Map of Alabama

Map of Alabama

Today’s post introduces my newest project, armchair travel to each of the 50 states, journeying alphabetically from Alabama to Wyoming.  My intent is to imbibe the flavor of each state’s landscape, people, and culture through the words and images of a few books.  I hope to read at least one novel, one nonfiction book, and a juvenile title whose story takes place in the state or whose author was born there.  In addition, I hope to discover an artist or photographer or craftsperson who works/worked there.

This project is not intended to represent a comprehensive survey of the states’ literature and letters.  Rather, my reading will give me a peek through the pages of a few open books.  I will ask the advice of a reference librarian from one of the public libraries for each state, and I welcome suggestions from my readers, too.  I may not actually follow through on these suggestions, but I will consider them.

I will call this project Armchair America.  There will be no regularly scheduled posts.  They will appear as time permits — I will fit this reading in among the other demands on my life.

Vintage postcard of Alabama

Vintage postcard of Alabama

Vintage postcard of Alabama

Vintage postcard of Alabama

By my count, I have physically traveled to 31 of the 50 states.  Someday I may get to see them all.  It was a particular pleasure to journey in my mind to Alabama for this first post in the series because I have never been there in person.

The reference librarian at the Birmingham Public Library responded to my query about good books on Alabama, such as To Kill a Mockingbird and Up from Slavery, with these additional recommendations:

  • Alabama: The History of a Deep South State by Wayne Flint
  • Carry Me Home by Diane McWhorter
  • Forrest Gump by Winston Groom
  • Rocket Boys by Homer Hickham
  • and anything by Rick Bragg

But these are the books I actually read on my armchair travels to Alabama:

Up from Slavery: An Autobiography by Booker T. Washington.  Washington was born a slave on a Virginia plantation in 1858 or 59, so he would have been 4 or 5 years old when the Emancipation Proclamation was announced, and 6 or 7 years old when slaves were actually freed at the close of the Civil War.  He lived through the rough period of the Reconstruction, a time of poverty and hardship.  But through hard work, dedication and focus, and resilience, Washington put himself through school and eventually founded the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.

His experiences shaped his educational philosophy, that every student should be required to do manual labor along with academics.  He said, “Our greatest danger is that in the great leap from slavery to freedom we may overlook the fact that the masses of us are to live by the production of our hands, and fail to keep in mind that we shall prosper in proportion as we learn to dignify and glorify common labour and put brains and skill into the common occupations of life; shall prosper in proportion as we learn to draw the line between the superficial and the substantial, the ornamental gewgaws of life and the useful.  No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem.  It is at the bottom of life we must begin, and not at the top.”

In Washington’s time, about one-third of the population of Alabama was African-American.  Today it is about 26 percent black.  (In my own state of Washington, blacks represent about 4 percent of the population.)

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To Kill a Mockingbird
by Harper Lee.  I consider this novel one of my all-time favorites.  It is the story of Atticus Finch’s defense of Tom Robinson, a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman, in the small town of Maycomb, Alabama, and the effects of this trial on his children and neighbors.

Lee is masterful at creating the ambiance of southern life — if I were to go to Alabama I would expect to see johnson grass and rabbit tobacco, smilex and scuppernongs (I had to look these things up.)  Lee describes her Alabama in passages like these:

“People moved slowly then.  They ambled across the square, shuffled in and out of the stores around it, took their time about everything.  A day was twenty-four hours long but seemed longer.”

“There are no clearly defined seasons in South Alabama; summer drifts into autumn, and autumn is sometimes never followed by winter, but turns to a days-old spring that melts into summer again.”

The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee by Marja Mills.  This is a memoir by a journalist who lived for a year next door to the elderly Harper Lee and her sister Alice in Monroeville, Alabama.  While Mills considered herself their friend, this is not an authorized biography.  Mills is careful to stay on the side of memoir — her own personal experiences — which did not require the Lees’ approval.  Mills is from the north, so it was interesting to read her impressions of Alabama, land of red dirt and Piggly Wiggly grocery stores:

” . . . kudzu drapes over hundred-year-old oak trees.  It crawls up ravines.  It creeps across the caved-in tin roofs of abandoned country shacks.  It forms an intricate web of green so dense it seems to be hiding something.”

“We passed the occasional gas station and general store with ‘Coca Cola’ in fading white script on peeling red paint.”

“Around every other bend was a redbrick church or tiny white one with a steeple stabbing blue sky and a cemetery out back.  Most of the churches were Baptist, but we also saw ones that were Methodist, First Assembly, and Pentecostal.”

“Football was second only to God in inspiring devotion around here . . .”

The Watsons Go to Birmingham by Christopher Paul Curtis.  This award-winning juvenile novel is about a black family growing up in Flint, Michigan in 1963.  When the older son starts acting out, his parents decide to take him to stay with his strict grandmother in Birmingham, Alabama.  The family’s road trip points out the issues of blacks traveling in the segregated south.  While in Birmingham, the family witnesses the aftermath of the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church.  I loved how the Watsons used warmth and humor and love in facing life’s challenges.

The Poet of Tolstoy Park by Sonny Brewer.  A man diagnosed with terminal tuberculosis decides to leave his family and friends in Idaho and live out his last days in Fairhope, Alabama.  I have written about this book before (link here).  I enjoyed rereading this novel, and this time I paid more attention to the descriptions of things I might see in Alabama:  piney woods, live oaks, water oaks, etc.  Brewer touches on hurricanes and their effects, and he says, ” . . . if you’re going to live in Alabama, you are going to eat grits for breakfast.”

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Picture Taker: Photographs by Ken Elkins.  Elkins was the chief photographer of the Anniston Star for many years, and I was pleased to have I discovered his work through my research for this project.  Here is how he is described by Rick Bragg in the introduction to this book of photos:  “He rejects the stereotypes of despair and ignorance often depicted by big city photographers on safari, and reveals his subjects as individuals who have endured hard lives but have found humor, dignity and faith.”

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The Quilts of Gee’s Bend.  This book showcases the handmade quilts by the women of Gee’s Bend, Alabama.  It includes historical photos and narratives from 200 years.  As a quilter, I find these graphic quilts to be beautiful as well as practical.

Next State on My Armchair Journey:  Alaska

 

 

 

 

Two of Sonny Brewer's books

One of the biggest joys in my life is reading.  I always look forward to new releases by a handful of favorite authors.  And I’m always on the lookout for new authors to add to my favorites list.  When I find one, it’s like getting an unexpected present.

Some time ago I read Sonny Brewer’s first novel, The Poet of Tolstoy Park, and I liked it so much that I kept it in my personal library.  Brewer’s novel was inspired by the real-life story of Henry Stuart, who in 1925 was diagnosed with consumption and told he had a year to live.  Stuart decided to live that last year deliberately — he moved from Idaho to Fairhope, Alabama, where he fashioned a life of dignity and meaning.

Since reading that first book, I had forgotten to follow Sonny Brewer.  So I am especially delighted to find that he has since published three other novels.  The wonderful thing about rediscovering Brewer now is that the library has copies of his older books on the shelves, and I can get them immediately, without a long wait list. 

I just finished The Widow and the Tree, which is also inspired by a true event, the killing of a champion centuries-old oak tree in Alabama.  Next I will read A Sound like Thunder and Cormac:  The Tale of a Dog Gone Missing.  And I’ll probably reread The Poet of Tolstoy Park.  I can’t think of a better Christmas present to myself.