NONFICTION: This luminous collection of essays by Margaret Renkl explores American culture, politics and history.
"Graceland, At Last" by: Margaret Renkl; Milkweed Editions (284 pages, $26)
In this luminous collection, "Graceland, At Last: Notes on Hope and Heartache from the American South," Margaret Renkl delivers smart, beautifully crafted personal and political observations drawn from her home turf, Alabama, where she spent her childhood; Nashville, where she now lives; and other Southern environs.
In an effort to expand our view of the South beyond stereotypes, she explores the many aspects of her beloved homeland: lush landscapes, family traditions and histories, and political and religious complexities. She aptly calls the book a "patchwork … made of mismatched parts because it's impossible to present a single, comprehensive portrait of the American South."
She writes clear-eyed about the South's "brutal history" and the "ways its vestiges linger" in efforts to suppress the vote, the alarming rise of white supremacist groups and the increase of hate crimes. Not exclusive to the South, these trends are all too familiar in Minnesota, Wisconsin and states across the nation. She offers readers hope in stories of "worried Southerners who work to preserve what's good about this beleaguered region and to heal hate."
Here are some highlights from her vast array of topics.
"The Final Battleground in the Fight for Suffrage" gives a colorful account of Tennessee lawmakers casting the final state vote needed to ratify the 19th Amendment, allowing women to vote. It was a raucous session including lobbying, bribes and whiskey. Local lore tells us the passage came down to the vote of Harry T. Burns, whose mother urged him to "be a good boy" and vote aye.
The Tennessee State Museum's commemoration of the amendment's 100th anniversary reveals a more complicated story. Curator Miranda Farley-Rhodes told Renkl, "The suffrage movement in Tennessee really came out of the abolitionist movement," in a culture shaped by the institution of slavery. The exhibit spotlights contributions to the effort by African American women, including Juno Frankie Pierce and Ida B. Wells.
The irony of the amendment passing in the South — with its history of voter suppression — wasn't lost on Jimmy Carter who, in another essay, tells his Sunday school class: "That was white women. A lot of white people don't remember that distinction."
Renkl's lyrical prose soars in "The Call of the American Lotus." A visit to the Mobile-Tensaw Delta yields a sighting of "thousands of pale yellow flowers rising on foot-high stalks above floating pads with water pearled across their surfaces, the petals of each bloom curling toward the sun. The only sounds were birdsong and lapping of water and the buzz of lotus-drunk bees gathering pollen."
Among other essays not to be missed: the title story's tale of finally getting to Graceland after many tries, a moving tribute to singer-songwriter John Prine and a heart-wrenching letter thanking John Lewis for never giving up the fight for economic and social justice and for his enduring optimism.
I keep this book nearby to revisit the humanity and hope in its pages.
Elfrieda Abbe is a freelance writer in Wisconsin who would love to see the American lotus in full bloom.