I didn’t look at an Alabama map when I selected books set there for my Andrea Reads America project, so I didn’t realize until I started reading that two of my three picks took place on the coast. Boy did they make me miss home. All that talk about herons, and shrimp, and the salt marshes took me right back to the coast of Georgia. Only, and I never knew this until I read these books, in Alabama they don’t call it the marsh, they call it the bayou. Even though Georgia and Alabama share a border, even though geographically they are neighbors, I never once heard anyone call our marsh the bayou growing up in Georgia. I guess it’s because we were on the Atlantic, colonized by the English. We don’t have the French history of those Gulf coast states. I always associated bayou strictly with Louisiana, but the Cajun and Creole sensibilities must stretch along the marshy shoreline of the Gulf of Mexico.
I was pleased that all three picks for the inaugural state of this tour – To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, Forrest Gump by Winston Groom, and Train Whistle Guitar by Albert Murray – evoked Alabama landscapes, mannerisms, dialects, and the racial frictions inherent in all Southern states. Now, as I move forward into the unknown, the exotic, the slightly terrifying state of Alaska in winter, I’m glad I started someplace familiar.
Novel: To Kill a Mockingbird
Author: Harper (Nelle) Lee, born 1926 in Monroeville, AL
Setting: 1930s Maycomb, Alabama, northeast of Mobile
Categories: Literary fiction, Pulitzer Prize winner, Southern Gothic
Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird takes place in 1930s Alabama, in the small town of Maycomb (based on Lee’s home town of Monroeville). In addition to being a wise work of fiction in its own right, with iconic characters, racial struggles, and a funny, refreshing childlike point of view to gently show us, as adults, to be alert to our hypocricies, To Kill a Mockingbird does a fine job of setting us smack in the middle of the small town South. Lee accomplishes this not just through a story of racial tension and prejudice, but through dialogue, scene descriptions, and my favorite device of all, which she writes masterfully, dialect. Since I’ve written about To Kill a Mockingbird several times on my blog, I’ll change it up this time and leave you with some my favorite quotes for making you feel like you’re in Alabama:
“North Alabama was full of Liquor Interests, Big Mules, steel companies, Republicans, professors, and other persons of no background.”
“The class was wriggling like a bucketful of catawba worms.”
“That boy’s yo’ comp’ny and if he wants to eat up the table cloth you let him you hear?”
“The usual crew had flunked the first grade again, and were helpful in keeping order.”
“If I had my ‘druthers I’d take a shotgun.”
“In Maycomb, grown men stood outside in the front yard for only two reasons: death and politics. I wondered who had died.”
Novel: Forrest Gump
Author: Winston Groom, born 1943 in Washington, DC, and raised in Mobile, AL
Setting: 1960s-1980s Mobile, AL, the world, and outer space
Categories: Humor, Southern fiction
Before I say anything else, I have to say this: Forrest Gump made me laugh so hard I cried. Written by Winston Groom, Forrest Gump paints a portrait of contemporary Alabama from the point of view of an idiot savant. I grappled with whether to include this as part of my project because technically, Forrest Gump does not take place wholly in Alabama. In fact, most of the time Forrest isn’t in Alabama at all. He fights in Vietnam, where as he tells us, “Somewhere in all this, I got myself shot, an, as luck would have it, I was hit in the ass.” He travels to Washington, DC, an island in the South Pacific, Indiana, China, Hollywood. But even though he travels the world (and outer space) in the novel, I’m keeping Forrest Gump as an Alabama read because Forrest, through his dialect, his harmonica, and his Southern manners, carries Alabama everywhere he goes.
Whether he’s rasslin’ in Indiana or playing ping pong in China, Forrest is a walking representation of his Alabama roots. In every country, and even in space, Forrest recollects his aim to get a “srimp boat,” and every time he does, we’re back on the bayou. When his spaceship crash lands on an island of cannibals, and savages are banging on their hatch but Major Fitch wants to pretend nobody is home, Forrest displays classic Southern hospitality by saying, “It ain’t polite not to answer the door.”
But more than anything, in addition to the fact that it contains genius commentary on the way we view “idiots” and how stupid the rest of us really are, I wanted to keep Forrest Gump in my version of the Alabama canon because of some of the final passages. A lot of non-Southerners might not get the South, might find it charming but backwards, like Forrest appears to be when really he’s quite deep. But Winston Groom gets it. In our rare glimpses of life on the marsh, he captures the lowland perfectly:
“They was a nice breeze blowin off the bayou an you coud hear frawgs an crickets an even the soun of a fish jumpin ever once in a wile.”
In that sentence, and in the final pages, Groom captures what it’s all about, what Alabama, and the whole of the Southeast coast, are all about. Why those who visit are enchanted by it, and why we who know it crave it, and are ever questing to get home to it.
For more about Forrest Gump, please see Thanks Forrest. Now I miss seafood.
Novel: Train Whistle Guitar
Author: Albert Murray, born 1916 in Nokomis, Alabama
Setting: 1920s Gasoline Point, Alabama, just north of Mobile
Categories: African American fiction, Southern fiction
Set in 1920s Gasoline Point, Alabama, a fictitious town based on author Albert Murray’s hometown of Magazine Point, Train Whistle Guitar is a coming of age story of Scooter, a young black boy who with his friend Little Buddy, learns about life by hopping a train, wandering the woods, listening to grownups at garden fences and fireside circles, hiding underfoot at the barbershop, or perching in trees at night to watch dancing in the jook joint. In each of these settings, Murray not only captures the feel of African American kinship within a small town in the South, but what to this white woman is the foreign experience of children who are raised not just by their parents, but by an entire community. Regardless of blood relationships, all of Scooter’s elders in Gasoline Point play the role of Auntee or Uncle, as when their train-hopping guitar idol, Luzana Cholly, sat Scooter and Little Buddy down for a talk when he found them trying to jump a train:
“That was when we found out what we found out directly from Luzana Cholly himself about hitting the road, which he (like every fireside knee-pony uncle and shade tree uncle and toolshed uncle and barbershop uncle since Uncle Remus himself) said was was a whole lot more than just a notion.”
This was perhaps my favorite element of Train Whistle Guitar, this entrée into a childhood unlike my own, where a people shared a common history, a common struggle, that brought them together into a community that was so tight-knit the barbershop men made decisions about when young boys were old enough to hear man talk. This sense of community-as-family made me think of one of the most memorable pieces of parenting advice I’ve heard: it’s important that children have adults in their lives they can turn to and trust for perspectives beyond Mom’s and Dad’s.
While Train Whistle Guitar certainly has moments and undercurrents of racial tension, the book was gentle and showed love instead of hate, eagerness instead of anger. And while Murray is skillful in evoking the Alabama bayou and the thickets that skirt it, my favorite passages are from the jook joints, places I’ve only come across in African American fiction:
“Stagolee moved over to where the piano was and put his fruit jar [of whiskey] on top of it and stood clapping his hands and snapping his fingers with the women around him doing the shimmieshewooble and the messaround.”
Murray’s language is alive with rhythm and swing, and he was able to show me an Alabama I would never have access to without him.
For more about Train Whistle Guitar, please see White girl dancing.
For further reading in Alabama
Books I’ve read and recommend:
Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg
Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake-Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia by Dennis Covington (nonfiction)
Books that have been recommended to me but I have not yet read:
Boy’s Life by Robert R. McCammon
Crazy in Alabama by Mark Childress
All Over But the Shoutin’ by Rick Bragg (nonfiction)
I am reading America: 3 books from each state in the US with the following authorships represented – women, men, and non-Caucasian writers. To follow along, please visit me at andreareadsamerica.com.