I’m in North Carolina, enjoying the beach and living without internet access… Currently, I’m sitting in a coffee shop accessing their wifi. I’ll be home on Saturday and will try to catch up with everyone’s blog. While I was in Georgia, I read this book and yesterday morning wrote a review of it. This is my first review for Maggie’s Summer Southern Reading Challenge.
Janisse Ray, Ecology of a Cracker Childhood (Minneapolis: Milkweed, 1999), 285 pages, a few pictures.
A few chapters into this book, Janisse Ray spins a tale about an epic battle between lightning and the long leaf pine. Millions of years ago, the pine moved onto land owned by lightning. They fought for control of the land, lightning hurling its bolts of electricity and the pine developing coping mechanisms till finally the pine was able to thrive in the land and depended on the lightning and the fires it spawned for its own survival. It’s a legend fitting for a girl whose father spun creation stories. According to her father, Janisse Ray was found lying in pine straw, under palmettos, late afternoon one February in 1962. Her father found her as he was searching for his sheep, as it was lambing time and one ewe was missing. Listening for the bleating of the ewe, he and his wife heard her infant cry. Each of her siblings had their own creation stories, one being discovered in the cabbage patch, another in a grapevine and the last under a huckleberry bush. Growing up in such a family, Janisse learned the art of storytelling from masters of the craft.
Janisse Ray grew up in rural South Georgia, in a junkyard along Highway 1. Her parents loved their children, but her father could also be strict, boarding on abusive. Like his father and grandfather before him, he also carried the seeds for mental illness. But he was devoted to his children and was a man who could do most anything. He had a big heart and would always lend a hand. Her mother was devoted to her father, standing by him as he spent time in a mental hospital, and working hard to care for and keep the family feed. Although she acknowledges their flaws, Janisse has great respect for both of her parents.
From her father, Janisse learned to respect all living things. Her father loved life and was against unnecessary killing, including capital punishment and abortion. Once, when his children were with a neighbor kid who had killed a turtle, he lectured the boy about what he’d done and sent him home. Then he gave each of his kids a whippin’ for allowing the abuse to happen. Her father also took his religion serious. After listening to Bishop Johnson on the radio (her father had gotten rid of the TV before Janisse was born), he drove to Philadelphia to meet the man. Thereafter, his family became the only whites in an Apostolic Church in Brunswick, Georgia. One family tradition was for each member to share a verse of scripture after the prayer and before the meal. The kids all vied for the shortest verse of scripture (Jesus wept), but one day when her granddad was eating with the family, he goaded their father with the rhyme, “Jesus wept, Moses slept, Peter went a fishin’”. Being members of an Apostolic Pentecostal church, there was great emphasis on being filled with the Holy Spirit and speaking in tongues, something Janisse didn’t want because she didn’t want anything uncontrollable filling her.
Living in a junk yard without a television and attending a black church separated Janisse and her sibling from other kids. She writes about the shame of being different, but also with pride about her family and the way they loved each other. She tells of bringing home a boyfriend from college, whom she tried to prepare for where they lived, but who was so shocked he broke up with her after the trip.
Her father also talked about great adventures, but never carried them out. When Janisse was in high school, he started talking about taking a float trip down the Altamaha River. Janisse decided this would be on thing they’d do and one Saturday, the two of them along with a neighbor and a brother, set off for a two day trip which included floating through the night. It was an adventure that redeemed her father’s early misadventure on the river. When Janisse was an infant, her father built a boat and took the family down the river. He ran the boat over a log which ripped a hole in the bottom of the boat, sinking it. Wearing a lifejacket, Janisse bobbed down the river till her father rescued her.
This book is more than a memoir. Sprinkled between the stories of growing up, the author informs us about cracker culture and how it became an adaption of Celtic culture in the Southeast, with cornmeal replacing oats. She discusses the unique dialect of the region, most of which seems normal to me! (Of her list, I often catch myself saying these: “whar for where, pizen for poison, young-uns for young ones, fixing for getting ready to, along with odd verb constructions like they growed up and the use of the double negative.” [82-3]) In addition to a culture that is disappearing, she also provides insight into the endangered habitat within the region, especially the longleaf pine and wire grass. She has a passion for saving this endangered environment. (See my earlier review of Looking for Longleaf)
Ecology of a Cracker Childhood is a love story. By expressing love and awe for creation as well as for her parents, Ray acknowledges who she is and the importance that place and family plays in her life. With her pen (and in the shadow of her father), she writes to defend nature from those who see it only as an opportunity for short term gain. I enjoyed this book and recommend it. I, too, grew up in a similar environment (but not a junkyard). Longleaf pines still populate my parents’ yard and with a bit of looking one still can find carnivorous plants in the wood areas nearby (including the venus flytrap which doesn’t grow in Southeastern Georgia). This book takes us through the author’s early years in college. I look forward to reading her second book, about returning home after college and graduate school in Montana.
For summer travels and reading plans, click here.
For other book reviews by Sage, click here.
For Semicolon's Saturday's list of book reviews in blogs, click here.