Monday, May 5, 2008

You Can Call Me Ma'am: Prelude to a Book Review

A few months ago, after I wrote about reading Rhett Butler's People, Jessica James, the author of another novel of the Civil War invited me to review her book as well. I was hesitant to do it for a whole bunch of reasons, some of which I am about to discuss, but I changed my mind for one reason alone: it was published by an independent press. Knowing that, it occurred to me that it would be the height of hypocrisy for me to sit here and rant about the unfair treatment that independent publishers so frequently receive while at the same time knowing that I had paid the cover price for Rhett Butler's People yet had declined to bother to even review another novel of possibly better caliber simply because I had already read the "popular" Civil War novel of the season. Therefore, I decided to not only do the honourable thing and review the book, I decided to buy it rather than accept a review copy.

I am posting this separately because I didn't want to gum up the review itself with my ridiculous reasoning. I also wanted to note a couple of things about my worldview and how it affects my reading of novels about the South and the American Civil War.

First and foremost, I am a Southerner, but I am not a racist and I am deeply ashamed of slavery and all of the things that accompanied it. To my knowledge, although I cannot be certain, most of my ancestors did not own slaves, but to a person, they were all Confederates, including the women. They were citizens of the Confederate States of America.

The problem for me is that I was born in a tiny little place in Arkansas, where no famous battles were fought, but where a lot of people died. And I mean this literally. They died right around where my great great grand parents (and I) were born. These small, unfamous battles and skirmishes took place in the fields right around the houses. My sixth great grandmother watched her uncle, who was home on furlough, get dragged out of the house and hung. She was sixteen years old. Her father had been killed less than two months before and her mother was dying of consumption. She had sisters and a little brother to take care of. Stories like these don't die. They get told. They get passed down along with the saved medals and the bullets and the land where the blood was spilled. It is not academic. It has nothing to do with history books. It stays in the family. And it stays in the heart.

When I read a book about the Civil War, no matter much how I want to disengage and be modern, no matter how much I know that I should condemn the Confederacy, well, I think of that terrified girl from whom I am descended, and how she watched her last male relative swinging from a rope, wondering how she and her sisters and brother were going to survive, and I cannot. I think of how she fought. To survive. And I think, "You go, girl. You go!"

But, you see, that's the thing. The people living on the land, not the big plantation owners, just the people – my ancestors – they didn't have slaves. For them, it was just about the place that they were. The war came to them, and they fought. Their houses were burnt. Their fields were burnt. Their goods were burnt. They were left with nothing. They starved. And they fought. The ones who survived. They had stories. And they told them.

When the men died, their children put iron crosses on their graves. And it's ironic in some ways, because it's really the women who deserved them in many cases because it was the women who fought the hardest for those of us Southerners who live today. I know for a fact that my many-great grandmothers fought much harder for subsequent generations to live because they were the ones who lived, literally, on the fields where the battles took place. Nearly all of Tull was destroyed during the retreat after the battle of Jenkins Ferry. No lionesses could have fought harder for their babies to survive. I am not here because of the lions; I am here because of the lionesses.

So, my opinions of books about the Civil War are coloured by that. There is no getting around it. When someone from the South uses the euphemism, the War of Northern Aggression, it is often considered to be the affectation of a Southern partisan. It is looked at by some as another romanticisation of the Lost Cause myth. To people like my ancestors, however, it would have been a reality, however, as they were just small people who lived in a small place. They would not have been involved in the Great Doings of their day but for the fact that those doings came to their doorstep; the battles came to them.

I am writing about this now because the book I intend to review includes a strong female character who was caught up in the war in ways not unlike the ways in which my own ancestors were, albeit in a different location. This made the novel very believable to me. I like books that don't gloss over the roles of Southern women because they are hard to find, and I will write more on that when I review the book itself.

It's funny, not long ago, there was a letter to the editor in a local newspaper here in Washington in which the author complained about being addressed as "ma'am." It seemed the author felt insulted to be so addressed as "ma'am" or "Miss" by clerks in stores and others unknown to her because she thought it was sexist or ageist. I immediately thought of how different that is to my own feelings of being addressed that way.

As a Southerner, I am used to hearing and saying, "Thank you ma'am" to other women, and after living in Louisiana for a while, I even got used to hearing myself referred to as "Miss T." The lady across the street was "Miss Kris." Miss Claire lived next door. It felt strange at first, but it didn't take me long to understand that this is intended as a form of respect. Why would I not wish to treat others with respect? Why would I not wish to be respected? I am descended from a long line of ladies to whom I owe respect. If I wish to join them, then I need to be worthy of them. They would have said, "Thank you ma'am." And they would have said it in a particularly kindly manner if they were thanking you for sharing the coffee you had "liberated" from the federal supply train you had raided, perhaps knocking off a few Union troops along the way.

Book review to come…


tamsaunt said...

I second all of that! Well said.

Tess said...

I think that's what so many forget about war - the every day people affected by it. Not the politicians or the generals - those who live on the land being fought over. Who have nothing to do with the reasons for the war.

Doubtful Muse said...

Thanks Nan!

Doubtful Muse said...

Hi Tess, that's exactly why I have so much trouble with reading about the Civil War. It's not history to me, and it can never be academic. It's real life because I grew up with stories about it, with those around me saying things like, "such and such happened right HERE." I was born 99 years after the battle of Jenkins' Ferry, after which the little community I'm from was partially destroyed. It seems like a long time, but it's really not that long in the whole scheme of things, not when you consider how much longer ago the Wars of the Roses took place, you know? The woman I wrote about who watched her uncle being hung was the grandmother of my own great grandfather. He died in the 1960s, and his wife didn't die until 1985. I spent a lot of time with them when I was little. Granny told me once that Grandma Catherine put rocks in her pockets and tried to drown herself in the Saline River. She failed. But her sorrow survived and it still does. I simply cannot relate to that particular period of time in ways that I do to others because it is too close to me. And I cannot look at it as an ideology. Sixteen year old girls who lived in places like Tull Arkansas had nothing to do with slavery or states rights. They just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. But they fought as hard as any soldier.

Anonymous said...

And I third it, if that's possible! My ancestors were born in south Georgia, the poorest of the poor, and while I don't know any who were hung I know they were caught up in the war thru no fault of their own and could do nothing about it.

Brian said...

The American Civil War isn't that far off in the scheme of things,I think what separates us from it is not so much the years as the incredible progress in science and technology, which has changed the planet at an unprecedented rate.

War always hurts the small people most, and there's always injustice arising from it. These stories need recording as much and more than the 'glory' aspects.

Michelle Moran said...

What a beautiful post. Thank you, Miss T.