Books
4:21 pm
Mon May 25, 2009

The Cracker Queen: A Memoir of a Jagged, Joyful Life, by Lauretta Hannon

Frankly, I was reminded of the t-shirts I occasionally see on women in malls. They suggest, and I am prettying this up?"I am a vulgar person with an evil temper, hormonally unbalanced, and on my last nerve. If you distress me in the slightest, I will hurt you." I give these women a lot of space and I feel the same way about this book.

The house of southern memoir and personal essay has many rooms. Most are stories of tough childhoods, sometimes with odd, eccentric parents as in Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, by Janisse Ray, sometimes with alcoholism, deprivation and even hunger. Bragg's All Over But the Shoutin', Harry Crews's A Childhood, Barbara Robinette Moss's Change Me Into Zeus's Daughter and many others are somewhere in this category.

Some memoirs, those with physical and sexual abuse, are even more painful, even if the conditions are middle class. Mary Karr's The Liar's Club and Melissa Delbridge's Family Bible fit in here.

There are also collections of memories and anecdotes meant to amuse by playing off of Southern folkways and oddities.

In this book there is a bit of Foxworthy: you might be a Cracker Queen if...

But the title evokes The Sweet Potato Queens, a group of slightly bored middle-class women making fun of beauty queens and low-rent tackiness by dressing up in Goodwill gowns, majorette boots, tiaras and giant red wigs. One of them is actually a District Attorney.

It seems fair to say that Hannon's Cracker Queens are, beauty pageants aside, the people Jill Connor Browne is satirizing.

But it's not that simple, because The Cracker Queen doesn't seem to know which room it wants to occupy. We are asked to empathize and to laugh. I did not laugh much.

Hannon's book is part conventional tough-childhood memoir. Her father was 20 years older than her mother, traumatized by WWII, and a music teacher obsessed with playing jazz. Her mother, part Indian, is a chain-smoking alcoholic, herself raised in an alcoholic household. The details of her mom's childhood are too painful to relate. Lauretta's childhood in Warner Robins, Georgia was not much better.

Her parents fought violently, Mom was bruised and injured, took relief in booze and other men, and matters got worse. Hannon became an enabler, lying to the social workers to prevent being put in foster care. The story is not rare. For a while there was religious obsession. The kitchen caught on fire. Her parents split up. Dad died when Hannon was 17. Mom's sister Aunt Carrie came around a lot but she mixed pills with booze, married often and, we are told, "ended up shooting the first four husbands and going after the last one with a butcher knife."

Obviously, Hannon survived and grew up, went to UGA and became for a while a successful public relations person, now a radio commentator and writer.

The confusion comes for me with what we are supposed to do with this book, which keeps moving back and forth between memoir and self-help. Hannon has created the Cracker Queen, defined as a "strong, authentic Southern woman . . . the anti-Southern belle... with a raucous sense of humor, [who] cusses, laughs inappropriately, and raises t-total hell when the line is crossed." In this sense, authenticity trumps vulgarity. You must follow certain rules, however, or you are "just mean ol' white trash." You must love those around you, only whupping them if "the person requires a jolt that can't be administered any other way."

Resourcefulness is praised. Mother bought Lauretta each year's school clothes at K-Mart using a fake credit card and a bad check.

Hannon assures the reader that "nonsmokers, Yankees, professors and even men can be Cracker Queens," if you have the right attitude. I am all of those things, but not tempted.

Frankly, I was reminded of the t-shirts I occasionally see on women in malls. They suggest, and I am prettying this up?"I am a vulgar person with an evil temper, hormonally unbalanced, and on my last nerve. If you distress me in the slightest, I will hurt you." I give these women a lot of space and I feel the same way about this book.

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