Tuesday, May 30, 2006

BOOK REVIEW: One Mississippi by Mark Childress

Daniel Musgrove’s family has moved six times in 10 years. That’s what happens when your Dad is a saleman for TriDex, a company that moves its sales force around every year or two to keep them on their toes. Daniel’s mother is thrilled to be moving home to the south, closer to family and a place where her toes will finally be warm, but the Musgrove children are decidedly unhappy.

Things quickly go from bad to crazy in characteristic Mark Childress style. On the drive to Mississippi the van carrying all the Musgroves’ belongings is destroyed in an accident. Daniel and his siblings start at their new school on the first day of court-ordered integration. A few months later their Granny dies and crazy Uncle Jacko comes to live with them. All of these are minor happenings compared to Arnita Beecham, a beautiful black girl, winning Prom Queen and, later the same night, being run down by another student as she bicycles home. Suddenly the hidden tensions rise to the surface, spiraling ever further out of control. The match that finally sets it all alight - Arnita comes out of her coma believing she is white.

One Mississippi carries on in the trademark narrative style of Crazy in Alabama and Tender, a form descended from generations of front porch storytelling sessions - luminously descriptive, yet full of caustic wit. Childress peoples his novels with exaggerated characters, misguided do-gooders and desperate loners, all in their own way demanding the reader’s empathy and understanding. The South is a strong character by itself in Childress’ novels, for it is only in these expertly crafted settings that his novels can exist. Time and place demand as much attention as the people strolling casually across the page.

Childress writes coming of age stories particularly well, effortlessly transporting the reader to the awkward days of adolescence.

“In high school it’s all about how you walk down the hall – whether you stroll through the flow or dart along the edges, whether you hold the stack of books on your hip with one hand (guys) or press them two-handed to your chest (sissies and girls.) Notes are scribbled and passed, rumors fanned and blown down the hall.”

One Mississippi feels like you’ve stepped into a world where the air is thick enough to chew, the lemonade is tart enough to kill a three-day thirst and the neighbours are friendly enough to invite y’all over for some southern fried chicken. This is the perfect read for the long, hot days of summer.

See the review at Armchair Interviews: One Mississippi.

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