Thursday, June 05, 2008

Ecology of a Cracker Childhood: A Book Review

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.


  1. It sounds rather good, Sage. My southern TBR pile keeps getting taller and taller!

    Oh, I'm dying to know what the neighbor kid killed! A butterfly, cat, mouse, ant, worm, turtle, what? *held in suspense*

  2. What an interesting life! I like how she gains strength from the love of her family; overcoming her all that shame and adversity.

    Thanks for the review...from the road. ;)

  3. Oooh, enjoy the beach and internet free time! :)

  4. Sounds like a pretty good book Sage.

  5. I've not even finished the post and I've got to start talking. Maybe an irony for us both. Hyde and Tyrell counties are on fire as we speak. An estimated 20,500 acres as of yet. The fire was started by Lightening.

    Have you (anyone) read William Bartrams(1770's) experience of the Altamaha River? If I remember that is where he spent the night fighting off aligators and was chased by them as he left his camp in the morning.

    Her boy friend left her after seeing her folks? His loss.

    This sounds like a very interesting book. How was Geoargia?

  6. Enjoy the beach! Are you guys getting this record heat too I wonder? I was thinking I saw where the beaches were normal. I hope you have a great time.

  7. Like Maggie - I was wondering what was killed?

  8. Read this review via Maggie Reads Southern Reading Challenge. I cannot wait to read this book. Great review! Glad there is a follow-up about the character in another book. Thanks!

  9. Karen, it was good--I'm back in MI

    Maggie, I left out a detail!!! It was a turtle

    Scarlet, it's a good read!

    TC, I enjoyed the beach and got homesick driving through West Virginia (I've never lived there, but I love the mountains, where ever they may be)

    Ed, your brother might like it with his work

    Appalachians, keep safe with those fires there--I've not read Bartram, but he's on my list--he had a brother (or an uncle?) who had a plantation along the Cape Fear River, near Carvers. Georgia was fine--wish I'd been up in the Carolina mts--the coast was delightful--hot days but the beach cool with an offshore breeze

    Deana, yes, it was hot! But thankfully, I spent most of the time on or near the water

    Diane, I got to fix that little detail!

    Susie, thanks for stopping and hope you enjoy the book

  10. Great review, Sage.

    And I'm always "fixin'" to do something.

  11. I envy you the beach and internet free time. I wish I could get away for some time this year but I'm not sure if it will be possible.

  12. Sage, I had a chance to walk some of Bartrams foot steps this weekend, but had to pass it up. It was Bartrams Uncle that had the plantation on the Cape Fear. I read the Naturalist Edition, so, I had to weed through allot of Latin names. You should read him sometimes, and, Lawson's "Voyage to the Carolinas".
    This book, The Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, seems to be an interesting read. Modern day folk stories.

  13. Maggie insisted I join the chalenge as I had already read two of the books. I do have the third one to. No guesses!

    To Kill a Mockinbird. I read it long time ago. Maybe more than twice. So I want to look for another book. Plenty of time, I suppose!

  14. Hi, Sage! Thanks for stopping my blog. Your review of Janisse Ray's book was wonderful. Glad you liked this book too!

    =) Jill

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