“South Toward Home: Adventures and Misadventures in My Native Land”
Author: Julia Reed
Foreword by Jon Meacham
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Price: $25.99 (Hardcover)
I had no plans to review this book. I was tired of reading serious history and long novels and picked up Julia Reed just for fun. I had enjoyed “Queen of the Turtle Derby and Other Southern Phenomena,” so I knew what to expect: humor and anecdote, lighthearted stuff. I read half the book in one sitting, the rest the next day.
If there are still beach days left, even though school has started, this book would serve.
Southern humor is a category all its own. Some of our best write of rural and blue-collar shenanigans, either humorous or touching. I think of Rick Bragg or Rheta Grimsley Johnson. Others, though, bring us the upscale but often still ludicrous adventures of the white-collar folk—Florence King in a classic like “Southern Ladies and Gentlemen” or, here, Julia Reed.
These essays, originally published in “Garden and Gun”—by which is meant flower gardens, not okra patches, and ornate Italian shotguns, are full of first-world hijinks but are nevertheless delightful and occasionally informative.
Some peculiar tax laws, for example, enable Texans near Fort Worth to lower the taxes on a 340-acre “corporate campus” from $319,417 to a paltry $714.57 “by grazing 24 Texas longhorns on the property.” An electronic company near Austin lowered the tax bill from $21,080 to $135.68 “by implementing a ‘wildlife plan’ that included spraying for fire ants and installing ten birdhouses.”
Some pieces are autobiographical. Reed was raised in Greenville, Mississippi, in comfort, on a place next to the levee. William F. Buckley and Robert Novak were guests. She attended the posh Madeira School in McLean, Virginia, as her mother and Katherine Graham, publisher of the “Washington Post,” had also. She acknowledges the original Miss Madeira “would have been appalled at the charge accounts we had with the local taxi service which we sent on runs for Haagen-Dazs.…”
More interesting than boarding school treats: the headmistress was Jean Harris, who murdered her lover, Herman Tarnower, the Scarsdale Diet doctor. There is definitely trouble to be found, even in Arcadia.
Before Madeira, just after the eighth grade, Reed had been packed off to Bible camp in Mentone, Alabama. The food was terrible and every morning at dawn the campers, Reed remembers, “were dragged off to a formation of damp and freezing-cold rocks to pray…I hate getting up early….”
I especially I liked the essay “Hell on Wheels.” Automobiles are dear to the hearts of all Southerners, it seems, from Elvis to Jerry Lee Lewis to Julia Reed.
Her father had, at high school graduation, given her a brand-new Toyota Celica. Reed loved this car, drove it for seven years, on countless trips home from school in D. C., but also to Key West, New York, everywhere. Unfortunately, Dad had not given any instructions on the care of this car, and at well over 100,000 miles it suddenly quit. Reed did not know one changed the oil. The mechanic who examined the Celica said: “Ma’am, if this car were a child, you’d be in jail.”
There are several essays on party giving: decorations, themes, food and drink, especially decorations.
A most unusual party was the funeral of “philanthropist and party giver” Mickey Easterling in New Orleans.
Rather than lying in a casket, Ms. Easterling sat in state, “a cigarette holder in one manicured hand and a Waterford crystal flute of champagne in the other.” Tennessee Williams scholar Kenneth Holditch described her presence as “a very pleasant effect . . . not unseemly.”
More than a thousand people attended.
Reed describes a party she gave at the time she called off her wedding at the last minute.
“The location was a falling-down antebellum mansion once owned by the family of Shelby Foote, and the theme was taxidermy. If you live in the right place, this is an extraordinarily inexpensive way to decorate for a party.”
Reed and her friends borrowed stuffed creatures from friends. There were raccoons and foxes, geese and ducks (suspended from the ceiling), a whole stuffed deer, a loggerhead turtle and a beaver “munching on a log.”
The Delta Hot Tamale Festival figures large but even more exotic are the parties on a sandbar under the Jesse Brent Memorial Bridge. This is Huck and Jim on the river but with whiskey, fried chicken, barbecued pork shoulder, and live entertainment.
There are several essays on Reed’s favorite music, mostly 70s music that brings back, for those of a certain age, the interiors of various bars, like the late, much lamented Chukker in Tuscaloosa. She has most of it right: Marvin Gaye, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Bonnie Raitt, and Lynyrd Skynyrd with “Sweet Home Alabama.’’
Any book on Southern life has to include possums. President William Howard Taft loved possum and served a twenty-six pounder in the White House at Thanksgiving. There is no recipe given.
Taft’s love of possums made them popular for a while, “driving up the cost of possum from one dollar to ten dollars per carcass.”
They are remarkable animals in many ways. Ticks attach themselves to possums BUT the possums are “star groomers” and hoover them up. “A single possum can kill a whopping four thousand ticks a week…” and they eat snails, slugs and beetles, and sometimes roaches and even rats. They have 50 teeth.
Who knew? Go possums.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” His most recent book is Belles’ Letters 2, a collection of short fiction by Alabama women.