The Summer We Got Saved

Jul 3, 2006

Devoto recreates in her three novels the life -- the daily, ordinary life -- of her fictional Bainbridge, Alabama, in the northwest corner of the state, between the Tennessee River and the Tennessee border.

Pat Devoto is a historical novelist, not in the sense that Irving Stone was, who wrote, for example, The Agony and the Ecstasy, set in the Italian Renaissance, but Devoto writes of the semi-recent past, Alabama in the forties and fifties, living memory for many of us.

She recreates in her three novels the life?the daily, ordinary life?of her fictional Bainbridge, Alabama, in the northwest corner of the state, between the Tennessee River and the Tennessee border. She captures well the girls' big skirts, the boys' haircuts, all the cultural details, but more importantly, she captures the cultural attitudes of those years.

Devoto writes mainly of children in those times, although her books are about children, not necessarily for them. Her second novel, Out of the Night That Covers Me (2001), is the story of an eight-year-old from North Alabama who has to survive on a hardscrabble Black Belt farm. In her first book, My Last Days As Roy Rogers (1999), the subject was the terrifying polio epidemics of the fifties. The town is frozen in horror, the pool closed, the children kept at home.

In this new book, she takes up the lives of two Alabama girls from her first book, one black, one white, a few years later, in the early sixties. The black girl, Maudie, has in fact contracted polio and been sent to the Tuskegee Institute which was, unbelievably, the only medical facility for polio rehabilitation for African Americans in the state.

There, Maudie sleeps in a room with other black girls, but they are in iron lungs. These scenes in the Tuskegee polio wards are a horror movie?as they are in Wayne Greenhaw's story The Spider's Web. The girls in the iron lungs are in fact doomed. Maudie is luckier. One of her two paralyzed legs responds to the therapies of the time and she receives a pretty decent if haphazard education at Tuskegee so that in this novel, she runs a combination literacy and voting rights school in Bainbridge, Alabama.

Her buddy, Tab, with whom she had shared Huck and Tom adventures on the Tennessee River, and Tab's sister, Tina, are taken for several weeks by her almost comically liberal Aunt Eugenia to the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee, for some liberal education.

The Highlander School, which we used to see denounced on Alabama billboards as a communist training center, taught civil disobedience and non-violent protest techniques and gave Southerners in residence an opportunity to experience integration in the bunkhouses. Nothing sordid went on?no drugs, no alcohol, no wanton sexual practices?just people learning to know one another. Both Dr. King and Rosa Parks had gone there.

Devoto is neither Flaubert nor Fitzgerald, but her style is clean and clear, calling no real attention to itself. And she is a good storyteller. She describes incident after incident, scene after scene. Tab gets involved in a sit-in at a 5 & 10 in Nashville and comes out covered in catsup. A black man tries to deposit his life savings?cash in a shoebox?in a bank in Bainbridge and the bank accepts the money "provisionally." First they must check around to see if there has been a robbery.

Tab and Tina's father, Charles, becomes a campaign manager for Brad La Forte, a progressive fighting for the Democratic Party nomination against George Wallace. La Forte ("the strong") is a character clearly modeled after Ryan deGraffenried, who did, like La Forte, die in a small plane crash in a storm, as Devoto puts it, "among the raindrops?luminous, sparkling stars falling on Alabama, consecrating this place that had put an end to their dreams."

Although the Highlander School was unjustly closed down and Alabama endured several more terms of Wallace, change was clearly on its way. Devoto is suggesting that the pioneer white civil rights workers did more than improve society. In a very real religious sense, they got their souls saved in that freedom summer.