In the mid-1980s, fresh out of college, I worked as an editorial assistant at Peachtree Publishers, a regional book publisher in Atlanta. Unlike most publishing houses, we accepted unsolicited manuscripts, and it was my job to wade through the slush pile and pluck out the undiscovered gems. At least half of them turned out to be memoirs of the authors’ rural childhoods. Although there were times when I thought I would go mad if I had to read one more account of hog-killing time, I wrote scores of rejection letters in which I tried to soften the blow with assurances that their children and grandchildren would treasure these priceless written histories for years to come. I doubt the recipients were much comforted, but I was sincere. In fact, I was envious.
I’d learned in college literature classes about the Southern story-telling tradition, but I had little personal experience of it. I grew up in Georgia, part of a family whose members did not readily share stories of our history. I attribute this reluctance to a naturally taciturn tendency combined with a desire to shed the often painful or embarrassing events of the past on the way to full participation in the brighter and more sophisticated American dream of the 50s and early 60s. I am also the youngest member of my generation on both sides of the family, and I imagine they all just got tired of telling what stories there were by the time I appeared on the scene.
My father was raised on a farm in Henry County, Georgia, the youngest child in his family by more than ten years. No idyllic tales of pastoral bliss for him, though. The only story I ever heard that even faintly referenced his life on the farm came from the longtime tenant who liked to say that she “never saw nobody who could lean on a hoe like Mr. Jack.” (That’s “lean” in the sense of standing still and daydreaming about doing something, anything, other than hoeing.) My mother, likewise, was no source of rural nostalgia, having grown up poor and hungry. Her long-suffering mother wove towels in a textile mill while her hot-tempered father quit or got fired from so many jobs that my mother lost count of how many schools she attended before finally graduating from high school in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. So my father couldn’t wait to get off the farm, and my mother never had a chance to put down roots anywhere. I guess it’s no surprise that neither of them demonstrated a strong desire to walk down memory lane with me.
That could explain my reaction when my wonderful fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Berry, read to our class a book that provided some insight into life in the rural South during my parents’ generation. Skinny, written by a Fayette County, Georgia, native named Robert Burch, tells the story of an eleven-year-old boy from impoverished circumstances during a pivotal summer in his life. Skinny is absolutely his own person, fully formed and guilelessly charming. His relentless optimism and determination to make his way in a frequently confusing and disappointing world inspire admiration and affection in almost everyone he meets. Although not without conflict, Skinny is principally a tale of sweetness, simplicity, gratitude, and grace—a quiet masterpiece in 126 pages.
As I went on to read Burch’s other books, I was completely captivated. His stories were gentle, accessible, down-to-earth, and, most of all, about my own world, not some faraway, more sophisticated place. Frankly, I fell in love— with Robert Burch and with books. But to hear Skinny read aloud that first time was a revelation to me: words have the power to transport the reader into another world or, as it turns out, more deeply into her own.
Later, during my time at Peachtree, I was lucky enough to meet some of the loveliest and liveliest Southern writers then working: Ferrol Sams, Will Campbell, Celestine Sibley, Pat Conroy, Erskine Caldwell, and many others. Always consummate storytellers, often characters in their own right, they were a treasure trove of Southern history and culture. I spoke to them on the phone, greeted them in the office, or shared a meal. I listened in on meetings, proofread their galleys, and observed as they held crowds spellbound at parties and speaking events. I was young and inexperienced, and I did not always fully appreciate their cultural status or my own privileged position as their witness, but there was one meeting that left me heart-poundingly tongue-tied.
I met Robert Burch at a launch party for Cold Sassy Tree by Olive Ann Burns. I will never forget his kindness as I stumbled through my long-practiced but no doubt clumsy words of appreciation. He seemed equally delighted to meet me and gave me his arm as he whisked me off for a tour around the room, complete with introductions to all his friends. To say that he was warm does not begin to cover it. He was astonishingly gracious. Years later, after my first child was born, he was kind enough to autograph for my son my childhood copies of his books. The last letter I received from him before his death in 2007 offered an invitation to stop by the next time I drove through Fayetteville: “The latchstring here is out to you and your family,” he wrote.
I am grateful to have had the opportunity to immerse myself in the memories and wisdom—hog-killings included—of all those remarkable writers. Many of them wrestled with the past, both of their own families and of an often troubled homeland, but collectively they made a common point: that knowing and accepting where you come from is just as vital to the person you ultimately become as knowing where you are headed. They cemented in me an understanding of Southern identity that I fear my own children will never have, growing up in a much more homogenized region than the one I knew as a child. That will be their legacy to puzzle out. As for me, by virtue not only of my birth but of the lovingly told tales of these literary companions, I know myself to be well and truly a child of the American South.
Copyright (c) 2011 by Tina LoTufo. All rights reserved.