Sunday, September 26, 2010

Truth: Four Stories I Am Finally Old Enough to Tell by Ellen Douglas

Ellen Douglas wrote eight novels when she published this memoir in 1998. As the dust jacket says, “Douglas is the pseudonym for Josephine Haxton, whose family roots extend back to the earliest days in Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana. These four tales describe her search for details of her ancestors. Sometimes she meets with talkative relatives who surprise her with some interesting information. Others stonewall her search, because she used the information from previous interviews in her novels and changed some important details.

This work should interest those who enjoy the historical aspects of fiction. Douglas talks about how she could use some people and incidents from her investigation in her next novel. Her meticulous search of records and memories of her family – and those who knew her family – adds a lot of weight to these tales. She readily admits when she will have to fill in gaps.

The most interesting of the four stories – “Julia and Nellie” – tells the history of her paternal grandmother, Nellie, and her friend, Julia, and a cousin, Dunbar (Dunny). Her prose has a soft and gentle quality – musical, enchanting, and absorbing. “I am sure now that I remember my grandmother and Julia—and Dunny, too—on the gallery at The Forest on a long, hot summer afternoon. I recall an embrace and then the two women in intimate, quiet conversation. I hear their soft voices, Julia’s pitched a shade lower than my grandmother’s, the voices, it seems to me now, of ghosts, alive only in my head and only for the time left to me to remember them. I remember the call and response of those voices as I might remember music—the oboe making room for the flute and then meditatively answering—and, like oboe and flute, they speak with deep emotion, but wordlessly.” (81)

One incident in particular eluded her best efforts to uncover details. In 1861, an unknown number of slaves were tortured and whipped, and some were executed, because of a plot to kill slave owners as soon as “Mr. Lincoln and his army” came to Mississippi. Several “gentlemen of the county” served as judges, jury, and executioners. No newspapers reported the event, no record of any burials exist. The only evidence Douglas uncovered involved lists of slaves “interviewed” about the plot.

I most definitely need to track down some of those novels. (5 stars)

--Chiron, 9/26/10

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