, is one of the novelist’s most powerful achievements.

Ms. Everhart provides hints that Jessie misperceives how others see her; however, her lack of self-esteem keeps reinforcing her self-image. Only her elderly neighbor, a woman of shrewd insight and compassion, takes the time to offer Jessie some tools and insights that slowly ameliorate her miserable condition. Mrs. Brewer, who is also a school nurse, is a remarkable character, drawn to perfection by the author.

At first, Jessie is defined as a rebel, fighting against the family’s moonshiner identity and the risks of such an enterprise – risks including the violence of a rival moonshining family and the county agents assigned to apprehend and jail moonshiners as criminals.

Donna Everhard-Credit Gina Warren photography

However, perhaps to win her father’s favor, she becomes cooperative and takes on a share of the work. Neither her father nor her brother is willing to trust her. Because Jessie is the narrator, we know that her change of heart is serious, but after a while she begins to have qualms about her shift in direction. When her father is arrested and sentenced to jail, she must fight the assumption of those who believe that she turned him in.

As the novel progresses, Jessie seems to be accepting the fact that she was born to the life of running moonshine stills and conveying the product to their customers. She’s good at it. She proves herself worthy. When her father is released, he finally offers Jessie some of the positive recognition that he had held back for so long. He also opens up, to a positive outcome, the truth about his wife’s participation in the business and the details about her death twelve years back.

Part of what makes Jessie a compelling character is that her flaws are recognizable. They define her without pushing the reader away. She slowly recognizes who she really is and what she can attain. This is not a story of unexpected epiphanies, but of gradual growth to an enhanced, effective self-awareness. Jessie has miles to go, but she is on the right track. She has developed inner resources that are likely to serve her well.

Meanwhile, if you’re interested in running an illegal distillery, this book can serve as a training manual

Originally published in Southern Literary Review as the January Review of the Month.

Click here: Moonshiner’s Daughter

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“MOON WATER,” BY PAM WEBBER

She Writes Press. 280 pages. Trade paperback $16,95.

Pam Webber

This tantalizing and sometimes frightening coming-of-age story centers on a strong-minded girl of sixteen, Nettie, and her battles with faith, sexuality, and a near-apocalyptic storm. Set in mountainous Central Virginia in 1969, the novel vividly captures the time and place with authority and respectful understanding. An intriguing extra ingredient is the influence of a native Monacan Indian leader, the grandmother of Nettie’s friend Win, who is an important force in the cultural and spiritual life of her community. This woman, Nibi, can read changes in the weather and restore health through the use of natural medicines. She is in tune with her environment, both a healer and a seer.

Nettie had been friends with Andy since they were in grade school, and now, in their teens, the relationship is maturing in a troublesome way. It’s not clear if they are ready for deep commitments to one another. Nettie is perplexed about “forever love.” She needs to explore what that means much further. How can she – or Andy – know what forever will bring?

Andy is hurt by Nettie’s inability to speak the familiar words of commitment without knowing herself better. He withdraws to give her the room she needs, but before long she finds him too often in the presence of Anne, who has been Nettie’s nemesis since they were young kids. Nettie cannot fathom what Andy sees in Anne, but it’s clear that Anne wants to lord it over the girl she sees as her rival.

For adult readers, such conflicts and uncertainties are long familiar. However, Ms. Webber probes these matters with sensitivity and nuance. Young Adult readers at the threshold Nettie is reaching (high school graduation and the unfathomable “then what?”) are likely to find Webber’s treatment of this theme particularly engaging and useful.

Commitment is a problem for Nettie in other ways as well. It is time for her to be baptized, but the priest at her church is dismayed by Nettie’s unwillingness to accept and voice traditional religious formulas. She is an independent thinker who wants to make her own decisions, not merely mouth platitudes that she hasn’t tested and explored for herself. When the priest observes that Nettie is not yet ready, Nettie is in agreement. However, she and Pastor Williams don’t mean the same thing. He means subservient, she means convinced.

As with her feelings for Andy, this young woman does not want to testify to feelings and beliefs that she isn’t sure are true to her sense of herself.

Pastor Williams sets up an intermediary, an associate pastor named Danes, to guide Nettie in the right direction. While Mr. Danes is a smooth operator and helpful in some ways, he turns out to be a sexual predator. Pastor Williams has put Nettie in harm’s way. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the Southern Literary Review, click here:  Moon Water

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“The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek,” by Kim Michele Richardson

Sourcebooks/Landmark. 320 pages. Trade Paperback Original. $15.99. 

Readers are likely to find Ms. Richardson’s fourth novel to be one of the most original and unusual contributions they will encounter in the realm of the current literature of the  American South. Set in the heart of the Great Depression, this engaging story rests on two little-known historical features. One of these is the existence of a shunned community of blue-skinned people who fight racial prejudice on a daily basis. However, they are not racially different from the whites who taunt and disrespect them. The are Caucasian in physical features and in all ways but skin color. Nonetheless, being different dooms them, defining them as misfits.

The other historical feature is the author’s exploration of the “book women,” workers in one of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s projects to rebuild the U. S. economy and provide useful employments along the way.

Richardson

The project is essentially educational – an attempt to bring reading materials – and enhanced literacy — to isolated communities. In this case, the communities are in Kentucky’s coal mining belt. The Kentucky Pack Horse Library Project is staffed by dedicated people, mostly women, who not only travel arduous routes to serve their clients, but who bring an unexpected, uplifting enlightenment to those who are brave enough to find value in books other than the bible.

These workers help the children, and even the parents, develop a love of reading along with greater reading skill. They provide reading suggestions, they keep tabs on the books in their charge, and their visits become high points on the calendars of those whom they visit. . . .

To read the full review, as it appears in the Southern Literary Review, click here: Book Woman

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“THE SISTERS OF GLASS FERRY,” BY KIM MICHELE RICHARDSON

Kim Michele Richardson (photo by Andrew Eccles)

Kensington Books. 272 pages. Trade Paperback $15.00.

This spellbinding new novel by the author of Liar’s Bench and GodPretty in the Tobacco Field powerfully blends teenage angst, a rich portrait of the American South, the blessings and curses of twinship, and the inevitably destructive nature of secrets. Ms. Richardson provides rich dosses of sensory imagery, emotional stress, and moral upheaval in the small, rural town of Glass Ferry, Kentucky. This is a town whose residents are at once desirous and fearful of leaving. It’s in their blood, and their blood is in it.

Just as Liar’s Bench links two periods of a town’s history, shuttling between them, much of The Sisters of Glass Ferry oscillates between the years 1952 and 1972, though there is much that extends into later decades. The title’s sisters, Patsy and Flannery, are non-identical twins. While chapters alternate between these temporal settings, they also alternate between the twins as centers of consciousness. Thus, Patsy and Flannery are defined against one another as well as in terms of their relationships with their parents and other characters in the novel.

Patsy, eight minutes older than Flannery, is clearly the mother’s favorite, both for her status as the oldest and her good looks. From the beginning, Flannery learned to defer to her twin – and most of the time she resented it. Their father taught both girls to handle firearms, but he also taught Flannery some of his whisky-making secrets. In a way, he treated her like the boy in the family. (Two infant sons had not survived.)

We meet the sisters as teenagers: Flannery the more subdued and dependable one; Patsy the more impulsive and popular. Flannery doesn’t get to go to the prom; Patsy meets what remains for a while a cloudy fate, her anticipated success as the belle of the ball transformed into tragedy. Her date’s older brother Hollis assaults her; then Patsy and her boyfriend Danny disappear. The girls’ parents are crushed, particularly the mother. She continues to hold birthday parties for her twins, convincing herself that there is a possibility of Patsy showing up. Mrs. Butler’s decline is not remedied by Flannery’s attempts to console her.

Flannery escapes to college and becomes a schoolteacher in Louisville. It comes as no surprise that she marries a controlling, abusive husband. How deftly Ms. Richardson handles this material is a most pleasant surprise, though the details are quite ugly. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in Southern Literary Review, click here: Sisters of Glass Ferry

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“The Education of Dixie Dupree” by Donna Everhart

  • Kensington. 352 pages. Trade paperback $15.00.

A harrowing story of domestic trauma with Southern Gothic flair.

In this intense narrative, set in a small Alabama town in 1969, 11-year-old Dixie is having what is no doubt the most difficult time of her childhood. Her coping mechanism has been her diary, given to her as a birthday present three years earlier by her mother. Among the many things recorded in the diary is material to be used in the New Hampshire trial of her Uncle Ray. With this information laid out, author Donna Everhart baits the hook and starts reeling her readers in. theeducationofdixiedupree

The Dupree family is ready to explode. The tension between Dixie’s mother and father is unbearable. Dixie and her older brother, AJ, are caught in the emotional maelstrom that surrounds their mother, Evie’s, wish to return to New Hampshire. Never being able to make a socially comfortable life for herself in the South, she talks endlessly about her idyllic upbringing in Concord — though she is silent about her brother, Ray.

Evie’s misery has made her husband miserable, too. It has torn them apart and sent him to drown his feelings in alcohol. Evie is often unstable, and Dixie never knows how “Mama” is going to react. She is often impatient, cruel, and physically abusive. Then Evie is apologetic, but soon doubly cruel. More and more out of control, Evie blames her husband for her unfortunate situation as an outcast in Alabama.

Dixie can be hotheaded, too. She feels the need to strike back. She fights any feelings of being intimidated. She is also a chronic liar whose lies serve many purposes beyond protecting herself. However, it is Evie who has the deeper secrets, secrets that drive the characters’ destinies long before those destinies are fully revealed.

Donna Everhart credit Gina Warren

Donna Everhart credit Gina Warren

Dixie is also our narrator. Her voice is clear and strong, though perhaps author Everhart has made her too articulate for a person so young. Dixie processes what is going on around her with a high degree of sophistication. Moreover, she is an unrepentant questioner. Often, her troubles with Evie stem from asking a fairly innocent question that sends Evie into a rage. Dixie has pushed a button without knowing it, opening up Evie’s fears and threatening her secrets. . .

 

To read the complete review, click here:  The Education of Dixie Dupree | Washington Independent Review of Books

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“RECKONING AND RUIN,” BY TINA WHITTLE

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“GODPRETTY IN THE TOBACCO FIELD,” by KIM MICHELE RICHARDSON

Like its predecessor Liar’s Bench, GodPretty in the Tobacco Field is a powerful coming-of-age story complicated by lingering racial prejudice. The town of Nameless, Kentucky is a place where everyone suffers under the heel of grinding poverty, poor education, and images of a ruthless, punishing God from whom family elders take the cue to carry out ruthless, punishing child-rearing. It seems that when things are tough, teaching children to tough it out is considered a responsibility.

Richardson

Richardson

It also teaches them, of course, to be abusers in turn. Or at least quick to talk with their fists.

It’s a place where self-destructive behavior, like drunkenness, is prevalent. Where abuse of women and girls is manliness.

RubyLyn Bishop, approaching her sixteenth birthday during the blazing hot summer of 1969, keeps house and works in the tobacco fields for her Uncle Gunnar, who rescued her from an orphanage when she was five. Her parents had met tragic deaths, but living with Gunnar is something of a tragedy in itself. Out of notion of molding righteousness, he forces RubyLyn to hold a flesh-stinging and tissue swelling potion of bitters in her mouth as punishment for her lapses in behavior – whether talking back or not working hard enough.

And yet she is convinced that on some level Gunnar really cares for her, even though he never offers a compliment.

RubyLyn is enamored of her neighbor Rainey Ford, a handsome, caring, and upright African-American young man whom she would like to marry. Their clandestine interracial romance is not fully hidden, and that’s a problem; small town Kentucky has not evolved into a San Francisco zone of tolerance even by the close of the 1960s.

RubyLyn dreams of escape. Her curiosity needs wider venues. She has artistic abilities that need nourishing, a talent that could bring her an income. She needs to find or make opportunities, and getting to Louisville to display her tobacco plants might win her the prize money with which to stake hers and Rainey’s future.

godprettyinthetobaccofield-FINAL

Though he loves RubyLyn, Rainey – who is realized by the author with great delicacy – sees a future for himself in the army. It’s his way out of the impoverished, cruel town.

Seeing Louisville is a life-changing event for RubyLyn, though she does not win the prize because she missed the required arrival time. The people she sees are animated, friendly, and enjoying life, not stooped over and broken in spirit. She even makes a contact with someone who will help sell her artwork. . . .

To see the entire review, as it appears in Southern Literary Review, click here: “GodPretty in the Tobacco Field,” by Kim Michele Richardson – SLR

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“Casey’s Last Chance,” by Joseph B. Atkins

“Last chance for what?” the eager reader might ask. To make it to the majors? To score big at anything? In this debut novel, it’s this sorry fellow’s last chance to get out from under the debts incurred over a decade or two of minor league hustling and losing. Not talking about sports here, just life. Casey Eubanks has made mistakes – bad choices, really – over and over again. Hey, he may have killed his girlfriend, Orella, or someone else. Or somehow got her killed. He has been on the run.  Casey'sLastChancefinal1-05

Like most fumbling criminals, he thinks that he can change his dismal life by staking it all on one more crime for the payoff he needs to survive – even flourish. His supposed good friend, Clyde Point, puts him onto something . . . truly horrible. Clyde is ready to vouch for Casey to the big crime boss who needs someone assassinated. $500 now, $500 later. Death of you don’t come through. What a deal.

This big Memphis operator, a whole-hearted Nazi named (of late) Max Duren, is involved with illegal everything and even a business, garment manufacture, that could be legal but would make less profit if it followed the rules. And now there might be more rules, and even a union shop, to protect the workers who are viciously exploited. There’s a good-looking young Polish woman, Ala Gadomska, who is stirring things up at Bengal Britches. She’s a courageous, fast-talking labor organizer who must be stopped. Such is Casey’s assignment.

Readers follow Casey through an off-the-highways tour of the American South, circa 1960. It’s time for President Kennedy to turn America into Camelot – but that’s not happening along the routes Casey travels: a network of despairing, grimy small towns with their failed businesses and failed history rooted in slavery’s aftermath.

Atkins

Atkins

Atkins’ eye for unpleasant physical details and their cultural resonance is penetrating. His prose is tonally perfect. His dialogue is uncanny, accurate, and revealing on more than one level.

This is noir country with grits gone cold; sad, confused Casey is its exemplary figure. His one skill – marksmanship. His fatal flaw – some vestigial sense of right and wrong mixed with guilt that wiggles beneath his fear and greed. When the time comes, he can’t pull the trigger.

Having screwed up his last chance, he gets a last, last chance. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in Southern Literary Review, click here: Southern Literary Review — January Read of the Month: “Casey’s Last Chance” 

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