As a child, I remember thinking it was weird that the Easter Bunny brought eggs. And exasperating that no one else thought that was a bit strange. Being the person in the family responsible for snatching
eggs from beneath cranky setting hens, I knew for sure where eggs came from.
Turns out, though, there really is a logical explanation for the egg-bearing bunny. According to Wikipedia, German Lutherans apparently established the tradition of the “Easter Hare.”
But far from the cuddly bunny with big pink ears, the original Easter bunny (after all these were not only Lutherans, but GERMAN Lutherans) was actually a stern judge-bunny, dispensing his coveted eggs only to those children who had been good over the Lenten season.
And as for the eggs, early churches abstained from them during Lent. And lacking refrigeration, the only way to keep them from spoiling was to boil them so they could eat them after the fast was ended. And they probably decorated them as part of the celebration. So that explains a lot.
But I still find an Easter bunny (especially a chocolate one) distracting to the Easter message of resurrection and hope. I don’t think the idea of the Easter bunny is harmful to children; I just think it shortchanges them because it misses the life-giving Easter message of hope; the gift of new beginnings,
I don’t have fond memories of the annual Easter egg hunt, where my basket always needed help from the Sunday School teacher. In retrospect, I know this was because of my uncorrected myopia, but still, I think I would have preferred to learn about the Easter Lily.
I tried to tell Miss Julianne it wouldn’t work. Jimmy don’t have the sense God gave a billygoat. But he begged and whined and went on until she let him try it out at the rehearsal.
Jimmy are y’all SURE this will work?” she asked, her hands on her hips, looking up into the loft where Jimmy squatted, dangling a rope swing. Miss Julianne is the prettiest lady I ever saw. And just as sweet as she is pretty. She’s got naturally blonde hair which curls all by itself, she doesn’t even have to use a perm. She was wearing blue jeans and her husband Ronnie’s old work shirt. Anyone else would have looked like a hobo, but she looked beautiful.
Jimmy put on that stupid grin of his that makes all the girls swoon, I don’t see why.
“Yes Ma’m” he said, sugar sweet. Don’t you worry a bit. Suellen is just a little bit of a thing – we’ll just lower her down on this swing, me and Buddy, when Brother Paul reads the part about the angels coming down and then haul her back up after we sing Hark the Herod Angels.”
Herald, you idiot, ” I thought.
“You know I wouldn’t never do nothing to hurt her. It’ll be great, it’ll be the best part of the pageant. You’ll see!”
“Well, Miss Julianne said. “I still think it worked just fine last year, with us just dimming the lights and the angel climbing a ladder behind the manger. What do y’all think?” She turned to the rest of us sitting in the pews waiting to practice our parts.
I could tell she was weakening. That’s the only thing about Miss Julianne. Sometimes she can be too nice.
No one said anything. “Ya’ll, what do you think? “Still nothing. No one wanted to get into it with Jimmy.
” Well, ” she finally said, ” We got to make up our mind pretty soon so we can help the Ladies Aid with the decorating. We got a lot to do, we got to decorate the big tree outside, tie bows on all the pews, and clean up before we go. Remember, ice cream at the house for everyone when we get done. “
Wally was scribbling in his little black notebook which he carries with him everywhere and writes down what happens and what he thinks and I don’t know what all. He has a whole shelf in his bedroom full of his crazy notebooks. His mama gets them for him every Christmas over in Shreveport at Marshalls. She gets them wholesale since she owns Portia’s Blossom Shop.
This year Wally’s a wise man instead of a shepherd like last year. I should of got Mary, because why? Because I wouldn’t forget my lines is why. Last year Miss Julianne had to whisper almost every line to Georgia. At least I thought I should of got wise man like Wally. Instead, I had to be a shepherd again and wear a costume made out of a scratchy croaker sack with holes cut out for the arms.
Miss Julianne doesn’t get to say who gets the parts. The Sunday School teachers all meet and decide the Sunday after Thanksgiving, in secret, so no one can get mad because they don’t like their part. But except for Miss Lavinia, who’s real old and pretty much deaf, they’re all men, so they always pick the prettiest girl, even if she’s dumber than a stump. Which Georgia was. I know that’s not nice to say, but it’s true. She’s just pure D dumb.
So when Georgia graduated Junior High last year, which is the oldest you can be and still be in the pageant, I thought sure I had a chance, but this year Betsy got the part. At least Betsy isn’t dumb, but she’s not all that pretty either. I guess the best I can hope for is to make it to wise man next year. I don’t think the Sunday School teachers like me much. They say I ask too many questions, like the time I asked what a virgin is. Mr Grady got real mad and said I shouldn’t talk like that in Church, and I had to get Wally to tell me.
“Jimmy’s up to something,” I whispered to Wally. ” I can tell by the
way Buddy is squirming around. He never could stand up to Jimmy. Lets him boss him around like he was his daddy or something instead of just his cousin.”
“Afraid of getting beat up, more like, if he won’t do what Jimmy tells him to.”
“But what if they drop her and she gets hurt? And who knows what else they’ll drop down out of the loft? You know rats get up there. ”
He just shrugged. “Everyone knows Jimmy’s got a crush on Suellen. He’s just trying to impress her. But anyhow, it’s none of my never-mind,” he said making that pruney little face of his.
“O Wally, you make me want to scream.” I hate how uppity he gets sometimes. I decided if no one else was going to say anything, I ‘d have to. I walked over to where Miss Julianne was standing.
Miss Julianne? I said sweetly.
“Yes, Sugar, what is it?” she said, smiling and putting her arm around my shoulders.
“Miss Julianne, I just think .. “
Jimmy glared down at me from the loft where he squatted dangling the rope.
“I just think you’re right about last year, it was real pretty. Why do we need to do anything different?”
Jimmy hopped down from the loft and began winding up the rope swing. “What do you know about it, four eyes?” I was the only girl with glasses and all the boys teased me about it. They were pink plastic and ugly, and I hated wearing them, but I couldn’t see past my nose without them.
“Now, Jimmy, stop talking like that and let her have her say, too!” Miss Julianne said, the way she can always make us mind without yelling.
Everyone stared at me. I felt like I had forgot to put on my clothes or something. “Well, I mumbled, “I just think it’s dangerous is all.”
Jimmy curled up his lip at me. “You’re just mad cause you have to be a shepherd. You ought to be glad you don’t have to be a sheep no more.”
I wouldn’t admit it, but he was right about the shepherd thing.
“Please, please, please, Miss Julianne,” Jimmy crooned, getting down on his knees and making his hands like he was praying.
“Now, Jimmy,” Miss Julianne said, laughing. Am I gonna have to paddle you again?
He gave her a big hug.
I was sunk.
The night of the pageant it was cold and sleeting. I had prayed for snow, but just like when I prayed my dog Pepper would get well, it didn’t happen. Mama says the Bible tells us “Ask and ye shall receive,” but so far that’s not working for me. I must be doing something wrong. One day I’ll ask Miss Julianne about it.
The church was full up. People like the Banks who never go to church except on Christmas were there with their whole raggedy family taking up the front pew where my Grampaw always sits. This happens to him every year. He just walked over real slow to where they were sitting and stood there, thumping his cane on the floor.
Pretty soon, Miz Banks looked up and said, “Why hello, Mr. Henry? Would you like to sit here? Betty Sue and Darrell, y’all go sit in the back. Just you set down right here, Mr. Henry. So nice to have you with us.”
Grampaw acted like he never heard a thing she said. Just walked over to the window where he always sat and waited for them to make room for him. He sat down, wedged his cane between him and Mr. Banks, looked at the Banks bunch like they had cooties (which they probably did) and stared out the window. I think he sits here so he can see Gramma’s grave, but he’d never say that.
Mama and Daddy couldn’t get to their usual place, so they sat in back by the heater, which was actually better since it was cold in the church. I ran downstairs to the Sunday School room where everyone was putting on their costumes, carrying a dishtowel and one of Grampaw’s old canes. Mama said she’d make me a costume, so I didn’t have to wear the croaker sack and she can sew anything, but I didn’t want to make a big deal of it.
Suellen was prancing around the room in her angel costume, everyone going on about how pretty she looked. She had on a white dress with lace ruffles on the bottom lace on the sleeves with white satin slippers to match and was carrying a stupid wand, like she was a fairy godmother instead of an angel, going around tapping everyone on the head and cooing, “Bless you, bless you.” I thought I would throw up. I pushed my way over to the corner where Miss Julianne and Mr. Ronnie was helping the little kids into their sheep costumes. The sheep part is the worst because you have to crawl around in a boiling hot costume. They always give that to the little kids. They think it’s fun, they don’t know everyone’s laughing at them.
“Hi,” Wally, said, adjusting his turban and brushing his robe.” Want
some help with your costume?”
“I don’t need help, thank you very much,” I grumbled, tying a dishcloth around my head.
“That’s looks real nice” he giggled.
“Shut up,” I said, sticking my arms through the croaker sack. “Shit, his damn thing scatches! I said under my breath.
“Cricket!” Wally said, putting his hand over his mouth and giggling. “In the Lord’s House! You’ll go to hell.”
‘Well, if I do, I guess I’ll see you there, Mr. Smarty Pants.”
Mr Ronnie whistled and yelled, “Y’all be quiet, Miss Julienne needs to say something. ”
“I’m so proud of y’all! Miss Julianne said, smiling. “And I know you’re going to do great.“ Now lets go over the program just one more time so we’ll be sure. Everyone get your song sheets. ” Mr. Ronnie was passing out blue mimeograph copies that smelled like vinegar and the purple ink rubbed off on your hands.
“The first one is Silent Night. Now remember everyone sings this one. Then everyone goes behind the curtain except Mary and Joseph. Betsy, did you bring your doll?”
“Yes’m. I brought my nicest one, with the China head that I got last year for Christmas.”
“Oh, Betsy! You brought you very BEST doll,” Miss Julianne said. Isn’t that NICE, y’all?”
“Next the the wise men sing We Three Kings of Orient Are and then the shepherds sing While Shepherds Watched Their Sheep By Night” And I need ALL the wise men and ALL the shepherds singing, not just Wally and Cricket.
“No, you don’t, I thought. Wayne sounds like a dying horse, and Marvin’s tone deaf.”
“Then the congregation will stand and we’ll all sing the final song Hark the Herald Angels Sing, while Jimmy and Buddy let Suellen down from the loft. Just one verse now, of all the songs. Miss Martha will signal to you when to start and when to stop.”
Miss Martha smiled and waved her pudgy finger in the air. Miss Julianne put her hand over her heart. “Now Buddy and Jimmy, ya’ll be real, REAL careful with Suellen. Let’s pray before we go.”
“Good idea, I thought.”
We made a circle, joined our sweaty hands and chanted the Youth Fellowship prayer, “Lord, teach us to so number our days that we might apply unto wisdom.”
“And bless us as we carry thy message though this Christmas Pageant,” Miss Julianne added. Amen. “
“Amen,” we chorused.
We tromped up the stairs in a line and walked behind the curtain. The church was full and kids was sitting on pallets on the floor, mamas standing holding babies. The church was so pretty; there was flowers, candles, and big red bows everywhere and it smelled like pine and candle wax. Buddy and Suellen climbed up the stairs into the loft, Jimmy behind them. I thought I heard him say to Suellen, “I’ll show you a thing or two, you little tease.” She hissed something at him, but I couldn’t hear what she said.
“I knew it.! Why doesn’t anyone believe a thing I say?” I hissed to Wally.
He gave me one of his looks over his glasses. “What’s the matter with you? Are you still mad about the shepherd thing?”
Before I could answer, the curtain opened and Miss Martha plopped down on the piano bench. She’s so fat, we always think she’s going to break it and we all got out our song sheets. She held up her finger and started playing Silent Night while we all sang. Everyone in the
audience oohed and ahhed over the little kids. When the wise men came out, Wally was the only one singing, the other two just hanging their heads and sorta mumbling. Wally didn’t seem to notice. When he’s on a stage, Wally’s in hog heaven. Next it was our turn, and not only was I the only singing shepherd, Marvin and Wayne didn’t even know the words.
“This is the LAST time, the VERY LAST time I do this, I thought to myself. It’s hot and I itch all over; besides it’s embarrassing. I’m too old for this.”
And then it was time for the big finish. I felt a lump in my stomach. I knew something was going to go wrong, real wrong, but there wasn’t nothing I could do to stop it. Mr. Ronnie shined the spotlight up onto the loft where Suellen stood in her angel get-up. In spite of her stupid wand, she looked look real nice, standing there in her white dress, holding out her arms, her clothes-hanger halo sparkling.
Miss Martha started up Hark the Herald Angels Sing and everyone in the church stood up to sing with us. While we sang, Suellen started to come down from the ceiling on the rope swing – almost like she was floating. Everyone in the church looked up at her like they could hardly believe it. The whole church was quiet. Miss Julianne was standing off by the curtain, her hand over her heart. I think she was praying. I thought for a minute I may have been wrong. It really was pretty. But then some of the boys started giggling. That’s when I knew.
I looked up just in time to see Suellen fall out of the loft into the manger, landing with a big crash right on top of the Baby Jesus doll. Everyone started yelling and going on and Miss Julianne and Mr. Ronnie went running over to see if Suellen was OK. She was, all except for being fighting mad, scratched up and the sleeve of her angel dress tore plumb off from where she caught it on the manger. She was sitting up, picking hay from the manger out of her halo and yelling at Jimmy that she’d get him back for this and he was laughing his head off. And Betsy was fit to be tied. “Git off my Doll, “she yelled.
Sure enough the doll’s face was cracked where Suellen fell on top of her and her wand was stuck into the doll’s stomach. The boys was all snickering, Betsy was crying and Miss Julianne was walking around making sure no one was hurt. The people in the church was real quiet. But then there was another big thunk and Miss Bernice had fainted dead away in the third pew. She’s real bad to take fainting spells if she gets over-excited except Mama thinks she’s just putting on for attention. Miss Lavinia was fanning Miss Bernice with her handkerchief and Vonda Fay was waving smelling salts over her face, She uses them in her beauty shop for ladies who fall out from the permanent wave fumes.
Mr. Ronnie came running up onto the stage. “Which one of you knuckleheads done this?” he yelled, looking straight at Jimmy. Mr. Ronnie is a real nice man as long as you don’t do nothing to make Miss Julianne unhappy. I seen him grab Wilbur Spivey by the neck and throw him out the door of Vickers Newsstand just for cussing where Miss Julianne could hear. I remember thinking I wouldn’t want to be Jimmy right now.
Brother Paul was trying to get everyone to be quiet. “Quiet, Brothers and Sisters,” he kept saying. “Be still. This is the Lord’s house. There is no harm done. Let’s all be seated and have a word of prayer.”
Miss Lavinia and Vonda Faye got Miss Bernice back up on her feet and helped her out on the porch to get some air. Miss Julianne closed the curtains on the stage. We all looked at her. She looked so sad. I thought sure she was going to fuss at us which I can’t stand. But she looked back at us for what seemed a long time. Finally she sorta smiled. And then she began to laugh. At first we thought she was crying. But when we saw she was laughing, one by one we all started laughing. She opened the curtains and walked out onto the stage.
“Y’all, she said, still laughing. “I don’t know when I’ve seen such a
Christmas pageant to beat this one.“ The whole church began to laugh, even Brother Paul. Even Grampaw, who hardly ever laughs. Everyone except for Mr. Ronnie who was standing in the back of the church with his arms folded over his chest. After all the laughing died down, Brother Paul walked up behind the pulpit.
“Brothers and Sisters, “ he said, real serious-like. “Some of us here tonight have not understood what Christmas is all about and could have ruined it for the rest of us with their foolish prank. Luckily no real harm was done and I am quite sure that those responsible will be held accountable. Jimmy’s face was redder than Santa’s cap. But no one can ruin the Christmas story; it’s too powerful. It’s about turning sadness into joy. It’s about the love and forgiveness this community have for each other. Nothing can take the joy of Christmas from us. And we’ve had plenty of that tonight. Let us pray,” he said. “Let us give thanks to the Lord for a joyful Christmas.”
Blind-sided, thunderstruck, ambushed, stunned, floored flummoxed. Just flattened. By what’s just happened in our country – no, not what just happened – what just surfaced.
As my genteel cousin put it, “Surely not?” Exactly. Surely we are not the people screaming racist epithets, intimidating children, advocating jail for our rivals. We are not the people that believe silencing those who don’t look like us or believe like us will solve our problems. We are not the people who obsessed on the media’s 24/7 shouting matches, while shaking our heads about the ugly campaign. We don’t riot
in the streets after an election and burn the President Elect in effigy. We can’t be those people. And yet we are.
Until November 9, I carefully sidestepped awkward social and political conversations. After all, everyone’s entitled to her/his own opinion, right? And what does it matter really? Things will go on pretty much as they always have no matter what I do, right? So why risk damaging a friendship, causing a ruckus. Why be “that” woman? I really didn’t know what my friends, my neighbors, even some of my family, believed at a core level, didn’t really want to know, and didn’t share my own opinions. We coexisted; polite and superficial strangers under the skin. So when November 8 happened, we were amazed to find out who was living next door, or even in our own house!
It’s pretty clear we don’t understand each other. Perhaps we don’t really understand ourselves. Hopefully the 2016 election will inspire us to learn more about ourselves and our government and moreover, to become involved in our communities. We can learn to listen respectfully to each other with no other agenda. We can have discussions that don’t deteriorate into shouting matches. Ideas that challenge us are healthy precisely because they make us uncomfortable. They stretch us and keep us growing.
On the morning of November 9, I began a one woman listening campaign. I talked to neighbors on my morning walk. I listened to members of my church, to my family, to my Facebook and Twitter friends. And I heard some surprising things. Some not easy for me to hear. But my friendships were not threatened. In fact, just the opposite. After all, we all want to have our voices heard.
I know the fluttering of the butterfly wing in my tiny corner of the universe cannot influence world events. But just as one vote makes a difference, so does one honest conversation.
So let’s talk! Leave a comment. Tell us what the 2016 election meant for you. Who knows? We might not be as far apart as we thought. At the very least, we are sure to learn more about our own beliefs.
If you’re like me, by now you’re wishing this election campaign was over, or better yet had never started in the first place. We all have opinions and theories, disappointments, predictions and concerns around any election, but this one is different. It would be easy to become so frustrated and confused that we consider skipping the whole thing. But at the end of the day, the important, the crucial thing is to JUST DO IT, in the familiar words of the Nike slogan. Important for all of us, but especially for any of us who have felt the pain of having our voices ignored or discounted, in other words, for most women at some point in their lives. Even now. And it’s not so long ago that women’s voices were not only ignored, they were suppressed.
To put it in perspective:
Freed male slaves were granted the vote in 1845.* The Nineteenth Amendment granted women the right to vote in 1920.
And here’s another shocker: In 1923, the National Women’s Party proposed a Constitutional amendment, eventually known as the Equal Rights Amendment to prohibit all discrimination on the basis of sex.
It has Never Been Ratified.
The women’s suffrage movement in America began in New York in 1848, led by well-known early pioneers Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. We owe them a huge debt of gratitude for their enormous sacrifices and their perseverance to achieve for us a right we often take for granted, if we think about it at all.
However, there is another compelling and little known tale of struggle and dedication to suffrage in Mississippi. By 1820, a growing number of southern women in Mississippi had mobilized to improve social and educational conditions for women and children and the National American Woman Suffrage Association was formed. In 1890, The Mississippi Constitutional Convention seriously considered granting women the right to vote. Sadly, the proposal died in committee by a single vote.
But it was not over.
In the 1890s the Mississippi Woman Suffrage Association, under the leadership of Nellie Nugget Somerville, began efforts to gain the vote in Mississippi. The fledgling movement floundered in spite of heroic efforts by the suffragists. Facing fierce opposition by the legislators, by the 1900s they had almost given up. In 1906, Belle Kearney, a compelling professional speaker, breathed life into the nearly moribund movement and gradually the suffragists regained momentum. However, they could not win over the
necessary majority of state legislators, and the state suffrage campaign of 1914 failed. Legislators declared that woman suffrage was “not in the best interest of Mississippi women, that women should remain ‘queen of the home and hearthstone.'”
But it was not over.
In 1918, a state suffrage amendment was once again introduced and received a tie vote, insufficient to meet the required two-thirds majority. In 1919 a resolution was introduced to reject the amendment as “unwarranted, unnecessary and dangerous interference with state’s rights.” The rejection resolution was approved by a vote of 106 to 25. At this point, many of the suffragists left the movement in despair.
But it was not over.
By now the Nineteenth Amendment had been ratified by 35 states and some Mississippi senators felt the state must do likewise for the sake of the Democratic Party. The bill was recalled, amended to read “ratify” rather than “reject” and the bill passed the Senate.
But it was not over
The House rejection was swift and decisive. As one legislator put it, he would rather “die and go to hell” than vote for it. The amendment went down 90 to 23.
But it was not over.
By 1920, Mississippi was only one of two states in the nation that had not ratified the Nineteenth Amendment. However, as a federal law, it superseded the state law and provided women the vote. Ironically, two years later, Mississippi’s two leading suffragists, Somerville and Kearney, were elected to the state legislature, surviving the battles and winning the war.
The State of Mississippi finally ratified the Nineteenth Amendment with no opposition on March 22, 1984. Neither Kearney nor Somerville lived to see the ratification.
But it was over at last.
So, just in case you were thinking about giving Election Day a pass this time, please take a minute to remember the struggles of our Foremothers on our behalf.
Just Do It!
*The bill was ratified, but not enforced until the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Source: Marjorie Julian Spruill and Jesse Spruill Wheeler, Mississippi Women and the Woman Suffrage Amendment, Mississippi History Now, Mississippi Historical Society 200-2015. http://bit.ly/2fvviLw
My stomach lurches every time I look at this photo. How can this be happening in upscale Santa Barbara? This woman could be my neighbor, the grandmother in the pew next to mine at church, she could be that woman struggling along with me at Pilates class. She probably went to college, paid her bills on time, baked cookies for the PTO, raised a family. Or so it would seem.
Maybe not. Maybe she lived wildly beyond her means, enrolling her kids in expensive private schools, indulging in spas and Mediterranean cruises, driving a Lexus. Rotating credit cards for payment, betting on the return of the pre-recession economy. Or maybe she was forced out of a longterm marriage by a deluded husband frantically trying to recapture his youth. Or maybe she’s a widow bankrupted by overwhelming medical bills.
Maybe. But is something more fundamental in play? In our frenzied rush to achieve “success,” have we have forgotten our need for each other? Have we lost our communities?
I grew up in a tight community. And I hated it. Everyone knew everything you did, and worse, attributed it to your genetics. If your family was properous, that predestined your success, despite all distressing evidence to the contrary. If as in my case, your family
were not wealthy landowners, city fathers or otherwise distinguished, you were not expected to rise above your family’s social standing. No credential, diploma or bank statement could refute this. That was the down side, the only side, I saw growing up.
But no one, no matter what color or family circumstances. NO ONE lived in a car or wanted for food or clean clothes. This was not because were endowed with unnatural virtue or were a microcosm of Christian charity. Far from it. We were mean-spirited, kind, generous, greedy, intellectually gifted and psychotic, industrious, and lazy; like people everywhere. With one major exception: We needed each other. No one had to tell us that. We knew it by birth; we were a poor farming community; if we were to survive, it meant cooperation. It meant community. In our case, a community formed around a church.
The little community still exists; thrives, in fact, and its people are still just as flawed and nosy. Inevitably, though, time has brought change. Its members are more diverse, better educated, more tolerant now. But community foundation never changed. If a neighbor’s house is damaged by flood or fire, the community rebuilds the house and supplies food and clothes. A member’s bad medical diagnosis triggers a rotation of members to supply food and housekeeping. Extra rows are planted in gardens for needy members. The list goes on. And this is why such a photo could never have been, never will be, taken in that community.
So I wonder. Why have our larger urban communities failed this woman? Does she not meet some tedious beaurocratic requirement? Is she in need of psychiatric help? Are there so many like her that community organizations are overwhelmed? Is it even possible for government to organize community? Or can lasting community be forged only on the anvil of fundamental interdependence? Is her plight, then, simply the logical outcome of a society who has forgotten this fundamental truth?
One of the many benefits to me of this blog is the opportunity it provides me to celebrate the successes of fellow southern women writers. I am delighted to showcase Sally Whitney’s latest book, Surface and Shadow, just released today.
A few weeks ago, I asked Sally to share some of her thoughts about being a southern writer and in particular, what inspired her latest book.
What gave you the idea for this novel?
I can’t say that anything gave me the idea for this novel. The idea just seemed to grow. Strong women have always been my favorite characters in novels, so I knew my novel would have a woman as the protagonist. I think women have a hard time being strong because for many years, expectations and requirements have been set against them. Too often, women have to show strength in defying cultural norms before they can be strong anywhere else. I wanted to show this personal battle within my protagonist. I’m also interested in North Carolina cotton-mill towns, partly because very few of them still exist. I put the woman in the cotton-mill town and asked “What if?” And the story grew from there.
Why did you choose to write about the South?
The South chose me. Place is very important to my fiction. Often with short stories I get a sense of place before anything else. I see a backyard vegetable garden baking in the mid-summer sun. Or a front porch sagging under the weight of family generations who have traipsed across it. With Surface and Shadow, I saw the narrow main street of a small town with its decades-old store fronts and a mysterious aging farmhouse partly obscured by trees and flowers.
Always the places I see are in the South, usually in North Carolina. And it’s not just the physical places that draw my thoughts in that direction. It’s a sense of mystery and wonder, history and hope, darkness mixed with light. When I was in graduate school in New Jersey, I tried to write about a woman living in New Jersey, but my professor told me to “get that woman back down south where she belongs.” He knew where my imagination lives.
What do you think are the greatest pitfalls to writing about southern women?
Number one is falling prey to stereotypes. We all know them. Southern women have been caricatured in books and movies and jokes since such means of communication began. But avoiding stereotypes and still conveying some of southern women’s significant characteristics can be tricky. Stereotypes, like caricatures, have some basis in truth. While southern women are not as hung up on social niceties and proper etiquette as they’re often portrayed, we do expect people to be kind to each other. Good manners are nothing more than being considerate of other people. We are not simpering, obedient belles trying to please the men in our lives. We do not go to college just to find a husband. We are independent women, but we often find ways of exerting that independence that are more persuasive than combative. We like men, and generally love a few of them, but they aren’t required to help us lead fully developed lives.
What do you think defines a “southern writer?”
Although southern writers are often defined by where they live, I think they’re more accurately defined by the books they write. My favorite contemporary southern authors, including Lee Smith, Joshilyn Jackson, Tom Franklin, and Fannie Flagg, tell stories of passionate people caught in difficult circumstances, not necessarily unique to the South, but certainly influenced by southern culture, climate, and geography. In Jackson’s gods in Alabama, for example, the great respect many Alabamans hold for football plays an important role. In Franklin’s The Tilted World, which he wrote with his wife, Beth Ann Fennelly, the roaring force of the southern Mississippi River is a major character. Heat is often one of my favorite characters in stories by southern writers. Although other parts of the United States can be hot, there’s no heat like southern heat. And heat can make people do crazy things. Southern writers understand the South and its people with all their beauty and their flaws. They know the strong ties between the people and the land and the climate. Their stories could not take place anywhere else.
For more about Sally Whitney and her work, see this blog, May 1, 2015.