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Mon April 12, 2010
Delta Blues edited by Carolyn Haines
Carolyn Haines, a native Mississippian, now of Semmes, Alabama... has taken some time out to solicit, collect and edit these 19 short stories, all set in the Mississippi Delta
By Don Noble
Carolyn Haines, a native Mississippian, now of Semmes, Alabama, is a noted writer of stand-alone mysteries and the author of the charming "Bones" series of Delta mysteries. Haines, who has received the Richard Wright Award and who will later this month receive the Harper Lee Award for the Literary Arts in Monroeville, Alabama, has taken some time out to solicit, collect and edit these 19 short stories, all set in the Mississippi Delta and contributed by writers with a strong Delta connection. One dollar from each volume sold will go to the Rock River Foundation, to promote literacy in the Delta.
The Foreword is by the actor Morgan Freeman, a native of Clarksdale, who is himself attempting to revive his home town through his fine restaurant Madidi and the Ground Zero Blues Club.
In general, the quality of these stories is very high and as one might expect there are common threads related to Mississippi and the blues. As in all collections, however, some stories strike this reader as better than others.
Not surprisingly, two of the best are by James Lee Burke and John Grisham. Burke and Grisham both write about Parchman Prison, arguably the most blues-producing spot on the face of the earth.
Burke's story "Big Midnight Special" is, not surprisingly, gritty. His protagonist, Arlen, is a heroin addict, a boxer, and a blues fan. Life in Parchman is brutal, with cruel guards and even crueler inmates. Arlen, like Prewitt in "From Here to Eternity," is being manipulated into boxing, which he refuses, and into killing. He finally manages his escape, an act of defiance and perhaps his last.
John Grisham's story is of the dreadful Graney family. All three Graney boys, Leon, Butch and Raymond, have done time in Parchman, but Raymond is on death row, to be executed soon. Oddly enough, this story is so miserable, it has a comic dimension. Brother Raymond has, while in prison, taken up "Buddhism, then Islam, then Hinduism,....meditation, kung fu, aerobics, weight-lifting, fasting." A self-styled blues writer and musician, he has also attempted to become a poet and a novelist. All of his writing has been rejected everywhere. His semi-literate family try to read his pseudo-intellectually pretentious letters home with the aid of a dictionary. Of his mom, Inez, Grisham writes, "The letters drained her. The novels (eight of them) put her to bed. The poetry could not be penetrated."
Raymond also has a high opinion of himself as a jailhouse lawyer, and this last delusion will prove fatal.
Another subject common to many stories here is the abused wife. Dean James' story, "My Own Little Room in Hell," is of a 15-year-old wife, sold by her father to Mr. McAlister, twice her age and a racist sadist. This girl not only escapes but manages to send her vicious husband to his own little room in hell.
Carolyn Haines, in her story, "The Sugar Cure," places the abused wife in Parchman Prison, as the wife of a guard, living on the grounds, but a prisoner, nevertheless. Nilla plots her escape and not only gets away but helps a black bluesman prisoner get away also.
The lousy husbands in this volume are truly rancid, but they have a short life expectancy.
Many of these stories are set in Clarksdale, in the building where Bessie Smith dies or in Freeman's club. Several involve Robert Johnson and his midnight crossroads deal with the devil, along with ghosts, curses and voodoo.
In some stories, the good people survive and even triumph, but as Alabama writer Albert Murray said of the blues, usually the message is that life is a dirty low-down shame that shouldn't happen to a dog.
This volume is fine work in a good cause and deserves an audience.
Don Noble's book reviews can be heard each Monday on Alabama Public Radio at 7:35 a.m. and 4:44 p.m. Recently retired as English professor at The University of Alabama, Don's specialties are Southern and American literature. Don also hosts Bookmark on Alabama Public Television.