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Mon October 13, 2008
Gather Up Our Voices: Edited by Jeanie Thompson
Selected Writings from Recipients of the Harper Lee Award for Alabama's Distinguished Writer 1998-2007
By Don Noble
Each year since 1998, on the first weekend in May, in Monroeville, Alabama, home of Nelle Harper Lee and childhood home of Truman Capote, and the legislature-designated "official" Literary Capital of Alabama, the much-coveted Harper Lee Award is given to a living Alabama writer who has achieved national recognition and who has made a significant, lifelong contribution to Alabama letters. The award is underwritten by George F. Landegger and given jointly by Alabama Southern Community College and the Alabama Writers' Forum.
This volume, selections from the work of the first ten winners, is fine reading and a commemorative volume any literary enthusiast would like to own.
The contents of the volume were chosen in a collaborative process between Jeanie Thompson and the writers themselves, who donated their work, and the proceeds of the volume will go to support programs of the Alabama Writers' Forum. Reading this book will give you more pleasure than a box of cookies and fewer calories.
Since it is a lifetime achievement award, some of the writers are among Alabama's most senior writers. Gather begins with an excerpt from Albert Murray's novel of growing up black in north Mobile County, Train Whistle Guitar. Madison Jones is represented by a chilling story of a small-town serial killer, "Season of the Strangler." Helen Norris, whose work has never gotten its proper appreciation, is represented by "The Cracker Man" which, like many of her tales?one thinks of "Water Into Wine"?is a story of loneliness and, perhaps, one hopes, the end of loneliness. "The Cracker Man" was made into a successful feature film.
Sena Jeter Naslund, who reached national prominence with Ahab's Wife, is represented here by a passage from her civil rights novel, Four Spirits. She has since published Abundance, her novel of the life of Marie Antoinette.
William Cobb, also the author of many works of fiction, long and short, has contributed "Walking Strawberry." Set on the Gulf Coast, the protagonist seems to be modeled on, or at least inspired by, the idiosyncratic painter Walter Anderson. This story has not received a lot of attention and is a good choice.
The brilliant story writer Mary Ward Brown is represented by "Swing Low," a poignant tale of complicated but genuine affection between the races on a Black Belt plantation.
As all editors/compilers know, choosing is real work, and Thompson has done her work very well. The choice from Wayne Greenhaw is perhaps unusual, since it is not from a work of fiction, but is rather a chapter of his book on the Montgomery bus boycott. But it is the right chapter, the story of a young black U.S. Army PFC who was shot to death for not entering the bus from the back door, after paying his dime. It hardly seems possible now, but death at the hands of Jim Crow was a commonplace as recently as the 1950s.
Alabama has become famous for her fiction writers, but the state also claims some first-rate poets and three have won the Harper Lee Award.
Sonia Sanchez, born in Birmingham, is a long-time resident of NYC. Her poetry is sometimes performance/musical, including chants. She is sometimes Afrocentric, sometimes feminist, always cosmopolitan.
Andrew Hudgins of Montgomery writes often of his childhood, his teen years and the depressingly swift passage of time.
Rodney Jones writes of north Alabama, of Shell stations, and mules, of Jim Folsom and country music. Jones, as a poet, is especially interested in the language of his home place and has a volume entitled Elegy for the Southern Drawl.
This volume is beautifully illustrated, or the writing is accompanied by, fifty photos by Wayne Sides, from his "Litany for a Vanishing Landscape" series. These hand-colored pictures are Christenberry-like, of kudzu, old barns, rusting cars, and are a perfect accompaniment for much of the writing in this volume.
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.