When The Earth is Your Closest Friend

Normally I spend hours writing these posts. But it’s late, and I’m sore from changing out yet another tire (different story) so let’s just get to the goods, shall we?

I. Know. A. Great. Story.

Trust me, you want to read it. Everyone else is reading and loving it right now and, for once, everyone else is right. Where the Crawdads Sing is a wonderful story about the heaven and hell of spending most of your life alone.

And we’re not talking Thoreau-in-Walden voluntary solitude here. The book opens with little Kya Clark watching her mother walk out of her life. No tears, no hug, not a wave goodbye, just a door slamming in their shack on the Marsh. And, once Mama goes, Kya’s siblings follow her down the road, until there’s only a six-year old trying to survive a live of privation and her hard-drinking Daddy. Finally, there’s no one’s left in the Marsh shack but Kya.  And the child has to provide for herself.

Kya grows up wise in ways of the natural world if unskilled when it comes to people.  Having no other guide, she tries to understand people in terms with the marsh beings she knows: how girls at play flock like gulls or the alpha-male in a playground of boys. But lack of skill and loneliness cause Kya to make mistakes when it comes to people, some that cost her dearly.  And that’s where the rest of the story comes in.

Death In the Swamp

Interspersed with Kya’s growth are chapters about a dead man, found in the swamp. How he got there, why he died, and the effect of his death on Kya forms the central mystery of the book but in the end, this is Kya’s story. And it’s a story that begs to be read.

Told in luminous prose, Where the Crawdads Sing, is a hymn to nature and and ambivalence in a life lived alone. It’s the story of a woman’s life, a Southern Novel and a murder mystery as well. And it’s so spellbinding, that, reading it, you can forget you’re stranded on the edge of an interstate, buffeted by the air rush of passing trucks, and facing a nasty wrecker bill. Instead, you’re in the cool, clean air of a North Carolina Marsh with a woman whose best friend is the earth.

Trust me, I know. It’s really that good. Now you should read it and know that too.

In Praise of Southern Mamas: All Over But the Shoutin

There is something special about a Southern Mama.  I used to explain it by saying I moved to Alabama because, “I married a Southern Boy.  And Southern Boys don’t get too far away from their mamas.”  That usually got a laugh because, on one level, it’s true.  Southern mothers are strong women and their children respond to that strength.  These women have raised generations of kids who know Mama is stronger than anyone except Grandma or God Almighty.  Dads are dads and everyone should have a good one but no one’s more certain than Mom.  That standard was true of my southern mother-in-law and it is certainly true about Rick Bragg’s mother.  In All Over But the Shoutin‘,  his mom is the heroine of the story and the center of his life.

To hear Rick tell it, life should have been nicer to Margaret Marie Bundrum.  Although she was born into a large family in one of the poorer areas of the United States, the country was beautiful, her family was loving and her father provided for them all by building houses and making moonshine.  It was a reasonable childhood for that area and at seventeen, Margaret Marie had the looks southern girls use to change their luck.   Instead she married a man who made her life twice as hard.

All Over But the Shoutin‘ is the account of how Rick’s mama came back from that marriage and how her sons grew up in the shadow of their strong, loving mother.  Margaret Bragg didn’t have the vocational skills or education to make her life or her sons’ lives easy but she worked hard so they could go further in the world.   Margaret took every hard-labor job and government program available to keep her boys healthy and fed and they took their own roads in time.  Sam, the eldest, followed his mother into a lifetime of physical labor but Rick, through a combination of talent and luck, became a reporter, studied at Harvard and earned a Pulitzer Prize.  The reporter made mistakes and was hypersensitive about his antecedents but he was a good boy to his mama: she was there when he got the Pulitzer and, with the prize money, he bought her a house.

A house is something extra special to folks like Rick, his mom and my mother-in-law.   After years of rented trailers and space heaters a legitimate, solid home that you own “free-and-clear” is saying goodbye to an ache.  My mother-in-law did it, through entrepreneurship (she’d fuss at me for using such a ridiculous word) and thrift and Rick’s family did it with talent and drive.  I sit comfortably in my own home now and marvel at their work.   Whatever I accomplish in this world comes from those who did much more.

There’s a book about Alabama sharecroppers called Let Us Now Praise Famous Men .  The title is ironic since most sharecroppers aren’t well known.  But that book and All Over But the Shoutin’ make one thing abundantly clear.   These are the people that should be celebrated, especially the Southern Mamas.