I never believed my father followed his true calling in life, for his was a nature artistic in temperament. In looking at John Tallinghast Wakefield, you wouldn’t have thought he was a farmer. Were you to have passed him on the street, a poet or painter would have been your first guess. He had the look of a spring fawn in his sable eyes, and wore his long hair renaissance style. There’s no way to describe the man everyone called J.T., other than to say he was a beautiful man. He should have been born a Knight of the Order, or a bard to a Tudor king, instead of being born in 1950’s Como, Mississippi, into the empire of his father, Big John.
Big John was a man used to giving orders, and equally as used to people falling in line. He ran the Wakefield Plantation through fear: his domineering manner uncompromising, his robust stature intimidating. That my father was Big John’s only child sealed his destiny. He’d inherited a life, instead of forging his own. My father looked like an artist because he was one. He spoke like a poet because he was in love with language. The built-in shelves in his library housed leather bound volumes by Shakespeare and Rilke, Pushkin and Goethe. It was a gentleman’s den, a scholar’s library, and I knew my father wrote poetry at his leather top desk, though he rarely shared it. It’s understandable why my father was prone to depression: he had an artistic edge he couldn’t reconcile with the world. His were abysmal, grey-clouded days, strung in voids my mother called low tides. Though he was harmless during these episodes, it was during one of his dark nights of the soul that Thelonious, our groundskeeper, saved his life.
There was an outbuilding on the plantation’s grounds, which was not much more than a glorified shed, near the edge of the pond. In back was deep shelving, where my father kept turpentine, easels, and paints. He’d be struck with inspiration at the oddest of times, and on this particular night, he’d been drinking. None of us knew where he was that night, or at least I thought this was the case, when I woke to mayhem at two in the morning. Three fire engines roared onto our property, tearing up the terrain on their way to the shed. Through my north facing window, I saw winter grass violently aflame and heard a series of explosions like rounds of staccato gunfire. Terrified, I ran straight to my parents’ bedroom, waking my mother as I screamed, “Fire, looks like it’s down by the pond.” She rushed to the window then threw a coat over her nightgown. Flying down the front stairs, she rounded to my father’s den, with me at her frantic heels. Finding his door open, she let out a panicked, “Oh God, no,” then we made for the front door. It was an evil, erratic torrent when we got there; a shrieking, demonic inferno that up-lit the woods. I couldn’t hear what my mother was shouting over the deafening fire engines as she angled between two medics, one strapping an oxygen mask to my father’s face. I was wet to the bone in a matter of seconds as water surged skyward through hoses the length of a football field. Bad as it was, it was worse to consider what it might yet become, should the February wind turn against us. After Thelonious found him unconscious on the shed’s floor, my father was taken to the hospital in Senatobia and kept two days for observation. As Thelonious explained later, it was the result of a combined list of variables that would have been innocuous on their own: Single Malt Scotch; a blustery evening; a Cuban cigar; and no forethought of risk.
It wasn’t often that my grandfather made an appearance at the plantation. He was in his eighties now and fully ensconced in his life in Memphis, forty-five miles away. After relinquishing operations of the farm to my father, he’d taken to wearing a bow tie to lunch at the Memphis Country Club, while my father tended to the farm’s logistics, which is what Big John was really mad about, when my mother called to report there’d been a fire. In Big John’s mind, there was no more egregious error than shirking responsibility, and he didn’t have to be told my father had been on a bender. I was at the pond looking over the wreckage, when Big John’s driver came whisking him up the gravel in his silver Bentley. He intended to inspect the grounds for himself, but needed a drink to do it. By the time I made it to the house, Big John was seated in the living room, holding a tumbler of Dewar’s straight up. My mother sat across from him with her spine rigid, as if braced for certain admonishment. She seemed relieved when I entered the room. Whatever words Big John might have said in my absence, he withheld in my presence, though the look on his thunderous face spoke volumes.
“Tell me again what time this was,” Big John demanded, stretching his arm out for me to sit near.
“It was early morning,” my mother answered, in a tone suggesting she’d said so before.
“No, no, Shirley,” Big John interrupted. “You said it was night. Nothing good ever comes of night wandering. A man has to be of a certain mind to think it does, which is why I need the facts. Let me hear a little something about his fool thinking. And before you lie for him, I know he was drinking. That boy never could hold his liquor.”
“I don’t know, Big John,” my mother said. “He didn’t tell me what he was thinking. I only talked to him at the hospital and didn’t think it was the time to ask. Poor thing’s ashamed as it is. You can ask him yourself when we go later, but please, do try to be gentle with him.”
“Gentle?” Big John boomed. “Boy all but burns down my farm, and you want me to be gentle? I don’t think so. Gonna give him a good what for is what I’ll do. Where’s Thelonious? I can depend on him.”
“I just saw Thelonious at his house,” I said. “I’ll run get him, if you want.”
“Be easier to call him and tell him to meet me out there in twenty. Give me a minute to finish my drink.”
When I called from the hall phone, Thelonious answered on the first ring. “How bad is it?” he asked, his tone more a conclusion than a question.
“Bad, with the promise of getting worse,” I said.
“Don’t worry, I got it all worked out. I’ll say your father was hit on the head with something, make it seem more of an accident than what it really was.”
“Get your story together, Thelonious,” I said. “Big John’s going to be out there in twenty.”
Thelonious had played it much as I predicted. Hearing him recap the events made my father’s actions seem reasonable. “You know how it is that J.T.’s a painter,” he said. “He don’t like taking time away from his family, nor the work he do round here, so he likely got it in his head to paint at night, when folks is asleep. And that shed ain’t been seen to in ages. Ain’t no light in there either. Must have been why he took that cigar.”
“Well, for God’s sake, don’t tell J.T.’s mother that,” Big John warned. “Her father died of throat cancer from smoking those things. I told her no point in coming out here today, said it was nothing more than a little brush fire, so let’s keep it that way.” Big John pushed his wispy white hair from his creased forehead. The shed had burned to the ground, and he walked over the charred remains like a detective looking over a crime scene. Presently, he put his hands in his coat pockets and turned towards the woods behind Thelonious’ cabin, his appraising eyes surveying the long stretch of land. “Y’all might not have considered the real danger in all this. Had that fire spread and gone into the woods, there’d have been no putting it out. I’m not looking at what happened, I’m looking at the jeopardy he put us in.”
“But nothing bad happened, Big John,” I said. “What’s important is nothing terrible happened to Daddy.”
“That’s where you’re wrong, Celia, and you need to learn something here. It’s not what a man does with his full potential, it’s how he handles his worst.”
My father came home from the hospital the next day, shamefaced and bandaged and sullen. He went straight to his den and closed the door, and didn’t come out for a week.
I’ll begin with the cover of this riveting, beautiful book: two blonde, young girls dressed in white cotton sit on a suitcase—one with a long braid, the other holding a teddy-bear, her arm behind her back as the pair face a body of water from a dock. Already there is a sense of longing before the reader gets to page one. We know from the title that there is a backstory waiting to be revealed, something the reader of this present tense, first-person story set in two timeframes and told through two points of view doesn’t know, but should.
Before We Were Yours is based on a true atrocity: In the 1930’s, until 1950, an orphanage in Memphis was run by deplorable means for profit, its despicable matron, Georgia Tann, acquiring newborns and young children through any means necessary, posing as the soul of compassion, yet tied in with a corrupt network that condoned illegal, heartbreaking practices of snatching the young from impoverished circumstances under the guise of placing them in better homes. Many confused souls suffered: destitute mothers in post-partum twilight sleep, unaware of the paper they’d signed relinquished their offspring to the Memphis Tennessee Children’s Home Society. Names were changed, histories were expunged, case files were sealed, and many were fated as victims set on a life-course of Georgia Tann’s self-serving making.
This is a tale of far-reaching history told personally. Author Lisa Wingate gifts us with the voice of young Rill Foss, the eldest of five children raised on a Mississippi river-boat shanty by parents who can provide love, but little else. When her mother is rushed to a Memphis hospital in peril from the coming birth of twins, it is Rill left to hold down the docked fort for her siblings, unaware that they are all sitting ducks, unguarded in the face of Georgia Tann’s profiteering scheme.
The reader learns the Foss children’s’ story in hindsight. It is present day, and thirty-year-old lawyer, Avery Stafford, in the name of her family’s politically high-profile status, stumbles upon an old woman in a nursing home, while making a public appearance. When the old woman’s story is launched, past and present are woven seamlessly in a coincidental, unravelling of mysteries that pull at the heartstrings all the way through.
It takes a seasoned and gifted writer to emblematically take the harrowing premise of one family torn asunder by the institution of a real life, black-market network and leave us with resounding outrage by crafting the story as a tale of personal injustice. In pitch-perfect language, Before We Were Yours is a search for identity told at its most beautiful. It entices with a sense of urgency through immediate emotional investment and miraculously manages to satisfy the reader through the disturbing arc of a truth laid bare.
Just when I thought I had a handle on the meaning of southern fiction, on its deep-rooted history, its significance of family and sense of community, J.C. Sasser comes blazing in with both barrels to turn all notions of southern fiction on its ear. The characters in Gradle Bird conduct themselves with similar surprise—they don’t walk through a door, they bust through it; they don’t take a drag on a cigarette, they rip it.
Sixteen-year-old Gradle Bird doesn’t know her backstory. She lives in a truck-stop motel with her grandfather, Leonard, until they move to a dilapidated, haunted house in small town Georgia. All she wants is for Leonard to look her in the eye and tell her about her mother. Leonard won’t, and Gradle doesn’t know why. But Leonard is haunted by his own backstory, which unfurls in the attic in the arms of a half-dead dancing ghost. Caught in his own history, Leonard doesn’t pay attention, when two local ruffians named Sonny Joe and Creif ride up in a truck and whisk Gradle to a junkyard, where the wheels of the story are set in motion at the house of a sixty-year-old King-Fu kicking, guitar playing, country music singing, dumpster-diving orphan named Delvis, who is one of the more endearing eccentrics to ever grace a novel. Sonny Joe and Creif intend to impress Gradle by making mischief at Delvis’s expense, but things go wrong and result in Gradle and Delvis’s enduring friendship, which, the reader discovers, has its own uncanny ties that bind. This is a southern story that hallucinates; a rollicking, free-association, stream of consciousness joy ride defying description for all its air-tight perfect sense.
I absolutely loved this story. I won’t cheapen Sasser’s one of a kind voice by saying it’s quirky, rather, it is refreshingly and unapologetically right on. This is an author who won’t insult the reader by bowing to the temptation of explaining anything that could be interpreted as the oddities of the South. A main character sits at a table in a wife beater. There’s nothing campy happening here, it is simply the story’s state of affairs, best described by Delvis, who ain’t bragging, he’s just giving the reader the facts.
Read Gradle Bird and expand your horizons. Start at page one and strap yourself in. Do what I did and savor each uniquely spun line. Finish the book, and if you get your head back, run tell all your friends.
Claire Fullerton is the author of A Portal in Time, and Dancing to an Irish Reel. http://www.clairefullerton.com
I knew it was coming, yet I didn’t know when. Last February, after I signed the contract with Firefly Southern Fiction for my third novel, a sins-of-the-father, southern family saga set in 1970’s and 1980’s Memphis, titled Mourning Dove, I was so ecstatic with the realization that it had found the perfect home, that I didn’t think to ask my literary agent when to expect the edits. The reason I didn’t think about the edits is because Mourning Dove’s release date is a long way off. It is set to release on June 15, 2018, and, because both of my other books were edited close to each publication, I put the editing consideration in the back of my mind.
Three weeks ago, I received an e-mail, and the good news is it had a southern voice. I know the south well, having grown up in Memphis, and will report that one of its charming peculiarities is that its language is delivered underhandedly. No abrupt, cold-splashing directives; southerners tend to cushion their own blows. I have to say it warmed my heart, when the e-mail I received from a complete stranger asked in that inimitable southern way if I was “about ready.”
Of course I was ready. I’d spent close to three years in the writing and fine tuning of Mourning Dove. It was an endeavor I held fast to with steel ambition through the publication of my two other books, and because the contract had been signed, I’d moved on to writing my fourth book, thinking I’d press pause down the line, whenever I head from Mourning Dove’s editor.
My editor, Eva Marie Everson, issued no further lead time. When I responded with a resounding yes, the first one hundred and twenty three pages arrived in my inbox within the half hour. I know now that this was a move of sheer brilliance on her part. Had I received the entire manuscript at once, it might have been overwhelming. As it was, the appearance of the first part of Mourning Dove was just too tempting not to look at immediately. Once I’d set up my end of the tracking changes, I couldn’t help but stop my life and jump right in. And I did stop my life, and by all appearances, so did Eva Marie Everson. While I worked into the night and through the following nine days, so, undoubtedly, did she. Eva worked on the second half of the book while I worked on the first.
It was nine days of joy-riding fun, and I look back now that it’s over and know it’s my editor who deserves the credit. Because she is not only an acclaimed editor, but an award-winning author of over thirty fiction and non-fiction books, Eva knows her way around bringing out the best of a manuscript in what could potentially be a grueling process. Because she is a writer, she knows how sensitive a writer can be with their labor of love, and had the wisdom to employ the fine art of encouragement in the margins.
She began by sending me a general paragraph of what to expect. She’d addressed my overuse of commas and adjusted my lapses into passive tense. But beyond these, she kept astoundingly respectful of all I’d written. She took no issue with the story line nor first person voice, and because she is a southerner, there was no awkwardness when she came across dialogue that included half-phrases such as, “Well, I have never!”
There was a continuous flow to the editing process that felt like a running dialogue between my editor and me. With both of us knowing the other was at her desk and instantaneously available, we shot e-mails back and forth when the moment required it, and therefore sped through the process in what I experienced as a highly personal manner. What made it feel personal to me was Eva’s intuitive grasp of who my characters were from the very beginning. Mourning Dove is a coming of age, family saga wherein the two main characters grow from adolescence to maturity in the opulent south. And because it is a glittering, opulent southern setting, and there is little homespun about it, my editor was keenly aware of the matriarch’s character in the story, which is heavily invested in manner and form in the interest of appearances. At one point in the novel, a sixteen year old Finley is taken out of public school and dropped into an elite boy’s private school, where he arrives wearing the wrong clothes. “Wait a minute,” my editor commented. “How could his mother, Posey, let this happen?” My editor was right. I went into the scene, added a few adjectives in the right place, and the matter was immediately clarified.
It’s the small things that can go over a writer’s head. A writer can become too close to their novel. But if an editor comes to the task from the vantage point of both editor and reader, continuity gaps are found then filled and essentially the entire manuscript is lifted up to its highest expression. But it doesn’t happen overnight. Though in Mourning Dove’s case, overnight was also a factor. During the nine days it took to complete the edits of Mourning Dove, I went to my desk first thing one morning and discovered my editor had sent an e-mail at 3:30 AM. Baffled, I disregarded the e-mail’s contents in favor of the more salient question, which is to say I wrote back and asked what she was doing up at that hour of the morning. “Your characters are keeping me up,” she returned, “I figured I might as well get up and keep working.”
Once I received the second half of the novel, the edits seemed to pick up steam. By this juncture, the story’s foundation had been laid, the characters introduced, and what transpired from here was essentially a deepening of this cause and effect story, all the way to its climax, followed by an epilogue.
“I’m a mess,” my editor wrote at the end, in the side bar. “I have to go fix my mascara.”
If comments such as these don’t endear you to an editor, then let me suggest that nothing will.
All told, the editing of Mourning Dove happened in three layers: first, the punctuation and grammar, then a handful of places that either needed slight filling out or a sentence of clarification. Last was the run through of breaking the manuscript into balanced chapters, which my editor did to absolute perfection, without my involvement.
What I took away from the experience of Mourning Dove is this: If an author is graced with the attention of an editor of the caliber that I was, they’d be doing very well to keep and study the initial mark up. It is there an author will learn of their weaknesses and short-comings, and in so doing, the author is left with a road map of how to improve their craft and continue to grow as a writer.
Because I once lived in a small town in Connemara, at the gateway of the Irish-speaking area called the Gaeltacht, I look for those novels that depict the region as it is, for once one has spent significant time there, its ways and means register in the soul with perpetual resonance, leaving one forever nostalgic for what can only be described as the west of Ireland’s consciousness. It isn’t easy to capture, for all its subtle nuances, yet author Kathleen Anne Kenney has done just that in writing Girl on the Leeside in the manner the region deserves, which is to say this beautiful story is gifted to the reader with a sensitive, light touch.
Girl on the Leeside is deep in character study. Most of what happens concerns the human predicament, no matter where it is set. More than a coming of age story centered on twenty seven year old Siobhan Doyle, it is a story of the path to emotional maturity, out of a circumstantial comfort zone, (which, in this case, is perfectly plausible, due to its isolated and insular Irish setting) into all that it takes to overcome one’s self-imposed limitations to brave the risk of furthering one’s life.
In utter fearlessness, Kathleen Anne Kenney invites the reader to suspend disbelief in giving us an otherworldly character that speaks to the inner fairy in those who dare to dream. Small and ethereal Siobhan is orphaned at the age of two by her unconventional mother, and father of unknown origin. She is taken in and raised by her mother’s brother, Keenan Doyle, the publican of his family’s generational, rural establishment called the Leeside, near the shores of a lough tucked away in remote Connemara. Introverted, with little outside influence, she is keenly possessed by her culture’s ancient poetry and folklore. She is a natural born artist, gifted with an intuitive grasp on words and story, a passion shared by her Uncle Keenan, yet so pronounced in her that she walks the line between fantasy and reality. It isn’t easy to redirect one’s invested frame of reference in the world, if it isn’t completely necessary, yet necessity arrives at the Leeside, when American professor of ancient Irish poetry and folklore, Tim Ferris, comes to compare literary notes with Siobhan and Keenan. It is this catalyst that sets the wheels in motion of a heartfelt, insightful story that involves the willingness to grow. All throughout, author Kathleen Anne Kenney explores the myriad fears that get in the way, and shows us the way to triumph.
Girl on the Leeside is a deceptively soft read. It is so laden with beautiful imagery, so seamlessly woven with radiant poetry that it lulls you into its poignancy and holds you captive, all the way to its satisfying end.