My blog begins with a confession. I have trouble sleeping. Not an uncommon complaint for people my age. Especially busy people. The insomnia kicks in at the strangest times—and with the wildest anxieties.
This morning, I work up in a lather about the state of Southern stories. The books I love, the writers I adore, and the characters I carry in my heart all come for the rural South. Not big city Atlanta. Not sprawling Houston. But Athena, Mississippi. Or New Iberia, Louisiana. Sometimes the authors live in big cities, but they grew up in the rural South and they generally write about small towns or a place no bigger than a crossroads.
So why has this upset me? Because the students I teach today have no real connection to anything rural. They are of a generation that even their grandparents (I thought it was a law that grandparents had to live in a small town or on a farm!) have grown up and retired to subdivisions, patio homes, or, god forbid, an apartment. I actually had one student who did not have a clue what the interior of a barn might hold. I almost wept.
That is not to say that I am a defender of all things rural. Ignorance and isolation can breed up some nasty children. (Though the crowded projects of big cities are equally guilty of such.) For example, I just finished a book by a Maine writer, a tale about a game warden in the rural reaches of his craggy state. He proved my point that the worst traits and characteristics often associated with the South are not a matter of region, but more a matter of isolation and lack of education (willful ignorance). In other words—the worst of rural. Isolated Maine is not that very different from the horrors one can find down a red dirt road in rural Alabama or Mississippi.
But what I love is the best of rural life. A place where men and women still abide by an older code of conduct. One that requires manners and integrity, a willingness to protect those weaker than they are. When I was a child growing up, I could ride my bicycle anywhere in George County without worry or concern that someone might try to harm me. I had a freedom that children today can’t conceive of. I met hermits who fished the Pascagoula River, and old women who dipped snuff and quilted in their front yards on sunny days. Characters who picked up glass bottles and melted them into art. Fortune tellers, bee keepers, religious fanatics, and armers. Grist for my fiction mill now. Everyone in the county knew my parents. And I suspect they were terrified to even think of harming me. My mother would have eaten them alive. That is not an exaggeration.
Today, kids only play “organized” ball. No backyard games without referees. We settled our own differences, and it was good for us. An “outing” is a trip to the mall or some other concrete and air-conditioned hell. There is no sense of community, no idea that the people one meets in first grade will be contemporaries for the rest of a person’s life. I have friends I met at the age of five. We are still as close as sisters. They are extended family, and because they’ve known me for decades, they have a clear and unobstructed view of who I am. There is no fooling them with a new haircut or a carefully constructed persona. They know me to the bone. And they hold me accountable.
So I woke up this morning mourning the loss of this kind of “knowing” of a place and a people. These children who grow up in perfectly manicured subdivisions without dewberry briars or wild plums, what will they write about? How will they connect to and reflect this over-heated, humid land that I love so much? How will they serve future generations of readers if they don’t understand the complex relationship of human and nature?—because they have lost touch with the natural world. I contend that Faulkner nor Welty could have written with the power they harnessed if they’d been children of a concrete world. It was a love of land and the power of the natural world that drove them to share their stories with the world.
It’s getting close to noon now, and I must turn to writing the next Bones book. I will write about my characters who are best friends from childhood and who have an abiding love for the soil and landscape. With Sarah Booth, Tinkie, Jitty, Cece and the rest, I can sink into the safety net of a fictional town where cotton is still king and where best friends mean a lifetime commitment. It is a world I know from personal experience, but one that I see fading quickly from the consciousness of those who will come after me.
A native of Mississippi, Carolyn now lives in Alabama on a farm with her dogs, horses, & cats. Bones of a Feather, the 11th book in her Sarah Booth Delaney series, releases on June 21. Sign up for Carolyn's Newsletter & feel free to visit her Website, along with her Facebook, Twitter, & Fan Page. Do yourself a favor, and learn more about this terrific writer!