Birmingham, Alabama has a favorite son and I’ll bet they’ve forgotten his name. He was an editor and minister’s son, a foreign correspondence that parachuted into Normandy during World War II and a novelist. Of all things, Joe David Brown was a very good novelist who invented a great loud-mouthed little girl. Her name was Addie Pray.
Does that child’s name ring a bell? Probably not if you’re less an 45 and that is your misfortune, Miss Addie Pray is a pragmatic girl with a will of her own. Book critics have called her a cross between Huck Finn and Scout Finch and they’re just scratching the surface. Add that she shares the indomitable will of True Grit’s Mattie Ross and the picture becomes clearer. Of course she can steal your heart but that’s to be expected. Addie Pray is a trickster, a confidence kid and the heroine of Paper Moon.
Let me backtrack a minute. During the Depression (before he parachuted into Normandy and won a chestful of medals) Joe David Brown was a reporter for the Birmingham News. A police reporter, specifically. Part of his beat took him down among those guests of the county who were awaiting arraignment or trial. And he learned about confidence games.
A good confidence game rarely separates the victim from all of his money, just enough to keep the confidence man in business and the victim a little more watchful in the future. Joe David Brown learned how con men audited the obituary columns and then showed up at the doors of bereaved widows, brandishing a cheap bible and a story about how the deceased had ordered it for her. The widow is transported to hear of her late husband’s thoughtfulness and insists on paying a handsome fee for it. The con man gets away with a bulky profit.
Or the con artist could make a killing selling fictitious crops to a dealer with a handful of the dealer’s tags and some “samples” he found blowing down the street. (Anyone who has ever been in a cotton town during harvest will tell you small bolls escape from the truckloads of picked cotton and lay in the gutter looking like handfuls of dirty snow. Clean up some of that gutter cotton up, blow off the dust and put it in a paper cone and you have yourself some decent samples.) Joe David Brown heard all of the stories of obtaining unearned wages and he remembered them. After winning his medals and serving as a foreign correspondence he decided to write one more book about Alabama. The result was Addie Pray.
Addie is the daughter of Essie May Loggins, the wildest girl in Marengo County. When Essie dies unexpectedly, Addie’s informally adopted by “Long Boy” (Moses) Pray, a friend of her mom who finally realizes how the presence of “a little daughter” can help whenever he’s trying to look innocent in front of a mark or a judge. Between “doing business” (their term from running a con game) and staying ahead of the authorities, they do pretty well traveling around Alabama during the Depression. You could say they kept the money in circulation.
This tale might sound a bit familiar. Two years after Mr. Brown published Addie Pray, a film director named Peter Bogdonavitch turned it into a movie called “Paper Moon” that did a fair amount of business, enough to get Mr. Brown to republish his book with the new title. Mr. Brown died shortly afterwards so there were no further adventures of Addie Pray. It’s a shame; you knew that young lady had more tales to tell.
The book is a delight, especially if you live in Alabama. There are enough local spots mentioned that you can map out the adventures of Addie and Long Boy without any problems. But Addie appeals to more than local pride. She is a scallawag, a survivor, a fan of Franklin Roosevelt and a good heart who can pick out a mark at 30 paces. She’s one of a kind and I want to be just like her when I grow up.