Dug up this little gem over the weekend. I found this book about 15 years ago in a used bookstore (remember those?). At the time, I was really studying fiction as a craft, but still hanging on to the idea of creating a series of Wade Stuart novels a la John. D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee series.
Death in Dixie is a collection of stories from Southern writers — most of which, I’ll be honest, I’d never heard of until I picked up the book. But it’s pure gold if you like stories of the South and all its rumor and innuendo, crime and punishment, and violence and vengeance. Good stuff.
The book’s author (collector/anthologist?) is Billie Sue Mosiman, whom I’d never heard of, but have read since. She knows her business and this collection certainly influenced me, much the same way Larry Brown did/does. Mosiman writes a stirring introduction to the stories, in which she describes the tradition of storytelling in the South, how it’s part of our culture and our families, and how the story sometimes isn’t as important as the telling of it. And she points out that many of those stories are wrapped in violence and crime. She doesn’t claim to know why that is, but points out:
“Storytelling in the South is a rich tradition. In this collection of stories about murder and crime in the South, we might ask ourselves, is it the heat, suffocating and relentless, that causes violence to erupt? The fierce family loyalties and feuds? Or does crime find a home in the South because it is a place where the land is soaked in the blood of war and mired in the guilt of past transgressions, against outsiders and minorities?”
I have put this in the redneck noir category. Certainly these stories, a little more stylish than you might think, fall into the category. Much the same way Flannery O’Connor does. And regarding O’Connor, Mosiman quotes her on why her stories seemed to center of violence. O’Connor found violence “strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them for their moment of grace.”
This is the same woman who once commented, “Anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.”
But I love what Mosiman has to say about the everyday storytellers:
“Everyone told stories, it was an oral tradition passed down through generations. It was the way family history was kept alive and I believe it might have been a way for the elders to point out moral and acceptable behavior without lecturing their young.”
Yep, we Southerners like a good story. Probably every family has a storyteller — my own is blessed (or cursed, depending on your point of view) with several. My uncle Tom is kind of our family leprechaun and a hell of a raconteur. As are his brothers, one of whom (that’d be Uncle Truman) is a Mississippi preacher. His kids are equally gifted with spinning a tale.
My own kids aren’t exactly Southern in the same tradition as me, or my cousins. Being raised in Virginia, they instinctively roll their eyes any time they hear me start a story with “When I was growing up in Mississippi …” But even they have their own way of telling a story, or re-telling it in a way to keep it entertaining. In that way, they’re becoming the latest link in the chain.
And what better time to start telling stories than a long holiday weekend with the whole family home?