Tag Archives: Mississippi

Book Review: Rivers by Michael Farris Smith

Rivers by Michael Farris Smith (Simon & Schuster; 352 pages; $25).

     rivers   “He had forgotten the last day that it hadn’t rained, when the storms gave way to the pale blue of the Gulf sky, when the birds flew and the clouds were white and the sunshine glistened across the drenched land,” Mississippi native Michael Farris Smith writes in Rivers, his riveting new novel of speculative fiction.  In Rivers, Smith imagines a chilling future for the Gulf South, where relentless, Katrina-like storms roll in one after the other.

Although Hurricane Katrina did not hurt the author directly, seeing his state “suffer in that way” deeply affected Smith, he explained during a reading at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Writers.  He originally thought that he wanted to write a Katrina or a post-Katrina novel.  After starting and stopping several times, Smith was unhappy with the direction in which he was heading.  The writing “felt really contrived” to him, and the “last thing” he wanted to do was “cheapen” the tragedy for those who experienced Katrina’s wrath.

Smith could not get the idea of storms out of his mind, however.  “To hell with Katrina,” he decided.  The wheels in Smith’s head slowly began to turn.  “What if after Katrina there came another one like a month later and after that there came another one just a couple weeks later?  And then what if for five or six years we essentially had a Katrina-like storm that never ended in the Gulf?  What would the world look like?”  Smith’s setting suddenly clicked, but he knew he could infuse even more conflict into his place, intensifying the mood and the story.

When Rivers begins, 613 days have passed “since the declaration of the Line, a geographical boundary drawn ninety miles north of the coastline from the Texas-Louisiana border across the Mississippi coast to Alabama.”  Things only got worse “after several years of catastrophic hurricanes and a climate shift,” suggesting “there was an infinite trail of storms to come.”  The “consistency and ferocity of the storms” have not diminished but have instead accelerated.  This is the environment in which Smith plunges his characters and us—dark, elegiac, primeval, and utterly compelling.

With the stage for his conflict set, the author needed a main character.  Smith kept seeing “an image of a guy waking up in the middle of the night on family land outside of Gulfport after he’s been trying to live down there through all this, and he goes outside…gets on his horse, [and] splashes around to see what’s going on.”

That man is Cohen, a pragmatic Southern stalwart who stays in his home despite ruthless weather, anarchy, and violence.  The federal government got out of Dodge long ago, but not Cohen.  He insists on staying not because of stubbornness but because he possesses mile-wide streaks of idealism and sentimentality.  These traits, along with his memories, keep him from living a life north of the line.

Two recollections especially mark Cohen.  The first is the tragedy that befalls Cohen and his wife, Elisa, as they attempt to evacuate the coast during a maelstrom.  Smith writes, “On the asphalt of Highway 49, underneath an eighteen-wheeler, surrounded by screams of those who were running for it as they had all seen them coming, the handful of tornadoes breaking free from the still black clouds, like snakes slithering down from the sky, moving toward the hundreds, thousands of gridlocked cars that were only trying to do what they had been told to do.”  As the tornadoes close in on the couple and explode “through the bodies and the cars and the trucks, metal and flesh” fly in all directions.  Cohen, powerless at that moment, can only watch as his wife and unborn daughter die, a scene that makes for emotional reading.  The other memory from which Cohen cannot escape and returns to time and again throughout the narrative is his reminiscence of a vacation he and Elisa once took to Venice, Italy.  One cannot help but compare Venice, the floating city, to New Orleans, itself a precarious metropolis that features into the story.  These vignettes offer greater insight into Cohen’s mindset.

If Cohen leaves the coast, he fears he will desert Elisa, his birthplace, and even a part of himself.  With a horse named Habana and a dog as his only companions, Cohen trudges across a dark and stormy landscape and struggles to hold onto a past that is getting harder and harder to cling to as the last vestiges of the old world crumble around him.  Practicality and romanticism are at war inside Cohen, which Smith ably demonstrates in the story.  Cohen knows his home is forever altered; he knows that to stay is a lost cause; he knows there is nothing left for him.  But he cannot do it—he cannot leave.  Smith envisaged Cohen, an extremely intricate and layered personality, so complex, intriguing, and damaged, and rendered him perfectly.

The author peoples Rivers with equally strong minor characters—Mariposa, a haunted young woman from New Orleans; Charlie, an old friend of Cohen’s family who is the go-to guy on the coast; Aggie, a man who lures women and men to his compound for his own nefarious purposes; and Evan and Brisco, brothers who have only each other.

When something unforeseen and unwelcome happens to Cohen, he is right in the thick of things and must decide, once and for all, if michael farris smithhe will be a man of action or inaction.  Cohen may be an unlikely hero, but we all are really.  Heroism is thrust upon him, just as it is forced upon so many ordinary people in extraordinary times.  Smith takes Cohen on multiple odysseys in Rivers, fully developing his main character and binding him to us.  I believe Cohen will appeal to readers because he is an Everyman type of figure, relatable, likeable, and sympathetic.  He is the sort of guy you would see at the local football game on Friday nights, barbequing on weekends with a beer in one hand, and driving his old Chevy around town.

If you enjoyed Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars, Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles, and Cormac McCarthy’s works, you will surely appreciate Smith’s clarity, vision, and voice.  Rivers, as Smith tells me, “is about redemption” and “survival both emotionally and physically,” universal themes we can all understand.  Perhaps that is why Rivers struck such a chord with me.  The gloomy, sinister future of which the author writes is not implausible but wholly possible and therefore terrifying.

If Rivers is made into a movie (Please God), I’d love to see Matthew McConaughey as Cohen, Billy Bob Thornton as Charlie, and America Ferriera as Mariposa.

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Interview with Michael Farris Smith, Author of Rivers

Rivers by Michael Farris Smith (Simon & Schuster; 352 pages; $25).

It had been raining for weeks. Maybe months. He had forgotten the last day that it hadn’t rained, when the storms gave way to the pale blue of the Gulf sky, when the birds flew and the clouds were white and sunshine glistened across the drenched land.

michael farris smith 1

Thank you, Michael, for letting me ask you these questions.  Rivers left me chilled, gasping, and shaken to the core.  Did you always want to be a writer?

Not really. For a long time I didn’t know what I wanted to do so I was kind of a drifter. Change of scenery was something I really desired and needed so I didn’t stay in one place very long. But this restlessness took me to Europe for a few years and that’s when I began to read and that led me to the desire to write. I will say, though, that when it hit me at age 29, that’s all I wanted to do. Still is.

 

How would you describe Rivers?

Wow. That’s a tough one for the second question. I think RIVERS is about redemption, survival both emotionally and physically. I think RIVERS is about the odyssey of not only Cohen but of all the characters. There is so much to overcome. I wanted it to be more complex than simply good versus evil, and I hope it comes across that way.

What made you decide on the title?  Did you ever have any others in mind?

RIVERS wasn’t the original title. The original title had been used recently to my chagrin, but my agent and I were knocking around other ideas and when RIVERS was suggested, I thought it was perfect. It works on several different levels in the story. It’s strong, straightforward, Southern. Exactly what I wanted.

Michael, what was the impetus behind this novel?  How did you come up with the story?rivers1.jpg

There was no one thing, but several things came into play when I had the idea for RIVERS. Mississippi was still feeling, and is still feeling, the pangs of Katrina and something in me wanted to write a post-Katrina novel. But it wasn’t working and I was frustrated. At the same time I was also very much wanting to break from writing stories to writing novels and I wanted an idea that would, at the very least, picque interest. So I decided to quit banging my head against the wall with a Katrina story, and take the notion of hurricane destruction and the place and people that take the punishment and ramp it way, way up. What if a stream of hurricanes went on and on? What would it look like? What would we do? And then I started to work.

I want to talk more about Cohen.  He’s such an interesting man.  He’s a pragmatist, yet he stays in his home with the world practically coming apart around him.  He’s got a dog, a horse, and a whole lot of memories.  He’s haunted by the past.  Cohen’s a realist yet he also seems to be an idealist.  How did you come up with this character?  How easy or how difficult was it to make him so multi-layered and complex?  Is there any of you in Cohen?

I had an image of a man waking up in the middle of the night, on family land, on the Gulf Coast, after a big storm, and then he goes out to look around. And that’s really all I had. I just started to follow him, to see what he saw, to feel what he felt about what he was seeing. The layers eventually came, but I didn’t have a real game plan for Cohen other than I wanted to lay as much trouble on him as I possibly could and see how he would react. Turns out, he took a lot, and kept fighting.

I think there’s some of me in Cohen, like I guess there is in most all of my characters, but I don’t think there is much overlap. And least not consciously. He’s kind of a South Mississippi guy who grew up playing ball and riding around with a cooler of beer with his buddies and working with his hands, and that’s a pretty decent description of me.

Are there any plans on making a movie of this book?  I would love to see Matthew McConaughey as Cohen.

That’s a good suggestion. I’ll see if we can get him a copy.

Mariposa is another intriguing character and she also lets you talk about New Orleans and what happened there.  She’s also haunted.  How did you come up with the character of Mariposa?

Mariposa was so much fun to create because, like you said, she gave me the chance to use New Orleans and all the ghost stories and dark alleys of the French Quarter. I wanted some of the characters to be displaced, to have ended up in this situation by straight-up bad luck, and that’s how she came to be. I didn’t know when she was introduced limping along the side of the road that she would grow into the character that she grew into, but I’m glad she did.

How did Hurricane Katrina affect you and your friends and family?  Do you think Rivers would have ever been possible without Katrina?

I’m certain that there would have never been RIVERS without Katrina. It’s the first hurricane in my lifetime to have struck Mississippi and it had such an impact on so many people. I felt that impact and those emotions drove me through the writing of RIVERS.

rivers 1In Rivers, Cohen recalls a vacation he and his wife took to Venice.  It’s so interesting that they vacationed in the “floating city” given that New Orleans features so prominently in your story.  The low elevation of New Orleans means it’s like a bowl and this means it’s vulnerable to flooding.  Is there a reason why you had Cohen and Elisa tour Venice?

It started as a way to give some more information about Cohen and Elisa and their life before, so I sent them to Venice on a vacation for the sheer irony of the water. It was only about 4 pages, but my agent really liked it and suggested I write their entire trip. So I created about 20 pages of what their Venice experience was like and then sliced it up and put it here and there throughout RIVERS. It helped that I’ve been to Venice a few times and that is a place, much like New Orleans, with its own strange feeling. It’s so old, so beautiful and ancient one minute, then you turn a street and it’s decrepit and smelly. But it also has a haunting feel, and it seemed to be a good parallel to what was to come for Cohen and Elisa.

What kind of research did you do for Rivers?

None. I looked at a map once or twice to make sure I had the distance between places correct, but that’s it. I didn’t want to look at any footage of natural disasters or study hurricane patterns because I had a pretty strong vision of the place I was trying to create and I didn’t want it tainted.

Although this is speculative fiction, it is so powerful given our extreme weather this century.  If something similar happened in the United States, irrevocably altering the landscape of the Gulf South and the way we live, do you think things would progress as they do in Rivers?  Or would they be worse?

That’s a really good question and I’ve had this come up with other readers. About all I can say is I hope this isn’t a Gulf Coast that we ever see because there are many people in this world anxious to try and take advantage of calamity.

A great deal of loss permeates Rivers yet there is also a great deal of hope.  Was that an aim of yours when you set out to write the

michael farris smith 2story?

I think almost every story has to be about hope in some way. The novels and stories that I love center around hope and survival, whether it be emotional, spiritual, physical, psychological, whatever. The late, great Barry Hannah said all stories have to be about life and death and hope is in the middle of life and death.

I love Barry Hannah, another fellow Mississippian.  Did you have an ending in mind when you began writing Rivers or did the conclusion come to you over time?

I never have an ending in mind until I get there. I think planning too far ahead robs my characters of free will and that’s the last thing I want to do.

Which writers have influenced you the most? Who are some of your favorite authors?  What are some of your favorite books?

So many favorites: Larry Brown, Daniel Woodrell, Cormac McCarthy, Harry Crews, Jean Rhys, Ernest Hemingway, Albert Camus, Carson McCullers, Truman Capote. Some of my favorite books are The Stranger, Joe, The Crossing, Death in Venice, Old Man and the Sea, Ballad of the Sad Café, Good Morning Midnight, Feast of Snakes, The Iliad, [and] No Country for Old Men.

What do you like to do when you aren’t writing?

I like to be outside, chasing around my daughters, cooking out in the backyard, playing guitar, tailgating.

Our home state has produced truly magnificent writers—William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Richard Ford, and Jesmyn Ward—just to name a few.  How does it feel to join their illustrious ranks?

It feels pretty good. There are so many great writers from this state, writers that you read and admire and aspire to be like, and then when you finally find your name mentioned alongside them, it’s surreal and satisfying and humbling.

What do you hope readers take with them after reading Rivers?

I hope that readers travel the same journey as Cohen and the others. I hope they are emotionally spent, that they feel the struggle, that they hope, that it’s an adventure.

What’s next for you, Michael?  Are you working on anything new?

I’m working on something but as always, you just wait and see how it goes. I’m excited about working again. There’s been a lot lately to keep me away from the healthy exercise of writing fiction and I’m ready to be back to it more consistently.

Thanks so much, Michael, for a wonderful interview.  Good luck with the book!

Thanks to you and so glad for your enthusiasm for RIVERS.

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Meet Michael!

Friday, October 4 – Book Mart & Café, Starkville, MS: Signing from 3:00-5:00 pm

Saturday, October 5 – Barnes & Noble, Tupelo, MS: 2:00 pm

Tuesday, October 8 – Lemuria Books, Part II, Jackson, MS: Signing at 5:00. Click here to reserve a First Edition signed copy.

Wednesday, October 9 – University of Southern Mississippi, Hattiesburg, MS

October 11-12 – Southern Festival of Books, Nashville

Wednesday, October 16 – “Tea with Authors” at Mississippi Library Association Conference, Biloxi, MS

October 18-19 – Auburn Writers Conference, Auburn University

Tuesday, October 22 – Mississippi State University, Starkville, MS

October 24-26 – Welty Writers Symposium, MUW, Columbus

October 29 – Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL

Friday, November 1 – Turnrow Books, Greenwood, MS

Thursday, November 7 – Texas A&M-Commerce, Dallas, TX

Wednesday, November 13 – James Madison University, Harrisonburg, VA

Friday, November 22 – Lunch with “The Literary Club” in Columbus, MS

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Spotlight on The Resurrectionist by Matthew Guinn

I am reading a spectacular debut by an exciting new literary talent.  It’s Matthew Guinn’s The Resurrectionist, coming July 8 from W.WNorton & Company.

“Sleepers, awake!”

Resurecctionist n. (a). Hist. A body-snatcher; a resurrection man; (bgen. a person who resurrects something (lit. & fig.); (c) a believer in resurrection

About The Book:

resurrectionistA young doctor wrestles with the legacy of a slave “resurrectionist” owned by his South Carolina medical school.

Nemo Johnston was one of many Civil War–era “resurrectionists” responsible for procuring human corpses for doctors’ anatomy training. More than a century later, Dr. Jacob Thacker, a young medical resident on probation for Xanax abuse and assigned to work public relations for his medical school’s dean, finds himself facing a moral dilemma when a campus renovation unearths the bones of dissected African American slaves—a potential PR disaster for the school. Will Jacob, still a stranger to his own history, continue to be complicit in the dean’s cover-up or will he risk his entire career to force the school to face its dark past?

First-time novelist Matthew Guinn deftly weaves historical and fictional truth, salted with contemporary social satire, and traditional Southern Gothic into a tale of shocking crimes and exquisite revenge—and a thoroughly absorbing and entertaining moral parable of the South.

 

 

 

 

About The Author:

A native of Atlanta, Matthew Guinn earned a BA in English from the University of Georgia. He continued graduate school at the Matthew_GuinnUniversity of Mississippi, where he met his wife Kristen and completed a master’s degree. At the University of South Carolina, where he earned a Ph.D. in English, he was personal assistant to the late James Dickey. In addition to the Universities of Mississippi and South Carolina, he has taught at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and at Tulane University’s School of Continuing Studies in Madison, Mississippi.

Matthew and Kristen live in Jackson, Mississippi, with their two children, Braiden and Phoebe.

 

 

Perspective-2-photo

“Dog days and the fresh bodies are arriving once again.”

Historical Note: (from the book)

The events of The Resurrectionist are drawn from actual medical practice in the southern United States from the mid-nineteenth century to the late twentieth.

Guinn is indebted to Abraham Flexner and Robert L. Blakely.

Abraham Flexner was a crusader for medical college reform in the early twentieth century; his report for the Carnegie resurrectionman02Foundation, entitled Medical Education in the United States and Canada, was published in 1910.  Flexner’s expose of the schools of his era–many of them rife with charlatanry, operated without regulation for pure profit–ushered in a new era of medical reform.  For sheer revelatory content, his report rivals any novelistic invention.

In 1989, the archaeologist Robert Blakely was called to the Medical College of Georgia when human remains were discovered in the earthen cellar of the campus’s oldest building during renovations.  His work, aided by the cooperation of MCG authorities, culminated in the publication of Bones in the Basement: Postmortem Racism in Nineteenth-Century Medical Training (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1997).  

Although Guinn changes names and locations, the character of Nemo Johnson is drawn from the enigmatic biography that Bones resurrectionman03in the Basement sketches of Grandison Harris, a slave purchased by the MCG faculty prior to the Civil War.  Harris functioned as the school’s janitor, butler, and body snatcher–or resurrectionist, in the parlance of the day.  With the faculty’s silent endorsement and support, Harris routinely pillaged Augusta’s African American cemetery, Cedar Grove, until his retirement in 1905.  Harris died in 1911, having never divulged his activities and without facing official censure for carrying out his nocturnal duties.  To date, the location of Grandison Harris’s remains in Cedar Grove is unknown.

Bookmagnet Says:

Prepare to be fascinated!

Here are some great websites to learn more:

Grandison Harris

My Georgia History

The legend

Purchase A Signed Copy From Lemuria Books

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Q&A with Jonathan Odell

I interviewed author Jonathan Odell for the Mobile Press-Register.  Odell has written a new book called The Healing that is getting a lot of buzz.  It’s authentic, fresh, and well-researched.  Polly Shine is unforgettable.  To read my Q&A with Odell, please go here.   If Odell is appearing at a bookstore near you, I urge you to go meet him.  He is very friendly and loves to talk to readers.

Author Jonathan Odell

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Meeting Jonathan Odell at Lemuria Books

I have conversed with author Jonathan Odell via this blog and finally had the pleasure of meeting him in person yesterday.  Mr. Odell appeared at Lemuria Books in Jackson, Mississippi, on March 7.  He signed copies of his newest novel The Healing at 5 pm and then read from the book at Lemuria’s Dot Com Building at 5:30.

Jonathan Odell

Mr. Odell arrived early.  He met Lemuria staff and then signed about 400 books.  He still had some time before the signing began so he popped downstairs to Broad Street Baking Company and Cafe for a break and a latte.

When 5:00 came, my mother and I were the first of his fans waiting in line.  My mother and Mr. Odell spent some time catching up.  They both attended R.H. Watkins High School in Laurel, MS.  My mother was a childhood friend of Mr. Odell’s twin brothers, Doug and David.  She remembered Mr. Odell being in the band.

Pam Boler and Jonathan Odell

Mr. Odell was so friendly not only to us but to everyone who attended.  There was a fair-sized crowd.  He took his time talking to us and inscribing and even lining books.  Everyone remarked on how personable he was and how much they adored The Healing.

Jonathan Odell and me (bookmagnet)

Book signings at Lemuria are a joy to attend.  It is always great to see Zita, Lisa, Maggie, and Joe.  We were sad, though, to miss Nan.  It is also wonderful to catch up with friends we first met at Kathryn Stockett’s signing of The Help in May of last year.  We love seeing Susan and Wanda!

You just never know what treasure you will find at Lemuria.  For example, in one of the rare book rooms, my mother came across a very special John Grisham book.  My mother, it has to be said, loves Mr. Grisham; he is her favorite author.  She opened a signed copy of The Runaway Jury to read “Official 5/22/96 Lemuria Signing Elbow Book.”  Puzzled, she asked what it meant.  Joe Hickman explained Mr. Grisham liked to write quirky things in a few novels to see if they would end up on the internet for sale.  This particular copy was what he rested his elbow on as he signed books.  What a find!  It took some persuasion on my part, but she bought it.  Now she has a message for Mr. Grisham: She will treasure it always and never put it on Ebay.

John Grisham's "Elbow Book"

You will not want to miss an author coming to Lemuria next week: Alex George, author of A Good American.  Mr. George is very friendly and loves to discuss his novel.  He will be at Lemuria Books in Jackson, MS, on March 14 for a signing and a reading beginning at 5 pm.

Book signings are a great way to make new friends and meet your favorite authors.  Just as we were lucky enough to meet Mr. Odell.  I urge you to pick up The Healing.  It is one of those rare novels you will cherish for years to come.

Thanks, Mr. Odell, and thanks, Lemuria!

 

 

 

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Money Talks, We Listen

Gathering of Waters by Bernice L. McFadden (Akashic Books; 250 pages; $15.95).

In her seventh novel, Gathering of Waters, author Bernice L. McFadden skillfully combines history with folklore and magical realism.  She also re-imagines the 1955 brutal murder of Emmett Till in Money, Mississippi.  What results is a breathtaking literary masterpiece of epic proportions.

Gathering of Waters is notable because Ms. McFadden does something in her book that is not often done.  She tells her story from the point of view of the town of Money, Mississippi.  Money sees all; Money knows all.  Money is everywhere.   “I am Money.  Money Mississippi.  I have been figments of imaginations, shadows and sudden movements seen out of the corner of your eye.  I have been dewdrops, falling stars, silence, flowers, and snails.”   I cannot remember the last novel I read in which the narrator was not a person but a place.  This is such a unique and fresh method of storytelling in a time when the first person plural (“we”) has become increasingly popular.

Ms. McFadden turns Money into a character.  Her use of personification, attributing human characteristics to non-living things, is near divine.  For instance, Money feels pain and has a memory, “For a time I lived as a beating heart, another life found me swimming upstream toward a home nestled in my memory.  Once I was a language that died.  I have been sunlight, snowdrifts, and sweet babies’ breath.”

Money also is an abundance of knowledge for us and explains Ms. McFadden’s title: “You know, before white men came with their smiles, Bibles, guns, and disease, this place that I am was inhabited by Native men.  Choctaw Indians.  It was the Choctaw who gave the state its name: Mississippi—which means many gathering of waters.”

Money is particularly interested in one of the families who lives within its confines.  Money tells us: “Admittedly, I am guilty of a very long and desperate fascination with a family that I followed for decades.  In hindsight, I believe that I was drawn to the beautifully tragic heartbrokenness of their lives, and so for years remained with them, helplessly tethered, like a mare to a post.”  That family is the Hilson family: Reverend August, his wife Doll, and their children, Hemmingway and Paris.

An evil spirit inhabits the body of Doll Hilson.  Her name is Esther, and she was once a prostitute who now goes from host to host.  Money explains that “when objects are destroyed and bodies perish, the souls flit off in search of a new home.”  Esther does just that; she comes into Doll’s soul at the moment of her birth.  Doll’s mother, Coraline, remembers: “You come into this world screaming holy murder, and didn’t stop until you were a month old.  Like to drive me outta my mind.  It was your daddy–God rest his soul–who stopped me from throwing you down the well.”  Doll responds, in Esther’s voice, “Maybe you the one shoulda gone down the well.”  Not even death stops Esther.  When Doll dies, she simply finds another human to torment.  This demon destroys the lives of three generations of women in the Hilson family.

Esther also causes the brutal slaying of fourteen-year-old Emmett Till when she enters the body of J.W. Milam, half-brother of Roy Bryant.  These two men beat the teen, who was from Chicago and vacationing in the area, to death for supposedly whistling at Bryant’s wife.  Please do not think Ms. McFadden is trivializing Till’s murder; she is not.  She is not trying to explain it away either.  Ms. McFadden puts her own spin on it, which is what fiction writers must do.

Gathering of Waters also features two disasters that caused massive devastation and loss of life in Mississippi, this place where many waters converge: the 1927 flood and Hurricane Katrina.  Money describes how in April of 1927 “most folk in Mississippi couldn’t think of anything but rain, mud, mosquitoes, and flooding.”  Conditions worsen quickly.  Money is overrun by the waters of the Mississippi when the levees give way: Bodies are everywhere; some float, some are caught in trees.  Ms. McFadden brings this horrible natural disaster to life.

But she does not stop there.  When Gathering of Waters ends in 2005, Mississippi braces for another calamity, and she is named Katrina.  Money sounds angry when it talks about the storm: “In the Gulf of Mexico, she suddenly turned furious.  Draped in black clouds, blowing wind, and driving rain, she charged into Louisiana like a bull and fanned her billowing dark skirts over Mississippi.”  Guess who Money believes Katrina is?  If you guess Esther, you are correct.  “They named her Katrina,” Money scoffs, “but I looked into the eye of that storm and recognized her for who she really was: Esther…cackling and clapping her hands with glee.”

At the end of Ms. McFadden’s novel, Money warns, “As you go about your lives, keep in mind that an evil act can ruin generations….”  Yet, take heart, for “gestures of love and kindness will survive and thrive forever.”  When Money talks, we should listen.

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Oxford Who?

The following article is my first in The Review of Jones County, one of my local newspapers.

The Healing by Jonathan Odell (Nan A. Talese; 352 pages; $26).

            Author Jonathan Odell writes that American slaves and their descendants “have strived and survived as a proud of community and, in spite of every adversity imaginable, infused the larger American culture with a richness like none other.”  Their story is our story, he maintains.  What a story he tells in his second novel The Healing, to be released in February 2012.  Historically accurate details and characters that seem to come to life on the page populate the book.  The African-American slaves in Odell’s world are players, not pawns; they are active, not passive, participants in the oppressive and repressive institution that was slavery.  The slaves try to forge identities for themselves and their families while slave owners do their best to suppress their attempts.

Nothing, however, can stop Odell’s Polly Shine.

Odell previously wrote The View from Delphi.  He currently lives in Minnesota but was born in Laurel, Mississippi, the hometown of this reviewer.  The Healing is very personal to him as this novel works to heal the wounds slavery, segregation, and racism have left behind.  In the author’s note to the reader, he recounts several instances of his early life in which he saw racism firsthand.  His note is very revealing and allows readers a chance to see into his mind and his heart.  In fact, I urge readers to read it first, as it will give you great insight into the author and his mindset.

Set on a cotton plantation in the Mississippi Delta, The Healing began when the twelve-year-old daughter of Benjamin and Amanda Satterfield died of cholera.  Mistress Amanda was distraught, even enraged and unstable, and took a baby from one of the Satterfield slaves to raise as her own.  The mistress renamed the baby Granada and exiled her true parents to the swamps.  Mistress Amanda dressed Granada in the clothes of her dead daughter and paraded her before friends and neighbors.  Granada loved the clothes, for the clothes made the mistress notice her: “The clothes made her more than beautiful.  They made her visible.”  The sight of Granada, an African-American slave in the clothes of a white girl, appalled the whites.  The mistress also had a pet monkey named Daniel Webster who perched on her shoulder.  Here, Odell is rather heavy-handed.  The reader is meant to compare Granada to the monkey; they are the same in the eyes of slaveholding whites.  Perhaps Odell does not think readers would fully grasp the meaning without the presence of the monkey.  Granada was just a slave, no matter how many fancy clothes she wore; she would never be the daughter of the mistress.  She merely mimicked the world of the whites, and her emulations were met with disdain.  As Granada tried to curtsy “like she had seen white women do,” the monkey pulled her hair, making her tilt to the side.  She looked to see the reaction: “The women had dropped their eyes to the floor, looking red-faced, as if they had been slapped in church….”  A man who watched her “hid his mouth behind his hand and coughed loudly.”  The man’s eyes, Granada, saw, “danced with a wicked merriment.”  Her mimicry only made Granada ridiculous, since “tying a scrap of red on a straw broom don’t make it no Christmas tree.”  This worked even without Daniel Webster, although the monkey served a purpose later in the novel.

Everything changed on the plantation with the arrival of Polly Shine, who had “bird feathers stuck out of her braids this way and that, and around her neck she wore a ponderous necklace made of gleaming white shells.”  Polly was “as skinny as a river bird, and draped over her shoulders was a mangy wrap made from the fur of some animal Granada imagined being too ugly to ever have lived.”  Odell was at his very best when he wrote her scenes.  Satterfield purchased Polly from North Carolina for the grand sum of five thousand dollars.  The other slaves speculated as to her purpose there: “She was too unsightly to be thought of as frolic in bed for the master.  She was too far past her childbearing years to multiply the stock.  Though she seemed nimble enough, it was hard to imagine her being brought all the way from North Carolina for field work.”  The reason for her presence was soon revealed:  Polly was a healer, and the master hoped she could cure his slaves of the “blacktongue,” a disfiguring and painful disease.  The master gave Polly lots of leeway.  Polly even chose Granada to be her apprentice, causing a battle of wills between the mistress and the slave.  Polly, however, emerged as the victor, leaving Granada furious and saddened.  Polly did things her own way.  Although she was a slave, she was really her own boss.  I loved her and considered her Odell’s richest, most well-developed character.  She stirred things up on the plantation so much so that nothing would be the same after her arrival for Granada, the Satterfields, or her fellow slaves. For example, Polly told Granada that Master Satterfield “can’t give you your Freedom.  The Yankees when they come can’t.  I can’t.  If you think any somebody can, then you always going to be their slave.”

Readers will appreciate the meticulous research Odell conducted for The Healing.  He combed through archives and listened to the Works Project Administration’s interviews with former slaves recorded in the 1930s.  Odell also talked to numerous descendants of former slaves.  His hard work paid off as historical accuracies abound in his novel.  Odell painted a picture of a world in which house slaves believed they were better than field hands.  That was true.  Slaves were hierarchical.  In the novel, the master had an affair with a slave named Rubina, a typical practice.  The mistress knew of her husband’s affair and hated him (and Rubina) for it.  This, too, was historically accurate.  In fact, many mistresses treated any children from such dalliances cruelly.  In The Healing, Satterfield named his slaves and this sometimes occurred.  Not all masters named their slaves, however.  Ella, Granada’s natural mother, originally gave her daughter an African name, Yewande.  In the slave south, slaves could not come and go as they pleased.  Written permission from the master was required.  Odell showed readers the same was true for Polly Shine.  Slaves also resisted slavery through rebellion.  Their resistance might be active (revolt) or passive (everyday rebellion).  Near the end of Odell’s novel, we saw Satterfield’s slaves engaging in rebellious acts against the master.  Therefore Odell gave us a story that very well might have happened, even if it was fiction.  Nothing he writes was inaccurate or not plausible.

The world of Odell’s imagining is one in which readers will want to immerse themselves.  Filled with both historical accuracy and vivid, rich, detailed characters, The Healing proves Odell is an up-and-coming author.  The Healing recalls earlier greats such as Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple.  I believe Odell will receive great acclaim.  With The Healing, he will certainly put Laurel, Mississippi, on the literary map.  Oxford who?

 

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