Almost Paradise

The first clue that Almost Paradise would qualify for a good Southern yarn came when I saw the author’s name, Corabel Shofner, on the Net Galley offering for an advance reading copy. She did, indeed, grow up in the Mississippi Delta with a long line of Southern ancestors. The second clue came in Corabel’s workshop at the Faye B. Kaigler Children’s Book Festival when she recounted growing up among eccentric relatives. By this time, I had her book downloaded on my Kindle ready to read when it came up in the queue.

It’s a good thing I didn’t know just how entertaining it would be or my queue would have been completely messed up. There are problems aplenty for protagonist Ruby Clyde (also a Southern name) – a father who died before she was born, a mean grandmother, an estranged aunt. And these are before her mother’s boyfriend takes her and her mother on a trip where they steal/rescue a pig from a show and the boyfriend commits armed robbery. When her mother is falsely accused of abetting the crime and is put in jail, Ruby Clyde must rely on others to help her find the estranged aunt who turns out to have secrets of her own.

Spunk and humor lace into Ruby Clyde’s search for home and vindication for her mother. Those who do her harm are balanced by others who genuinely care for her. Even as the author brings rescuers into Ruby Clyde’s life, she pokes fun at the icons of Southern culture. “Mr. Gaylord Lewis had gone to court and told the judge he would watch after my mother until trial. And since Mr. Lewis was so big and important with football and money and God, the judge couldn’t say no.”

I’ll miss Ruby Clyde now that I’ve closed the last page of the book. It’s available for purchase on July 25.

I would suggest pairing this book written by a descendant of Delta landowners with Midnight Without a Moon, written by a descendant of sharecroppers, that I reviewed on June 16. The authors met in a coincidence as their books came out and have become friends.


Sermon in a Stone

A friend gave me an unusual gift – an agate geode with quartz crystals. I’ll give the short version of what it is with the little trick I played on my four-year-old grandson. You can find more detail and other pictures on an Internet search.

I held it like the picture that begins this blog and asked Benjamin what he saw. He looked at me like I was a befuddled grandmother and said, “A rock.” Then I turned it over so that it’s inner crystals caught the sunlight. His matter-of-fact answer quickly turned into an “Ooooh!”

Perhaps it’s the preacher’s daughter in me that saw a sermon in the stone. I thought of a story Daddy loved to tell about one of his rural church members that I will call Mr. Smith. When he came to church, he wore his dress overalls and shoes. That was the peak of his style. It wasn’t that this successful farmer could not afford better, just that he dressed to please himself.

One day, Mr. Smith decided he needed a new car and took himself to the dealership in town. A young salesman came out to talk to him and condescendingly began to talk about a used car and payment plans. Fortunately, the dealer who knew Mr. Smith saw him come onto the lot and intervened quickly.

When their business was finished, the dealer took the young man aside and admonished him about going with his first impression.  “Mr. Smith,” he said, “could have written you a check for any car on this lot.”

I keep the geode next to my computer where it catches the light from the lamp and keeps the sermon in sight that what looks like a rock might hide quartz crystals, and one does not know what wealth of either money or character hides beneath a person’s outward appearance. 


Lost and Found Cat

There are two issues at work in this book that make it a bit ironic that I’m reviewing it. First, the star is a cat. Now, I have very good friends who are cat people and have brought me to an understanding of how important these animals can be. They have not convinced me to be a cat person. Second, the book was shared with me by another friend who knows I already own more books than I can read in a lifetime even though I’ve read fast since my youth – not to mention that I continue to acquire more books on a regular basis and visit the library often.

That said, I must recommend Lost and Found Cat by Doug Kuntz and Amy Shrodes, both volunteers with refugees who were involved in this true story. It follows a family of a mother and four children being smuggled out of Mosul in Iraq who are intent on keeping their cat named Kunkush hidden from the smugglers. They safely pass from one place to another through a Kurdish village and Istanbul. After a treacherous boat ride to the Greek Island of Lesbos, Kunkush escapes though a break in its carrier. No amount of searching finds the cat, and the brokenhearted family must move on without him.

The rest of the story has volunteers and the modern wonder of Facebook bringing a happy ending. The beautiful illustrations of Sue Cornelison enhance the story, particularly her ability to express the many different feelings of the family and their fellow travelers in their facial expressions. I recommend sharing this read and a discussion afterwards with a child in your life. 


Sixteen Years - Sixteen Happys

My cursor says “Happys” is not a word, but what does it know? Sixteen years ago today we drove into Hattiesburg having chosen it as our home. To tell the truth, this was not my idea. I was perfectly happy where we were in Leesville, Louisiana, but Al had always wanted to return to his home state for retirement. Since he picked the state, I picked the city – not that we actually reasoned it out. 

I’m listing sixteen things I’ve found to like in honor of the anniversary.

1.      We start with a 70s ranch house with enough windows that I feel like I’m outside even when I’m inside taking advantage of the air-conditioning.

2.      The yard has something blooming year-round.

3.      The population of that yard includes rabbits, turtles, a fox, armadillos, lizards, scads of butterflies, bumblebees, and birds. (The snakes aren’t happys.)

The de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection comes in for several items:

4.      I found a story to write for Highlights Magazine for Children there.

5.      They selected me as the researcher for the 50th anniversary edition of The Snowy Day.

6.      I wrote the script and selected the pictures to be used for the video on the 100th anniversary of Ezra Jack Keats’s birth at the book festival’s Keats Awards Day.

Likewise, I have several items from the Fay B. Kaigler Children’s Book Festival:

7.      The pure joy of attending for sixteen years counts for one, especially when I can be the volunteer driver for book people guests who come.

8.      I wrote the script for the formation of the story-telling event named for Colleen Salley, chuckling often as I wrote. How could you do otherwise if you knew Colleen?

The community has many other offerings:

9.      OLLI (Osher Lifelong Learning Institute) has classes to take and teach, field trips, and friendships.

10.  I’ve taught creative writing to elementary and middle school students at the Frances Karnes Center for Gifted Studies.

11.  In less than two hours, my writer friends and I can be in New Orleans for the monthly critique meetings of the LA/MS branch of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.

12.  I am a friend of two libraries and can check out books in either!

13.  The music department at the University of Southern Mississippi has more excellent symphony, faculty, and student performances than one can take in – many free!

14.  The Carey Dinner Theatre hosts a couple of light-hearted performances every summer with home-cooked meals.

15.  There’s University Baptist Church that welcomes everybody and has given us opportunities to worship, serve, and form fast friendships.

16.  Our newest happy in Hattiesburg is our youngest son’s family with two preschoolers who pop in and out and three big kids who come to visit from college. 

Truthfully, I could go on, but I will just say the promising portent I saw as we drove into town sixteen years ago with a triple rainbow ahead of us was an accurate omen. Should you be looking for a good place to live, come on down!


Hazel Brannon Smith

In his book, Hazel Brannon Smith, Jeffrey B. Howell reveals the complicated status of one moderate white woman during the Civil Rights Era. His secondary title, “The Female Crusading Scalawag,” accurately portrays her life both before and after the apex of the period.

Born in 1914, Hazel fit the pattern of the time to become a beautiful wife and hostess to some successful business man or politician, but she was having none of that. Instead, she did the unthinkable and bought first one and then several local newspapers in rural Holmes County, MS and its surroundings. Her first journalistic crusades sought out bootleggers and corrupt politicians. For almost fifty years she wrote an editorial column “From Hazel Eyes,” in addition to carrying local news with more attention to the black community than was normal for this area.

The book pictures her own personal growth from a strong supporter of Jim Crow segregation to becoming an ally in the black struggle for social justice. In doing this, it also brings light to the spectrum of both white and black views of the Civil Rights movement, to the change that often occurred as people gained insight into the issues, and to how people like Hazel often found themselves on the wrong side with intense advocates from both groups.

Howell quotes her toward the end with a philosophy that kept her in the business long after she had put herself in impossible debt trying to hang on, “There are already too many jellyfish in the world. We don’t need any more in the form of editors. But if the whole world turns against you, and sometimes it may, you still have your own self-respect.” She died in 1994, having lost her property to her lenders and her memory to Alzheimer’s Disease, but with her self-respect still intact.

The book is a good read for those who enjoy biography and an enlightening read for those who are interested in seeing that neither white nor black people in the Civil Rights Era can be painted with one swipe of a single brush.