Heartlands Best Reads of 2017:#4 Wolf Whistle

51bf+UoPhrL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_If I told you there was a laugh-out-loud book about the murder of Emmett Till, the black teenager killed in Mississippi in 1955 after he allegedly whistled at a white woman, you’d call such a thing, at the least, in poor taste. Yet the late Lewis Nordan, who lived through that episode as a teenager in his home town of Itta Bena, MS, wrote just such a book–fictionalizing the murder and running it through his wildly imaginative brain formed by heavy immersion into Southern Gothic literature and Southern vernacular. The result is Wolf Whistle–profane, horrific, and one of my top reads of 2017 (though the novel dates to 1993).

The book is worth the price of admission just for the courtroom scene which is what Harper Lee’s would have been like had it been stripped of every veneer of high-mindedness. Alice, the young 4th-grade school teacher with the lone sense of conscience, takes her wards on a field trip to the murder trial while an unruly parrot disrupts the proceedings enough for truth to be told and the evil of the crime to be exposed, even if the perpetrators, as in real life, get off scot free. Critics call some of this magical realism. I call it brilliant.

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Emmett Till

What Nordan does is to foreground the brutality and tragedy of lower-class white Southerners, particularly as they interact with the African-American community. The characters walk over from a Flannery O’Connor story and stay in your face, all the while silent sufferers like poor Glenn Greg, (who tried to set his abusive daddy on fire and instead burned himself to a slow, painful death), linger in the background. You feel it’s not right to laugh at the clowns who drive the narrative, but in this Delta nightmare-scape, you take comfort where you can find it.

The sad history of racial violence is still close to the surface and the past is never really past.  And this is vivid, scalding writing without much hint of redemption.  Except…images of the dead teenager keep surfacing in stories and even in a raindrop on Alice’s coat, and they won’t be extinguished. As long as people keep remembering Bobo, (the Emmett Till figure in the book), the story is not finished.

The book prompted me to spend a day in visiting Emmett Till-related sites in Mississippi last summer, something I wrote about here.

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Heartlands Best Reads of 2017: #6 Sing, Unburied, Sing

51ipyal4R-L._UY250_Mississippi has many layers.  William Faulkner knew this and crafted his intricate tales of Yoknapatawpha County with characters haunted by the past, spurred by subterranean passions, and trapped in violent, tragic relationships.  Jesmyn Ward claims Faulkner as an literary influence and it shows in her rich novels of Bois Sauvage, like Yoknapatawpha, a fictional rendering of the Mississippi she knows.

Sing, Unburied, Sing is the story of an extended family trying to come to terms with their limitations.  We meet Jojo, a 13-year-old with a drug-addicted African-American mother and an imprisoned white father, who is coming of age with the burdens of trying to understand what it means to be a man while being the healing center of his family.  His mother, Leonie, is haunted by the ghost of her brother and her inability to really care for her children or mother.  His grandfather, is similarly burdened by a past he can’t give voice to.

Perspective shifts with each chapter.  The past is never far away.  Racial tensions are everywhere.  The dead are as needy as the living.  And yet there is a surprising grace suffusing everything.

It took me awhile to get into this book, despite the fact that its opening scene was the best I read all year – Jojo and his grandfather slaughtering a goat and introducing the theme of life and death.  I was reading the book in small doses when it really demands sustained engagement.  But it is affecting and the images linger.

71-wjMrvimL._UX250_Jesmyn Ward has had a big year.  She just got a MacArthur genius grant and Sing, Unburied, Sing won the National Book Award for fiction.  She also put Southern fiction back on the map in a big way.  I put it at #6 on the Best Reads List.

Click on the title link above for my review of the book.

A Tear for Bois Sauvage: A Review of Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

fullsizeoutput_17f7It’s not often that the ending of a book makes me moist-eyed.  And I can’t ever recall when the acknowledgements did that.  But there it was in the final sentences on page 289 of Sing, Unburied, Sing, the 2017 National Book Award-winning novel by Jesmyn Ward:  “In closing, I’d like to thank everyone in my community in DeLisle, Mississippi, who inspired my stories and gave me a sense of belonging.  I am ever grateful for every one of you.  I love you all.”

I’m man enough to say it was raining on my face in that moment.

Part of that was just because I so admire books that can evoke a place and Jesmyn Ward does that, even if DeLisle becomes Bois Sauvage in her fiction.  (She also used it as the setting of her Hurricane Katrina book, Salvage the Bones, which won the National Book Award in 2011.)

51ipyal4R-L._UY250_But the main reason was that she had so earned the sentiment in this book.  Every one of the troubled characters in the book is treated with respect and even love, from drug-addled Leonie, trying so hard to be a daughter and a mom and failing so miserably most of the time, to Jojo, her 13-year-old son who is growing into manhood with an ocean of wounds.

At the center of the book is a road trip that Leonie takes to Parchman Farm, the state penitentiary, with her addict friend Misty and her two children, Jojo & Kayla, to pick up her abusive husband, Michael, on his release.  Only the trip is just the tip of a much larger iceberg.  There are ghosts along the way.  Leonie is haunted by her brother, Given, who was murdered by Michael’s family in a “hunting accident” years before.  Jojo is visited by Richie, a teenaged boy who died at Parchman while Jojo’s grandfather was serving time there.  The circumstances of his death become the occasion for Jojo’s coming of age and coming to terms with his grandfather.

The best window on how to read this book is actually offered before the first page where Ward includes this quote from fellow Mississippian Eudora Welty:

“The memory is a living thing—it too is in transit.  But during its moment, all that is remembered joins, and lives—the old and the young, the past and the present, the living and the dead.”

Ward knows there’s more than humidity close in the air in Mississippi.  There’s the past that never dies, the hope that persists through tragedy, and the deep movement of song.

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Jesmyn Ward

It’s not that it’s all mystery and lyricism.  Ward takes us into the swamps of racial interactions.  Leonie is black, Michael is white and their families have trouble with their relationship because of it.  There’s a terrifying scene when the family is pulled over and brutalized by a police officer on the way back to Bois Sauvage.  There are also bald-faced racists spouting vile things.  But somehow Ward moves us to care for the monsters and to recognize that bigger forces, like the system of historical racism, are at play.

On display at every moment is the humanity of these characters—the way they sabotage themselves and wound each other but also the way they meet each other with tenderness and remorse.  The book is full of bodies in close connection—fathers and sons rolling on the floor fighting, little girls clinging to the neck of an older brother, an addict coming back from an overdose with her head in the lap of her husband.  Even in the violence there is intimacy.  And even at the end there is the possibility of transcendence.

This is a beautifully-written book that gives dignity to people who don’t usually receive it.  When she received her recent National Book Award, Ward noted:

“Throughout my career, when I have been rejected, there was sometimes subtext, and it was this: People will not read your work because these are not universal stories. I don’t know whether some doorkeepers felt this way because I wrote about poor people or because I wrote about black people or because I wrote about Southerners.”

But like Faulkner and Welty, whom she claims as literary kin, Ward does know that the whole universe is in every particular, and every place is in her place, and those who have died yet live.  It’s worth shedding a tear over such a place because, like her, I came to love them all.

Dreaming Something Real: A Review of Music of the Swamp by Lewis Nordan

IMG_6592“Probably the real self is in fact the invented self fully accepted.”  That’s Lewis Nordan’s justification for declaring that his outrageous, out-sized fiction is actually memoir.  He created himself through imagining a different past, different circumstances, and a different father than the disappointing realities he knew as a child growing up in Itta Bena, Mississippi.  And because he so fully entered the fiction he wrote, he found in it a lasting reality.

I discovered Lewis Nordan earlier this year when I read Wolf Whistle, his wild (and creepily humorous) take on the Emmett Till murder which happened not far away from his Mississippi home.  What I loved about Nordan was his ear for dialogue, his willingness to risk difficult perspectives (e.g. narrators that included violent racists and Till’s dislocated eye), and his freedom.  All with a strong sense of place.

51ETxQY6ioL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_I knocked around Nordan’s Mississippi this summer.  Nordan himself died in 2012, but I brought with me Music of the Swamp, his loosely-constructed narrative about a boy named Sugar Mecklin with a childhood much like his own.  It’s not as exuberant as Wolf Whistle.  There’s a lot of his personal despair spilling into this story.  The book opens with the discovery of a body and includes the father’s judgment on the whole sorry scene, “The Delta is filled up with death.”

Despite that, Sugar emerges as a dreamer, seeing the world as he wants to see it.  Creating a bond with a father who is incapable of returning his affection.  Imagining a more magical world.

One of the key scenes takes place at a Mississippi beach following a hurricane.  Attracted by low hotel rates in the aftermath of the storm, Sugar’s dad tries to woo his mother into a second honeymoon and only reluctantly agrees to take Sugar along.  Amidst the wreckage and obvious ugliness, the family struggles to make the vacation work.  And even though it doesn’t, you can’t help but admire the effort.

My edition of the book has an essay at the end entitled “The Invention of Sugar: An Essay about Life in Fiction—and Vice Versa.”  I was very glad to have this glimpse into Nordan’s process.  It’s here that he shares his life-long struggle to fully accept his invented self.  And it’s here he finds some healing.

“Always my stepfather will have been a housepainter and always, for one frightening moment in the Snack Shop on North State Street in Jackson, Mississippi, he will have a doctorate in chemistry from the University of Michigan, and always my stepfather will have been a man who had a stepson who became a literary person and tried to give order to chaos, first by stretching history’s boundaries to include what never happened, and then by shrinking them to acknowledge the lie, and then to say, with a conflicted heart, that since the non historical was for a while historical then it too, in some way, must be included within history’s elastic frame.” (209)

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Lewis Nordan

Fiction finds a way to include the end to our restless longings within the structure of time and in that way becomes our reality.  This is how I view the Christian narrative of the Bible.  Within the despair and suffering of the world, there is another reality made clear by a human life emerging from a long narrative of a wild and unruly people and exposing the ultimate victory of love.  The end of our desire appearing in the middle of the story, as it were, challenging us to see the world as it really is.  Like the beauty of the swamps of Mississippi, it is so easily disregarded.  And yet for sharp-eyed dreamers it is the heartbeat of something enduring and inevitable.

I’m going back to Nordan’s Mississippi, if only in his fiction.  Perhaps Sugar Among the Freaks is next.

Music of the Swamp

by Lewis Nordan

Algonquin Books, 1992

209 pages

What I Learned From a Day with Emmett Till

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In the video, Johnny B. Thomas, mayor of Glendora, Mississippi, looks out over Black Bayou. This is where the body of Emmett Till was dumped following his brutalization and murder in 1955.  In a voiceover, Thomas says, in effect, “Things haven’t changed here.  A lot of the problems that were here then are here now.”

It’s hard to argue with that.  Spending a few days in the Delta, I feel as if I’m in a place where economic opportunity is still stagnant and racial reconciliation is still a long way off.  In many ways, it’s similar to my own home on the Eastern Shore of Virginia.  This is a place where young people are told, by observation if not in words, “Your best chance is to leave and if you do stay, don’t set your sights too high.”

I spent the afternoon making the pilgrimage to the Emmett Till sites.  I wasn’t alone.  There are tour busses traveling through the area making the stops, too.  What else brings people to Money, Mississippi?

IMG_6583That’s where you can find the overgrown ruins of Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market, the country store where 14-year-old Emmett, down from Chicago for a visit with his great uncle, Mose Wright, went on August 24, 1955.  While his companions were outside on the porch, Emmett went in and what happened in the minute he was in there has been a matter of dispute ever since.

Did he make lewd remarks and grab Carolyn Bryant, a white woman behind the counter, around the waist as she claimed (and recently recanted, in part)?  What was the character of the whistle he made as he was hustled away by his cousins?  Whatever offense it was in the complex racial structures of pre-Civil Rights Mississippi paled in comparison to what came next.

IMG_6586Next door to the ruins is a old filling station and store restored to look as it did in the 1950s, down to the Gulf pumps advertising No-Nox gasoline.  A sign, often vandalized, designates the spot on the Mississippi Freedom Trail.

Across the street, a group of white construction workers leaned against their equipment and watched me photographing the sign and store.  Later, they saw the tour bus pull up and a group of twenty-some people, all white, filed out.  It was hard not to project myself into the workers' heads.  “Is this all Mississippi is to the rest of the country?  A place to tut over and shake our heads and fingers at? Do they only come to the Delta to amplify its shame?”

Later I pulled into Glendora, former home of J.W. Milam, half-brother of Carolyn Bryant’s husband, Roy.  The house is gone now; just a patch of open ground remains.  Milam was acquitted of Till’s murder though he later confessed along with Roy Bryant in an infamous Look magazine article for which they were paid $4000.

Next door, still standing, is the cotton gin where Milam and Bryant found an old fan which they looped around Emmett’s neck with barbed wire before dumping his body.  As gruesome crimes go, they don’t get more gruesome.  Something that was obvious when Till’s horribly disfigured body was found three days later.  His mother’s decision to have an open casket for his funeral led to an iconic picture of the effects of white supremacy run amok.

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The cotton gin today houses a small museum called the Emmett Till Historical Intrepid Center.  You read that right.  Intrepid.  There was something a little intrepid, audacious, and fearless about Emmett Till.  Reckless, you might even call it.  By all accounts, the young teenager enjoyed being provocative and his murderers cited his refusal to act regretful as one of the reasons for their brutality.  It’s one of the things that make Emmett Till more than a victim in this story.  His refusal to be defined by the unjust powers of the day is ennobling.

So why not take a place that was commandeered for a heinous act and convert it into an intrepid center?  The museum is worth the visit, even if you may want for a little more air-conditioning on a really hot day.  The displays are visually interesting and help place Till’s story within a larger Civil Rights narrative.

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As I left the building I was being watched again, this time by a group of African-American men standing outside a nearby building by the railroad tracks.  Again I couldn’t help projecting myself into their heads.  “Is this all Mississippi is to the rest of the country?  A place to gawk at and burnish progressive credentials?  When, as Mayor Thomas said, nothing really changes?”

I brushed aside my self-consciousness to take a picture of the sign describing the Glendora Gin.  In the background of the photo was the place where Milam’s tool shed was, the place Milam & Bryant brought Emmett to be tortured and mutilated.  Well, at the very least…that’s gone.