Monday, May 28, 2018

Rick Bragg and Lee Smith: Southern Journeys.

Rick Bragg's  recent appearance at Nashville Public Library to discuss his newest book The Best Cook in the World prompted me to load his older book My Southern Journey  in my CD player for a weekend road trip. I can't keep my own copies of Ava's Man and All Over but the Shoutin' because I keep sharing them with anyone asking for book suggestions. Even people who aren't familiar with his books know him for the last page of each issue of Southern Living. This book is a collection of his essays that have appeared in this and other publications.

Bragg comes across as a what you see is what you get kind of Southern man--opinionated and direct. Much of his humor is at his own expense, but he also manages to balance the humor with genuine sentiment. In this book, he touches on all the areas of life, especially Southern life--food, dogs, family, and football.

As an Alabama native myself, listening to Bragg's stories kept ringing all the bells and pushing all my buttons. His opinions on food and how it should and should not be served paralleled my own. His memories of Paul "Bear" Bryant (so good they named an animal after him") were so genuine and tender, I almost had to pull the car to the side of the road. Yep. Roll Tide. But rather than simply parroting the same tired old cheers, he also discussed some pivotal changes in race relations in SEC football.

When Bragg talked about the 2010 tornadoes that tore through Tuscaloosa, I recalled not just the news coverage, but the visual details provided by my niece and nephew, students at the time who were touched by the damage and by the human toll. Bragg recalled how people came together for the recovery; I remembered my nephew Jeff and his friends whose graduation was cancelled but who remained behind, helping to search for bodies and survivors, preparing and delivering food to residents and rescue and clean-up workers. They too saw not only the horror of a natural disaster but the dignity and compassion in the wake.

Without intentionally planting myself in the literary South, I next picked up Lee Smith's novel The Last Girls, which has been sitting on my shelf for awhile. I never know what prompts me to read a particular book at any given time, but I'm often surprised by the parallels. This book follows two journeys made by friends at a Southern women's college, one on a raft down the Mississippi River during their college years, another years later on a riverboat following the same path.

One of the key characters Harriet Holding is a teacher who now works with adults. She has never married, but her recollections of her own unusual childhood help to explain her resistance to intimacy. Courtney Hurt is successfully but unhappily married. On this trip she is torn between loyalty to her husband, now showing some signs of early dementia, and her lover who is pushing for commitment. Anna Todd, a successful romance novelist, uses the trip to write the next in her series of  novels, each set in a different Southern state. She romanticizes the young man who handles her luggage and straightens her room, inserting him into the novel, but she is slower to reveal her own back story to readers, one she never reveals to her old school friends. Catherine Wilson is the only member of the group bringing her husband along on this reunion trip. After escaping two unhappy marriages, she's now feeling uncertain about this one. These two live in Tuscaloosa. Smith gives the husband a chance to tell his side of the story, including their Tuscaloosa tornado experience, allowing readers a chance to hope for a happy ending.

The character absent only in a physical sense from the story is "Baby" Ballou. The one of the college friends who lived dangerously, she had ironically been paired as a roommate with Harriet, forging an unlikely sisterhood and giving Harriet the chance to live vicariously through Baby. Now the "girls" are charged with leaving some of Baby's ashes in the Mississippi River before they reach New Orleans at their journey's end.

Smith's title comes from the realization that these were the last females called "girls" with impunity. Nowadays, they note, they'd be called young women. They recognize they are living on a cusp. The novel leaves them without carefully tied up stories. Instead, readers are able to imagine what might come next for women who have a lot of living left to do.

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