Charles Frazier’s Nightwoods (Book Acquired, 6.14.2012)

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Charles Frazier’s Nightwoods, new in trade paperback. From Randy Boyagoda’s NY Times review:

“Nightwoods,” Frazier’s new novel, is a departure from its predecessors in some respects. It’s set in the early 1960s rather than the 19th century, and it involves no literary or historical elements of comparable grandeur and gravity. Indeed, based on its premise, the new book feels remarkably stripped down: a young woman named Luce, the caretaker of an old lodge in small-town North Carolina, becomes the guardian of the twin children of her murdered sister. In turn, she must defend them from Bud, their former stepfather, who killed their mother while they watched, and who believes the traumatized children know the location of some stolen money. As a setup, this promises suspense and mystery, to which Frazier adds family tension (when Luce’s lawman-cum-drug-addict father buddies up with Bud) and romance (after the shy, handsome grandson of the lodge’s deceased owner visits his inheritance and falls for Luce).

Irrepressible: The Life and Times of Jessica Mitford — Leslie Brody

Irrepressible, Leslie Brody’s new biography of Jessica Mitford, is a fascinating study in divergent attitudes about class, politics, and what it might mean to dissent from one’s own family. Jessica Mitford — “Decca” to her friends — was born into English aristocracy, which she promptly tried to escape. Brody offers a succinct outline in the opening pages (“Little D.” is young Decca, of course)—

What was Little D. running away from? The usual: parental rules and regulations, hothouse sibling rivalries, boredom; the more arcane: country estates, nannies, governesses, secret cupboards, and secret languages: conservatism and elitism in her relations; and fascism, in the body politic. Where was she running to? At first, she longed to go to school and, later, to the East End of London to live in a bedsit and be a Communist. To readers of the British press, the Mitfords were the subject of gossip and scrutiny for the fashions they wore and the odd things they did. Anyone not related to her seemed infinitely more fascinating to Decca.

For Decca, experiences with “Anyone not related to her” became her form of school, which her mother forbade her to attend (although, to be fair, brother Tom did hip her to a crash course of Western canonical lit). As the passage above suggests, the trajectory of Decca’s life would be defined and drawn against the conservative values of her family. In an especially instructive scene near the end of her teen years, Decca and her sister “Unity etched symbols of their political affiliations into the window of the room they shared at the top of the house—Unity drew a swastika; Decca a hammer and sickle.” What did these kids use to draw their sigils? A diamond ring.

Brody (thankfully) doesn’t dwell on the psychological motivations that might have led Decca to a life and ideology so dramatically diametrically opposed to her aristocratic, fascist-leaning family, perhaps in part because Decca’s progressive convictions seem, in retrospect, so clearly to have come down on the “right side of history.” As Brody’s biography reveals, however, Decca was not simply some rich kid slumming for a few years; indeed, we find in Jessica Mitford a soul clearly committed to the ideals of equality and democracy throughout her entire life.

And what a strange, wonderful, and often tragic life it was. In a sharp, reportorial style (one that frequently employs primary sources), Brody relates Decca’s tumultuous life, beginning with her early, scandalous marriage with a cousin, Esmond Romilly, their involvement in the Spanish Civil War, and his death in WWII. Soon after Esmond’s death, Decca married Bob Treuhaft, an American civil rights lawyer. The pair moved to Oakland and had children, although Decca doesn’t seem to have been much of a mother (her heavy drinking might have gotten in the way when political obligations like testifying before HUAC didn’t). The bulk of Brody’s narrative covers Decca’s intense involvement in the Civil Rights movement, from its earliest inception right through the Vietnam era and beyond. Decca wrote articles, facilitated meetings, and generally served as a nexus point for creative and political energies devoted to free, progressive thought. Decca went on to author books investigating the funeral home practices, the Vietnam War draft, and the American prison system, but it is likely that her memoirs will be of the greatest interest to readers today.

Brody’s biography seems more relevant than ever as the Occupy movement (particularly in Decca’s adopted Oakland) sheds greater light on the disparity between the rich and poor in America and calls into question the very ground that pioneers like Jessica Mitford fought for. At the same time, Brody’s book is never didactic, nor is it overtly and unnecessarily juicy (which surely must have been a great temptation, considering that Decca’s entire life was something of a scandal). Instead, Brody offers us a tightly drawn, well-researched portrait that is sure to fascinate.

Irrepressible is available in hardback from Counterpoint Press.

RIP Stetson Kennedy, Florida Folklorist, Writer, and Human Rights Activist

Stetson Kennedy died today at 94 in his native city, Jacksonville, FL.

Kennedy began his career collecting folklore throughout the South in 1937 after leaving the University of Florida. Kennedy worked for the Works Progress Administration’s Florida Writers’ Project, traveling with Zora Neale Hurston to collect oral histories and folk tales from both black and white Floridians alike. In the 1940s, Kennedy worked for the Atlanta office of the CIO. He also infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in the 1940s and ’50s, exposing many of the racist organization’s secrets and alerting the world to the intrinsic injustice of the Jim Crow system in Southern states.

When Kennedy ran (quite unsuccessfully) for Governor of Florida in 1952, Woody Guthrie wrote the song “Stetson Kennedy” to support his good friend (Wilco and Billy Bragg put the lyrics to music decades later). Kennedy’s anti-Jim Crow, early Civil Rights platform didn’t win him much popularity throughout the state, and when his home in Fruit Cove was firebombed, he moved to France. It was there that the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre published Kennedy’s The Jim Crow Guide—but the book was too controversial for US publication, despite multiple translations across Europe. Even more incendiary was Kennedy’s expose The Klan Unmasked (1954), which helped to undermine the organization’s secret authority in the South.

Just as Kennedy’s contribution to the Civil Rights movement cannot be underestimated, neither can his work in collecting and preserving Florida folklore (as well as Southern folklore in general). Kennedy helped found the Florida Folklore Society and also served as president, and volumes like Palmetto County and Grits and Grunts: Folkloric Key West will remain staples of Florida folk culture. In 2009, Kennedy bequeathed his papers and personal library to the Civic Media Center in Gainesville, FL, a nonprofit info center and alternative library devoted to human rights, environmental protection, and other causes. Kennedy was closely involved with the CMC since its inception in 1993.

Kennedy was a vibrant fount of cultural and historical force, a man who worked his entire, long life not just to preserve folklore and its history, but also to show the radical place that folk culture occupies throughout time, linking core human values from generation to generation. Stetson Kennedy will live through his legacy.

Kennedy’s website sheds light on his final moments—

He was with his wife and stepdaughter, He was in no pain. And as recently as 4 days ago he was lucid and talking. The doctor, checking his mental faculties asked him questions “where are you from”, Kennedy replied, “The planet Earth”

Stetson’s wishes were for a party and not a funeral. A luncheon at Beluthahatchee will be held October 1st.

Kennedy on This American Life.

Read a 2011 interview with Kennedy in Vice Magazine.

“Ballad of Birmingham” — Dudley Randall

“Ballad of Birmingham” by Dudley Randall

(On the bombing of a church in Birmingham, Alabama, 1963)

“”Mother dear, may I go downtown
Instead of out to play,
And march the streets of Birmingham
In a Freedom March today?”

“No, baby, no, you may not go,
For the dogs are fierce and wild,
And clubs and hoses, guns and jails
Aren’t good for a little child.”

“But, mother, I won’t be alone.
Other children will go with me,
And march the streets of Birmingham
To make our country free.”

“No baby, no, you may not go
For I fear those guns will fire.
But you may go to church instead
And sing in the children’s choir.”

She has combed and brushed her night-dark hair,
And bathed rose petal sweet,
And drawn white gloves on her small brown hands,
And white shoes on her feet.

The mother smiled to know that her child
Was in the sacred place,
But that smile was the last smile
To come upon her face.

For when she heard the explosion,
Her eyes grew wet and wild.
She raced through the streets of Birmingham
Calling for her child.

She clawed through bits of glass and brick,
Then lifted out a shoe.
“O, here’s the shoe my baby wore,
But, baby, where are you?”

Learn more about the September 15th, 1963 terrorist attack in Birmingham, Alabama.