Reading Marjorie

It’s the anniversary of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ birthday, born on August 8, 1896, in Washington D.C. I’ve written about Rawlings in a previous post, linked here. She has been one of my favorite authors since I read The Yearling in high school. In December 2019, I visited Rawlings’ home in Cross Creek, Florida, for a delightful Open House hosted by the Friends of the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Farm. During the lantern-lit tour of the old farmhouse, we were ushered into a room that held all of her works on display behind glass, including versions of her books translated into other languages. Seeing all of her books housed together gave me the idea that I’d like to read my way through Marjorie, start to finish. I set out in January of this year with a printout of her works in chronological order, and my stack of Rawlings’ books that I have accumulated over many years. 

Rawlings’ first published writings were short stories, spanning the years between 1931 and 1949. Her novels fall within those years, so I read her earliest short stories first, then moved to her first novel, South Moon Under, published in 1933. In her short stories, Rawlings practiced character sketches and scenes from what she saw in this remote corner of Florida, an area referred to as “the Big Scrub.” She was developing an ear for the patterns of speech, watching interactions of moonshiners and subsistence farmers, familiarizing herself with a land of hidden swamp and overgrown hammock,  then incorporating these elements into her later, better known novels.

Piety Fiddia and her son Leonard, residents of the Big Scrub in Florida, the inspiration for the characters Piety and Lant in the novel “South Moon Under.”

South Moon Under was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and in it, Rawlings captures the lifelong struggles of Florida Crackers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The book’s title refers to one of the moon’s stages, what they believed to be a critical influence upon hunting and crops, the basis for survival or death. 

A neighbor of Piety’s has taken her son Lant under his wing, passing along his knowledge of survival in the scrub:

They had become cronies, as close as the distance between them allowed. They visited back and forth several times a year. Paine had passed on to the boy his lore of scrub and hammock… “Why, the boy’s right,” he said. “He knows the deer feeds on the moon, like most ary wild creeter. Four times the deer feeds. Stirs or feeds. Moon-rise and moon-down, and south-moon-over and south-moon-under. Come moon-rise, say, the deer’s done been sleepin’, ain’t they? They comes out about a hour ‘fore the moon. They feeds a while and frolics a while.”

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, South Moon Under, (New York: Grossett & Dunlap, 1933), 100.

I finished South Moon Under, but before I could start the next story, the world as we knew it ground to a halt. It was the middle of March 2020. And I don’t think I’m alone when I confess that I just couldn’t. Couldn’t read. Couldn’t write. Prepare meals? Shower? Were those things really necessary every day? We all were paralyzed in overwhelming uncertainty about everything we knew up to that point. 

After a bit, I resumed reading, but I took a detour away from my Marjorie project. I had lost my enthusiasm for it. Instead, I followed a reading route that paralleled the mood of quarantine: May Sarton (A Journal of Solitude), then Virginia Woolf (A Room of One’s Own). Next, my brother and I created a two-person book club on Faulkner, so I read As I Lay Dying, The Sound and the Fury, and a partial read of Absalom! Absalom!. That was followed by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Harriet Beecher Stowe. It was more reading in four months than I’ve managed to do in a long time.

It’s August now, it’s Marjorie’s birthday, and I must get back to the Florida scrub.  The next book on the list is Golden Apples, not considered one of her strongest works. I read it many years ago, and I will admit that it didn’t make much of an impression on me. So we’ll see. Maybe I’ll post something about it here after I have finished it.

Here is one more quote from South Moon Under, just a sample of so many visually rich descriptions of her beloved Florida wilderness that Rawlings left us in her writings:

The scrub was clearing. Instead of the cathedral half-light, as though the sun came down from high small windows, the space ahead was bright. Lant stepped suddenly out of the scrub and was on a dim wagon road. Ahead was a low stretch of gallberry flats and beyond, a growth of small bay trees, “the bay.” 

The precipitousness with which the scrub stopped always astonished Lant. It rolled, a great ocean of scrawny pine, with boundaries sharper than any sea. There were no pine breakers, feeling out an alien soil. It was there, the scrub, immense, aloof and proud, standing on its own ground, making its own conditions, like no other. When it ended, it ended, more implacably than a life, for there was something in a life that went on–a memory–a related life–a union with the earth, producing new growths and new lives. The scrub made no unions. The two swift rivers bounded it; a fringe of hammock, of swamp; as here, a strip of gallberry flats and bay-head flats; within, it was inviolable. 

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, South Moon Under, (New York: Grossett & Dunlap, 1933), 125.

A list of Rawlings’ works is located at the end of the Wikipedia entry about Rawlings, linked here.

Front porch at Christmas time, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings home, Cross Creek, Florida

The Florida Book Review: Cracker Gothic

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Big news! “Cracker Gothic: A Florida Woman’s Memoir” has recently been reviewed on The Florida Book Review website. It is an honor for me to be included among so many legendary Florida books and authors! FBR Contributing Editor Victoria Calderin writes:  “Anyone who has ever cared for an ailing family member, lost a spouse, felt that tourists just don’t get their town, won free coffee for a week, knows #floridaman, understands gator hunting to be a profitable business, or grew up looking at calendars in awe of their mysterious white winters will find a kindred spirit in Wanda Suttle Duncan.”

You can read the full review here.

The Florida Book Review website is a great resource for all types of Florida reading –  you’ll find reviews and articles on works by Harriet Beecher Stowe to Carl Hiaasen to Zora Neale Hurston, and of course, my favorite, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. There is something for everyone in Florida literature, and you’ll find it all on the FBR website. Contemporary works like “Mostly Dead Things” by Kristen Arnett and Lauren Groff’s “Florida” are reviewed there. So are the books that have come to be known as the bastions of Florida history and culture: “A Land Remembered” by Patrick D. Smith and Marjory Stoneman Douglas’s “The Everglades: River of Grass.” The website is divided into sections, providing a hint to the broad diversity of literary genres plumbed by Florida writers. Working through all of the books listed in the  “Classic Florida Reads” section would keep me happily reading, nonstop, for a year.

Along with many literary standards, there are some surprising jewels to be found as you peruse this website. A visit to the “Food and Drink” page provides a detailed and entertaining review of “The Storm Gourmet: A Guide to Creating Extraordinary Meals Without Electricity” by Daphne Nikolopoulos. Lynne Barrett is the reviewer, and she explains why this book is invaluable not only to Floridians subject to arbitrary and lengthy power outages, but anyone who wants some culinary creativity when camping or boating, And let’s not limit this to Floridians; it could really come in handy if you’re stranded without electricity in January after an ice storm takes out the power lines to your neighborhood for days.  How can you resist a survival book that has the audacity to suggest a menu of Tapenade Toasts, Salmon-Tabouli Salad with Sun Dried Tomatoes and Pine Nuts, and Peach-Raspberry Torte? Another great find on the website’s “Food and Drink” page is “To Have and Have Another: A Hemingway Cocktail Companion” by Philip Greene. Reviewed by Bob Morison, the book is a cocktail itself of recipes, literary notes, and photos. There are children’s books, YA books, sports, fantasy, crime, mystery, you name it. As a writer, the list of Florida presses and Florida literary publications is particularly helpful.

I highly recommend a visit to The Florida Book Review, and send my thanks to them for taking the time to read and review “Cracker Gothic.”

 

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings

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Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings was born on this date, August 8, 1896, in Washington, D.C. She spent her early years north of the Mason-Dixon line, in D.C., Michigan, and Wisconsin. Marjorie began writing as a young girl, and continued writing into her post-college career, living in New York City, then Rochester, New York, and in Louisville, Kentucky. In 1928, Marjorie and her then-husband, Charles Rawlings, made a bold move and purchased a 72-acre plot of land, including an orange grove, in rural, north-central Florida. The land and its inhabitants enchanted Marjorie, and provided a rich source of inspiration for her writing for the rest of her life. Her neighbors across swamp and hammock were from old pioneer family stock, Florida Crackers who lived from the land, wavering perilously on what would have appeared to any outsider as the brink of abject poverty.

My love for Rawlings’s writing began in high school. Her descriptions of old, primitive Florida resonated with me, the Florida that I experienced growing up in a rural county. Her Florida matched mine: sandy road beds leading through palmetto scrub, shaded by the dark, curving branches of mossy live oaks; friends and family members who lived at the ends of those sandy roads in weathered-wood houses with darkened tin roofs, a clothesline in the side yard, chickens in a wire pen.

I’ve pulled out one of my copies of “Cross Creek” in the last few days, picking it up in the evenings to read a few chapters as Rawlings’s birthday approaches. It has been a long time since I indulged myself in the singular pleasure of reading my favorite author. Here is her accounting of traveling with a friend by horseback through the Florida backwoods of the 1930s:

We entered the River Styx gently. Surely, death itself must come as quietly. The open fields, bright in the reality of sunlight, gave way easily to pine lands. The pines grew thicker, the sweet scent of their needles rising. The sunlight was spotty, the shadows of the tall trees wider. Here and there a live oak told of changing soil. Then, imperceptibly, we were in deep hammock. Coolness came in on us. The leaves of magnolia and bay trees shut out the sun, as all dark everlasting foliage must shut it out from the silent places of the dead. The hammock merged into cypress swamp. A trumpet vine dropped flamboyant flowers from a lone palm. The blossoms seemed gaudy funereal. There were no birds singing from the cypresses. No squirrels swung in and out of the sepulchral arches of the trees. Out of the dimly defined road a great white bird rose, flapping noiseless wings. It was huge, snow-white as an angel of death, with a wide black mourning band around the edge of the wings. I became aware that the soft dampness of the road had turned into a soft rippling. The whole floor of the forest was carpeted with amber-colored water, alive, moving with a slow, insidious current. We had entered the River Styx.

Rawlings captured the essence of an old, forgotten wilderness in her writing, and the surprising thing is that it was not her native land. She easily fell into the category of “damned interloper,” a term I use frequently as I observe outsiders moving into the rural corners of my Florida, building stucco-covered McMansions in hideous housing subdivisions. But I’ve come to consider now that maybe that is what’s needed to fully appreciate and describe a place—the eyes of an outsider. Rawlings became immersed in a world that was exotic and foreign; she wrote sensitively about the people and the region, seeking and eventually winning acceptance as an insider. Without her fateful decision to buy a parcel of land in faraway Florida, we all would have missed the opportunity to experience the quiet seasons in the marshes and hammocks, the world of Jody and Flag, the song of the redbird in the scrub.

Augusta Fells Savage – American Sculptor, Florida Native

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August Fells Savage

Augusta Fells Savage was born in Green Cove Springs, Florida, on Leap Day, February 29, 1892. Her life story has lain dormant for decades, the legacy she left in the world of art has been overlooked, forgotten. She was an important artist and educator during the Harlem Renaissance in New York City. A recent exhibition, at the Cummer Museum of Art in Jacksonville, Florida, based on the research of and curation by Dr. Jeffreen Hayes, showcased Savage’s works along with the art produced by some of her students in the 1920s and 1930s. Among these students were Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden, who went on to become well-known artists in the second half of the twentieth century. After closing in 2018, the exhibit traveled to New York, where it is currently showing at the New York Historical Society.

Savage’s story was featured on NPR today, and here is the link to the story.

Blog: All the Biscuits in Georgia

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I am grateful for the recent review of “Cracker Gothic” on All the Biscuits in Georgia. If you love the South, have lived in the South, or have roots in the South, you will enjoy this website. And here’s a shameless plug, since this is my website and I want you and your friends to find my little orange book: please spend a couple of minutes and read the review of “Cracker Gothic.”

While we’re on the topic of biscuits, let me take this opportunity to opine about the meal that I would probably choose as my last, if it ever comes to that: I’d ask for hot buttered biscuits, sopped in molasses. One of my earliest food-related memories is of being scooped up into my father’s lap at the head of the table, after a meal of fried chicken or pork chops and biscuits. More often than not, those biscuits came from a shiny blue cardboard Pillsbury can, popped open and laid out on a cookie sheet, perfectly uniform cylinders of pale dough. So unlike scratch biscuits with a tender and crumbly interior, these bread products were a construction of mechanically produced mini-layers of dough. Or the biscuits might have been baked from that other convenience food product of the 1960s and 70s—Bisquick. Clumpy flour measured from a cardboard box straight into a bowl, mixed with milk, and scraped from a large spoon into golfball sized blobs. After supper, Dad would pour a puddle of dark molasses in the middle of his dinner plate and place a pat-sized slice of margarine in the middle. With his fork, he’d work the margarine into the molasses, creating a caramel-colored pool, with small bits of yellow floating about. We would then commence, together, to drag our biscuits through the molasses, lifting the dripping morsels into our mouths.

The following biscuit recipe comes from the Jarrett House Cookbook that I purchased at the historic inn in Dillsboro, North Carolina. This recipe produces consistently fluffy, high-rising biscuits, and I’ve used it for over thirty years. My daughter uses this recipe now, and her biscuits are even better than the ones I make.

Southern Biscuits

2 cups plus about 1/4 cup self-rising flour (I prefer White Lily)
5 tablespoons vegetable shortening
½ cup milk
½ cup buttermilk

Preheat oven to 425. Cut the shortening into the 2 cups flour, working with a pastry blender until the mixture resembles coarse meal.  Stir in both milks with a fork, and blend well. Transfer dough onto a well-floured board and fold/knead for a few minutes, until the mixture keeps an intact shape and stays firm. You will likely have to add a extra flour while kneading, because this makes a wet dough (up to ¼ cup more flour).

Pat or roll out dough to about ½ inch thick. Cut biscuits with a biscuit-cutter, and place on ungreased cookie sheet about 2 inches apart. Bake for 9 minutes, or until golden brown on top.

These biscuits are best enjoyed hot, buttered, sopped through molasses, while sitting on your daddy’s knee. 

Midge Endorses Cracker Gothic

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I am over the moon about my latest endorsement! Midge LOVES Cracker Gothic. I just got this text from her: “I couldn’t put it down! Probably because it weighs more than me, and I got stuck!” She also says, “The really great thing about this book is how it coordinates with my Harley outfit! It’s the perfect ensemble for Friday nights at Saloon 17.” Midge is a tough critic, and we all know that between her and Barbie, Midge is the more bookish of the two. So her opinion means a lot! Thanks, Midge!

Bang-a-bonking and Gongoozling in Green Cove Springs

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The St. Johns River at sunrise / Green Cove Springs, Florida

The class from my years at Clay High School in Green Cove Springs that had the longest-lasting effect on me was EH101, a dual credit college-level English course that I took my senior year. Our teacher was Coach Robert DeWitt. Coach DeWitt not only taught English, he was the boys’ basketball coach, a published and award-winning poet, a Purple Heart and Bronze Star recipient who had fought in the Normandy invasion of Omaha Beach. He was a large man, tall and bulky, with a graying-blonde comb-over, frequently a quiet smile on his face and a bit of twinkle in his eye. I doubt that most of us who knew him as a coach and English teacher ever fully appreciated what his life had been like before we knew him, and what it was like outside the walls of our high school.

Nonetheless, EH101 stuck with me, and I am ever grateful to Coach DeWitt for introducing me to the study of Greek and Latin roots of the English language. It sparked in me a lifetime fascination with etymology, the study of word origins (not to be confused with entomology, which is the study of insects…not interested so much in that, thank you very much). I love learning about the roots of words, odd words, extinct words, idioms, colloquialisms, euphemisms, portmanteaus. One of my regrets in life is that I did not embrace this interest early on and pursue it as a vocation. But I do get a lot of joy from reading books about where our words come from, and more recently I’ve taken up listening to podcasts on the topic. 

A Way with Words, Lexicon Valley, and The History of English are some of my favorite podcasts that delve into all things word-nerdy. A relatively new podcast I’ve just discovered is Something Rhymes With Purple, hosted by two Brits – Susie Dent and Gyles Brandreth. Listening to their podcast is like eavesdropping on a couple of friends who are chatting whilst sipping Earl Gray tea, in a cozy thatch-roofed cottage nestled in the English countryside. But these two are not uptight, prudish, overly academic word scientists. They have a lot of fun with these podcasts. The episode entitled “Lalochezia” deals exclusively with swear words. For example, you might ponder where the phrase “fornicate under consent of the king” might lead, in a strictly etymological sense, of course. And in case you wondered (I certainly did), lalochezia refers to the exhilarating sense of physical release that one feels upon spewing profanity.

At the end of each episode, Ms. Dent shares a few of her favorite and very obscure words. Two that she mentions together are bang-a-bonk and gongoozle. I will demonstrate their usage here: When I am in Green Cove Springs, I love to bang-a-bonk at Spring Park while I fondly gongoozle the St. Johns River. It usually depends on the weather, but I try to both bang-a-bonk and gongoozle at least once every day. Based on what I’ve seen, there are a lot of people who take the opportunity to bang-a-bonk at the park, especially now that the city has installed new heavy-duty bench swings along the river bank. Once bang-a-bonking is underway in the swings, it’s usually followed by prolonged gongoozling sessions. Sometimes bang-a-bonking and gongoozling occur simultaneously, but it seems to depend entirely on personal taste.
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Bang-a-bonk
means to sit lazily on a riverbank.
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Gongoozle
is to observe things idly, and in particular to enjoy watching a body of water and passing boats.
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Coach DeWitt wrote poems about the St. Johns River, and I’ll share some of them in a later post. I like to think that he, of all people, would have appreciated the idea of bang-a-bonking near the edge of this magnificent river, gongoozling while poetic lines about sky and water, birdcalls, lapping waves and sailboats drifted through his thoughts and onto paper.

 

 

A Swamp Runs Through My Memoir

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The Okefenokee Swamp covers almost a half-million acres in south Georgia, spilling over the state line into north Florida. It is a vast and imposing wilderness, and has been a protected National Wildlife Refuge since 1937. Before that, it was also home to Swampers, Crackers, people who were social outliers. My ancestors. The Chesser Island Homestead is a preserved 19th-century Cracker structure hidden deep within the Swamp, open to the public, where visitors can experience what life for Swamp pioneers might have been like. When the Okefenokee became federally protected property, the residents within the Swamp were forced to leave, relocating to nearby towns, deserting the life and livelihood they had known for generations. Some of the Chessers traveled into northern Florida, where I was born, creating my ancestral line back to the Swamp. I did not visit the Okefenokee Swamp nor Chesser Island until I was well into my adult years, but I have come to love and appreciate its beauty, its serenity, and the sense of primeval wisdom that I feel whenever I am there. Connecting back to an actual ancestral home in a primitive place became an important touchstone as I wrote my memoir. These were not people of means or any type of societal stature. But they were resilient and resourceful, much like pioneers who settled in other frontiers of our country: the Appalachian mountains, the far West. I am proud for their blood to run through my veins. I am proud that a Swamp runs through my memoir.