Well, another Welty Symposium has come and gone. We had a great time with a dozen authors and a great audience that included students from two local high schools and the Mississippi School for Math and Science, as well as MUW students and alums and members of the community. Rather than running down the highlights, I will post an excerpt from my introduction to the keynote reader.
For a while now I’ve been interested in Eudora Welty’s first novel, The Robber Bridegroom. It was published in 1943, after she had published two collections of stories, and it was dedicated to Katherine Ann Porter. It takes a Brothers Grimm fairy tale and transports it to the Old Natchez Trace. Welty adds a few historical characters, such as the tough riverboat keel man, Mike Fink, and two of America’s earliest serial killers, Little Harp and Big Harp, who now is just a head that Little Harp keeps locked in a box, but that keeps calling to get out.
The story begins as the tobacco planter Clement Musgrove returns from a trip to New Orleans to sell his crop. Our theme comes from the second paragraph, which starts off, “As his foot touched shore, the sun sank into the river the color of blood, and at once a wind sprang up and covered the sky with black, yellow, and green clouds the size of whales, which moved across the face of the moon.” Clement goes in search of lodging for the night, but the first two innkeepers he meets are both missing an ear, the sign of their punishment for crimes committed elsewhere. When he reaches the third, honest inn, he still must share a bed with two fellow travellers. In the night, he is nearly killed by Mike Fink, yet is saved by Jamie Lockhart. At home, Clement rejoins his daughter and her stepmother, and as every bridegroom must have a potential bride, you might guess whom that will be. But not before there is plenty of robbery, murder, abduction, mistaken identity, jealousy, and yes even love.
From these elements we take our theme of “Crime and Passion in a Gothic South” to explore what has become of the Southern Gothic. We will look at crime, especially in Carolyn Haine’s mystery Bonefire of the Vanities, Michael Kardos’ thriller The Three-Day Affair, and Olympia Vernon’s A Killing in This Town, though there are other crimes than purely legal ones. Josh Russell brings us abduction in A True History of the Captivation, Transport to Strange Lands, & Deliverance of Hannah Guttentag. Ghosts appear in Jessica Maria Tuccelli’s Glow and Chris Lowe’s Those Like Us with a story titled a “Ghost Tour.” Poets Frank X Walker, Anthony Abbott, Catherine Pierce, and Kelly Norman Ellis give us passions of all kinds with a few crimes and fears mixed in, and passion for gardening informs our Welty-Prize-Winning One Writers’ Garden, as you’ve just heard.
When I first saw the cover of Sonny Brewer’s novel The Widow and the Tree, I knew it would be a perfect fit for our theme. I was struck by its similarity to the illustrations in my copy of The Robber Bridegroom, and when I opened the book I found out why. Both were done by Barry Moser, though over twenty years apart. As I read the book, I realized this was more than just coincidence. The Widow and the Tree.combines virtually all of the elements I found in The Robber Bridegroom. There is plenty of mystery about who is after the Ghosthead Oak, a five-hundred-year old live oak tree that has witnessed war and murder in its not so distant past, as well as drug deals and amours in its present life. The widow was passionate for her husband, and the veteran, a recluse from the Vietnam War, is passionate for the tree, the widow, and his privacy. Then there are those who seek to control and tame the tree, claiming it for the public good, though possibly with personal interests that make this act a kind of abduction. There are child abuse and threats of retribution. And much like Eudora Welty, Brewer considers the place of the wild and whether we have any right to own it, kill it, keep it alive, or tame it. His book raises many pressing questions and leaves us to sort out the answers, and he weaves this all into a spell-binding tale that will keep you turning its pages.
For Sonny Brewer is a consummate story-teller, and so it is no surprise that The Widow and the Tree has received accolades and awards, including most recently the 2012 Alabama Library Association Book award for fiction. Orion magazine called it “a marvelous and confusing little book.” And this was a positive review that notes this is the way with “serious literature” and that concludes: “The Widow and the Tree is spare, mean, loving, pungent. Sonny Brewer knows the Alabama coast, a culture threatened sure as the Ghosthead Oak.”
And Sonny does know the coast, having lived in Fairhope, Alabama, for many years. There he founded Over the Transom Bookstore and established the Fairhope Writers Colony that has fostered dozens of great Southern writers. He has collected their writings in five volumes of Stories from the Blue Moon Café and collected their reminiscences in Don’t Quit Your Day Job: Acclaimed Authors and the Day Jobs They Quit. He has published three previous novels: Cormac: The Tale of a Dog Gone Missing, A Sound Like Thunder, and The Poet of Tolstoy Park.And for the past year and a half, he has served as Editor-in-Chief at MacAdam Cage publishing. Yet more important than all his publishing credentials, Sonny Brewer is one of the most genuine people you are likely to meet. He cares for literature, and he cares for people, and this shows in his writing and in his life.