Tuesday, April 12, 2011

My Southern Sense of Place by Lynne Bryant Author of Catfish Alley

I'm so happy to share this guest post by Lynne Bryant with you. I'm always interested in setting and place and the role they play in stories. Lynne Bryant is the author of Catfish Alley

My Southern sense of place is based on a cellular attachment to dirt and growing things. Maybe when I was a little bitty baby mama laid me on a quilt out in the garden while she hoed weeds; I’m not sure. Come to think of it, I’ll have to ask her. Nevertheless, in my earliest memories I see a long garden row—an endless length of brown earth. I feel my bare feet in the velvety dirt and smell its loamy richness. I see the plaid of my mother’s long-sleeved shirt as, hoe in hands, she digs each small hole. Into those holes I drop seeds for each hill of corn. Or, she opens a small furrow for me to drop butterbean or pea seeds, directing me to carefully space the seeds the same distance apart.

This time of year especially reminds me of those times. In Colorado, I’m still waiting eagerly to plant, but in Mississippi by now, the young plants are pushing up through the dirt in row after row of vegetable gardens and pea patches all across the state. To this day, the smell of freshly turned dirt takes me back to watching that sharp hoe dig a hole or a furrow and those mysterious seeds disappearing under a layer of rich black dirt. My heart longs for those balmy, misty mornings when we were in the garden before it got too hot. There was always a garden, always a field of something to plant, weed, or pick. Gardening wasn’t a hobby; plants weren’t pampered with fancy plant foods or identified with cute little markers. The garden was sustenance. To garden was to eat and to eat well! In Mississippi, you had flowers in your yard, but your garden was for food.

Dirt roads evoke my Southern sense of place. Almost every road we lived on when I was growing up in Mississippi was a dirt road. Paving didn’t come until later, in my high school and early college years. Here in Colorado, where I presently reside, dirt roads usually lead to hiking or mountain bike trails. In Mississippi, dirt roads led to places like Grandma’s house, the county lake, or the local store where, after walking barefoot for a couple miles, you arrived hot, sweaty, and thirsty for an ice-cold Coke out of the cooler sitting outside the store. You’d lift the lid on the cooler and that wave of frosty air would hit you in the face. Aaah… nothing like it. You’d fish your Coke out of the icy water, pop the cap off, and then go inside, through the screen door of the store, and buy penny-candy that really cost a penny, or a MoonPie, or a Little Debbie. Even better, you could buy a package of salted peanuts and put those in your Coke. That sweet, salty combination was so good!

Later on, when I acquired a bicycle, I could ride to the store. Riding a bicycle on a dirt road could be a treacherous experience. Dirt roads in our area didn’t get graded very often, a fact with pros and cons. A dirt road that hasn’t been graded in a while gets as smooth as pavement. You can be riding along, hit a shady spot, and wish it could go on forever. On the other hand, if the road has turned into a rub board, which they are prone to do, and you hit it going too fast, look out! The back of your bicycle is going to go the opposite way of the front, and you will find yourself splayed out in the road like a possum that was too slow for an oncoming pick-up truck.

Dirt roads can be dusty, often washed out, and potholed. The ditches on the sides are deep, and more often than not, road kill is flattened on the road when you drive on it early in the morning. But there’s nothing like a cool, shady dirt road on a hot summer day--a road lined by ditches full of rain water with tadpoles for catching, or a culvert to play in--that can make me think of simple Southern summer days.
These memories and many more, inform my writing. That attachment to place—the rootedness that comes from growing up so close to nature and the rich dirt of the Mississippi fields—gets into your blood. Sense of place for me is revealed through the characters I choose, where they live, what they eat, and the work they do. I can smell the sulfury scent of red dirt from a gravel road they’re walking on. I can taste the syrupy sweet iced tea and the hot buttery cornbread they have for supper. I can hear their soft accents, full of extra syllables carrying across the thick humid air on a Mississippi summer evening bright with lightning bugs.

Simone Weil said “to be rooted is perhaps the most important, but least understood need of the human soul.” When you’re from the South, that root is like the taproot of a dandelion—not easily destroyed and difficult to transplant. One of the ways that I find sustenance for my transplanted self is writing. Writing about the South is food for my Southern soul.

About Catfish Alley:
Roxanne Reeves defines her life by the committees she heads and the social status she cultivates. But she is keeping secrets that make her an outsider in her own town, always in search of acceptance. And when she is given a job none of the other white women want-researching the town’s African-American history for a tour of local sites-she feels she can’t say no.

Elderly Grace Clark, a retired black schoolteacher, reluctantly agrees to become Roxanne’s guide. Grace takes Roxanne to Catfish Alley, whose undistinguished structures are nonetheless sacred places to the black community because of what happened there. As Roxanne listens to Grace’s stories, and meets her friends, she begins to see differently. She is transported back to the past, especially to 1931, when a racist’s hatred for Grace’s brother leads to events that continue to change lives decades later. And as Roxanne gains an appreciation of the dreams, courage, and endurance of those she had so easily dismissed, her own life opens up in new and unexpected ways.

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