Archive for June, 2012

Memoirist Sue Pickett shares an economics lesson, still meaningful

Wednesday, June 27th, 2012 by Randall Williams

In the current Great Recession, some 8 to 9 percent are officially unemployed; many more—especially among groups such as minorities, the young, those without high school diplomas, those 55 and over—are omitted from the official statistics because they have quit looking for jobs. Still, there’s a huge difference between 9 percent and the 25 to 30 percent that were unemployed during the Great Depression of the 1930s (or now in some European countries).

For those U.S. families whose breadwinners are still working and who didn’t lose their homes to foreclosure, etc., what we have been going through since the last half of George W. Bush’s administration mostly passes without personal pain. Small wonder then that the average citizen ignores the debates around economic policy, the safety net, and the nature and role of government itself; such matters are left to the special interests, the pundits, and, sadly, the talk radio and faux news show hosts.

Around the office, we have been proofreading the forthcoming The Path Was Steep by Suzanne Pickett. This is a small gem of a book, a memoir by an Alabama woman who was a young wife and mother during the Depression, in the coal camps of north Alabama and for a time in West Virginia. This will be a new edition of a book that we first published in the 1990s and that has been out of print for several years.

Mrs. Pickett died a few years after we initially published her book. She was, as her memoir proves on every page, one of those spirits who make you feel more alive by knowing them. Though she was self-taught as a writer, she had a natural storytelling gift and the ability to express a scene so that you feel present in it.

Two or three of our young staffers and interns have remarked while copyediting and proofreading the page galleys of The Path Was Steep that it made them for the first time understand the Great Depression. Here’s an excerpt of a few pages from the memoir, in a chapter from the period when Mrs. Pickett’s husband David had found work in a West Virginia coal camp:

One afternoon, as we ate supper, a small boy and girl appeared at the kitchen door. The little girl was about ten and had a curious, old-woman look in her face. The boy, a year or so younger, stared at a plate of leftover boiled corn.

“Have you had supper?” I asked gently.

The girl’s face reddened. “We was just going to ask if you have any food to spare.”

“Of course there is food.” I took down two plates.

“Could we have it in a poke?”

“Are there others?” I asked.

“Mommie and Aunt Bess and three small children.”

“Where do you live?” I asked.

She bent her head, and her face reddened again. “Nowhere.” It was only a breath. “We—we’ve got people over the mountain.”

“Where did you sleep last night?” I put my arm around her shoulders.

“Down the road.” She raised her head. “I aim to pay for the food. I’ll wash dishes,” she said.

“You slept outdoors?”

“We built a fire. Hit wasn’t cold.”

Nights in the mountains were always cold. “Go tell your folks to come here for supper,” I said.

“If you’ll let me work. I aim to pay.”

“If that’s the way you want it,” I agreed. I knew the stern pride of the mountaineers.

“That’s the way hit has to be,” she said.

I stirred the fire in the kitchen stove, sliced salt pork, put it in a pan at the back of the stove, and ran to the garden. The pork just needed turning when I returned with corn, tomatoes, onions, and lettuce. By the time the corn bubbled on the stove in salted water, with a little butter added for flavor, and biscuits were browned, the girl was back with her family. The women, young and fair, looked tired and hopeless. The smaller children were shy, hardly speaking. After supper they were all a little more cheerful.

The girl’s name was Irene. She washed her hands, cleared the table, and began to wash dishes. One look at her face, and I didn’t interfere.

“You got some soap we could have?” her mother asked. “We ain’t washed no clothes since we left Pennsylvania.”

“How did you travel?” I took a bar of Octagon laundry soap from a pantry shelf.

“Rode a freight. They found us at the state line and throwed us off the train. Said if hit wasn’t fer the children, they’d a throwed us in jail.”

Irene swept the kitchen floor, then carried water to wash the clothes. They hung them up on my lines and stayed until dark; then the aunt said, “You mind if we sleep in yore yard?”

“We’ve plenty of room for all of you,” I said, my throat dry.

“Just make us a pallet,” she smiled listlessly.

But I crowded Sharon and Davene into bed with David and me, so the women could have a bed. Perhaps it was the first they’d slept in for many nights.

Irene spread their bedding on the floor. It was dirty and mud-stained. I offered my only clean sheets for cover. “I mean to pay,” her eyes were fierce gray. “I’ll sweep yore yard in the morning.” She had watched as I put the girls to bed, first kneeling with them for their prayers. She knelt and whispered, and I saw tears falling from her hands between her fingers.

I fought back tears. How had she kept her pride? Her mother, aunt, and the smaller ones had the very smell of the Depression about them. Pride, if they ever possessed it, and most mountaineers do, was gone and there was a trapped, animal look—I couldn’t describe it, but when David came in from work the next day, I knew. It was the look of cheap, shoddy, used goods.

There was two dollars in my purse. I didn’t even dare look at the fireplace, but slipped the money to Irene’s mother and gathered corn and tomatoes, found half a box of crackers and some cheese, and put them in a bag just before they left the next day.

Irene washed dishes, swept the floors, and was sweeping the yard when her mother called. “Time for us to git on.”

“I done what I could,” Irene told me.

“You did more than you should,” I stooped to kiss her.

She threw her arms around me and gave a big, gasping sob. “You are so good, as good as any angel,” she wept.

“Oh, no,” I whispered and held her close. “Why don’t you visit with us for a week or so?” I asked. I’d bathe the child, cut her hair, make her a dress. “All right?” I asked her mother.

“You can have her fer good if you want,” indifferently.

I looked at Irene, dreading to see the blow strike. But her eyes grew luminous and she ran to her mother. “I have to go with Mommie! I have to!” Her face grew protective, tender, burning with love, and suddenly I understood. The mother was whipped, cowed. Nothing was left to her, not even love for her children; but this child was not whipped. Somehow, Irene would get them through this Depression, if it ever ended, as a golden voice over our $14.50 portable radio promised over and over that it would end.

As they started away, Irene darted back to whisper fiercely, “Don’t think Mommie wants to give me away. She just wants to get a good home fer me.”

“Of course she does.” I kissed her, and her face lighted at my words. I offered them as a sacrifice to the child, and if He will accept a lie as a sacrifice, I offered them to God, for I knew the words to be a lie. Irene’s mother would be happy to be rid of the child. But no earthly power could make Irene believe this. Her love was so overwhelming that she wrapped it like a warm blanket around her mother. She was a swamp blossom. Pure gold, growing from black swamp mould. Perhaps her love would be strong enough to save her mother.

Sadly, there were not enough Sue Picketts in the 1930s to save or even help all the Irenes. But brick-by-brick, led by that golden voice that resonated on the Picketts’ $14 radio, Congress built the New Deal safety net programs, expanded during the 1960s by the Great Society legislation, that today by and large keep our Irenes fed, clothed, and housed during hard times. Today these programs are threatened. We should tread carefully before we dismantle them.

Speaker Mike Hubbard’s new political book calls attention from all sides

Wednesday, June 13th, 2012 by Brian Seidman

Alabama House Speaker Mike Hubbard launched his new book Storming the State House: The Campaign That Liberated Alabama from 136 Years of Democrat Rule with an appearance in Washington, D.C., at a reception hosted by Mississippi Governor and RNC Chairman Haley Barbour, where Hubbard signed the book with other members of Alabama’s congressional delegation in attendance.

Storming the State House details the historic 2010 election that saw Alabama’s first Republican legislature in modern history. The book also offers an inside view of the long hours, fundraising, and campaign-building that goes into successful bids for political office.

Hubbard’s book has won praise from former Bush Administration adviser Karl Rove, who recommended it to those “interested in grassroots politics,” and from former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who called it “a must read.” The Auburn-Opelika News wrote that “any work of this depth should be considered a must-read for political aficionados regardless of party loyalties.”

The book begins prior to Hubbard’s own bid for party chairman. As Hubbard told Mike Huckabee on The Huckabee Report radio show, it was former Alabama Governor Bob Riley who persuaded Hubbard to run for the position (despite Hubbard’s early misgivings), a decision that ultimately lead to the Republican Party’s success.

Mobile Press-Register political editor George Talbot writes that Storming the State House is “part memoir and part political tell-all, [but] it is foremost a playbook for how to organize, fund and win elections. Hubbard’s formula for success is no revelation — recruit good candidates, provide them the resources to run and keep a relentless focus on voters.

“His knack for marketing is evident, but Hubbard also shows political guile: He describes in detail how the party purposefully ‘leaked’ a copy of its 88-page Victory Plan to Doc’s Political Parlor, a popular political blog, in a successful ploy to spook Democrats. …

“Hubbard reveals the political infighting and internal rivalries that threatened to undermine the campaign — and readers looking for gossip will find plenty.”

Some of those eyebrow-raising items, already highlighted in a flurry of media attention, include the credit Hubbard gives to former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel for indirectly guiding Republican strategy. Hubbard told the Daily Caller website that he studied closely a book about Emanuel’s own Congressional win, The Thumpin’.

“The number one lesson was that we had to be involved in candidate recruitment,” Hubbard said in an interview. “And in the book about Emanuel, The Thumpin’, that was clear. That’s what they did. They went district by district and they picked conservative Democrats, professionals, business people to run for those seats. They didn’t just depend on who showed up and wanted to run.”

Hubbard also describes in the book strange behavior he and aides witnessed from former South Carolina governor Mark Sanford, shortly before Sanford would be involved in a highly publicized scandal.

Hubbard’s book has been featured on the Politico bookshelf, and also recently highlighted by the Associated Press and in the Tuscaloosa News‘s Dana Beyerle’s Capitol Insider column.

Storming the State House is available in hardcover and ebook formats direct from NewSouth Books, Amazon or from your favorite bookstore.

Tony Crunk praises Ted Dunagan’s YA novel Trouble on the Tombigbee

Tuesday, June 5th, 2012 by Brian Seidman

One book review rarely says it all, but we thought poet and children’s author Tony Crunk’s observations about Ted Dunagan’s new young adult novel Trouble on the Tombigbee came close. In a recent online edition of First Draft magazine, calling Dunagan’s novel “a ripping good yarn for any reader.”

Crunk also lauds Dunagan’s depiction of the book’s protagonists, young Ted and Poudlum, friends in 1940s Alabama despite that one is white and one is black.

In Dunagan’s book, Crunk writes, “the two boys really do function as equals. They are equally clever, equally thoughtful and sensitive, and, most importantly, equally dependent on each other. They enact a model of inter-racial mutuality that defies the social prejudices of their time and place, and that could well serve as an ideal for the generation soon to emerge from that time and place … This subtlety will not be lost on the novel’s more sophisticated readers.”

Trouble on the Tombigbee is Dunagan’s third young adult novel about Ted and Poudlum, following A Yellow Watermelon and Secret of the Satilfa. Dunagan is a two-time Georgia Author of the Year award winner for his young adult novels; the Georgia Center for the Book included A Yellow Watermelon on their inaugural list of 25 Books Every Young Georgian Should Read. Dunagan also writes features and columns for The Monticello News in Monticello, Georgia.

At the end of Crunk’s review, he noted that “apart from [Tombigbee‘s] political message … the action is swift and exciting [and] the characters are complex and engaging. … The river itself becomes an immutable presence, offering both hazard and refuge, and thus serving as a near perfect setting for this coming of age tale.” You can read Tony Crunk’s full review at the First Draft website.

A Yellow Watermelon, Secret of the Satilfa, and Trouble on the Tombigbee are all available in print and ebook formats direct from NewSouth Books or from your favorite bookstore.

Bob Zellner on “Granddaddies and Same-Sex Marriage”

Monday, June 4th, 2012 by Brian Seidman

Bob Zellner, author of The Wrong Side of Murder CreekBob Zellner, civil rights activist and author of The Wrong Side of Murder Creek: A White Southerner in the Freedom Movement, sent this missive:

I grew up in LA, lower Alabama. My Great- Granddaddy Zellner thought he could not do without slavery. Granddaddy Zellner thought he could not get along without segregation. My father’s generation thought they simply could not get along without opposite sex marriage.

I get along fine without slavery and I don’t have a personal need for segregation. As for marriage, I have tried it twice without success and hope I am done with it. For those who like it, I am happy for them to have at it any way they want it. Opposite sex, same sex, no sex, it is all the same for me.

Wait! Someone brought up bestiality. Was it Santorum? Man on dog? That might give me pause, especially if the man wants to marry his best friend. Well, it only gave me a pause, and a short one at that. If a woman wants to marry her dog and a man wants to marry his horse, who’s to say it is not the right thing for them? No skin off my teeth, no harm no foul. Right?

It reminds me of the time Chuck McDew and I visited my brother and his wife in a small town near Knoxville, Tenn. McDew, an African American born in Massillon, Ohio, was fascinated by the jobs being held down, clung to actually, by my young nephews and their wives, all white southerners, born and bred. It was in the time of the Bush vs. Gore presidential race. We were eating in a Chinese buffet near the airport surrounded by all these rural southerners so quite naturally Chuck asked whom everybody was voting for. Bush was their man, as one of my nephews proclaimed vigorously.

McDew allowed as how that did not seem right, given the bleak picture they painted of employment in Knoxville. Looking perplexed, he questioned, “Didn’t you say there no good paying jobs and you make hardly enough to pay for gas to and from work? You work at Jiffy Lube, minimum wage and you at Burger King, same wage, one wife at the dry cleaners and another at Wall Mart, and Grandma Ruth has to take care of the babies? Why on earth would you vote for Texan George Bush over Tennessean Gore?”

“Because,” my kinfolk fairly shouted in unison, “Bush is going to protect us from gay marriage!”

Chuck, completely flabbergasted by now, asked, “Do you know any gay people? Do you know any gay people who are getting married?” They all agreed that they didn’t know any gay people and didn’t know if any of them were getting married.

Later at the airport McDew said he used to worry about my poor white kinfolks and often hoped they would be able to do better. “Now,” he told me, “After what I heard today from your poor white nieces and nephews, I will never worry about poor white people again.”


Bob Zellner lives and teaches in New York state. His memoir The Wrong Side of Murder Creek: A White Southerner in the Freedom Movement is available in both hardcover and ebook formats from NewSouth Books or your favorite bookstore.