Tag: Mississippi books (Page 1 of 2)

Author Q & A (Telling Our Stories)

Interview by Jana Hoops. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (February 11)

The recent opening of two of Mississippi’s premier museums, coinciding with the state’s Bicentennial celebration in December 2017, was a landmark event in the Magnolia State’s recognition of and salute to its history.

Like all states, Mississippi’s past includes not only its memories and accomplishments but its challenges and struggles, as well–along with a bright hope for its future. And, fortunately for those who want to actually bring home an insightful reminder of their experiences while visiting the new Museum of Mississippi History and the Mississippi Civil Right Museum in downtown Jackson–there’s a book for that!

telling our storiesThe University Press of Mississippi, working with the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, have published Telling Our Stories, a comprehensive “companion book” that highlights the people, places and dates of events (the good and the bad) that are emphasized in the museums and have shaped our culture today

Three MDAH staff members who are serving in vital roles in the museums and have been instrumental in the publication of Telling Our Stories share their thoughts below on the role that the museums and this book will play in Mississippi’s journey to a vibrant future.

AMANDA LYONS

Amanda Lyons is assistant to the MDAH director and served as managing editor of Telling Our Stories. Originally from Louisiana, she graduated from Belhaven College with a Bachelor of Arts degree in history and now lives in Jackson.

How did the Telling Our Stories book project come about, and why? What is the overall purpose of this book?

We approached University Press of Mississippi about publishing a companion book to the museums a few years ago. They loved the concept! Telling Our Stories celebrates the opening of the museums on the occasion of our state’s bicentennial. It’s also a beautiful souvenir for our visitors and is available in the Mississippi Museum Store.

In the introduction to the book, civil rights leader Myrlie Evers and former Mississippi Gov. William F. Winter remind us that “No state has more stories to tell than we do.” How does this book, and the museums, reflect that sentiment?

Mississippi is full of storytellers. The book and the museums draw on this rich tradition with quotes, oral histories, and primary sources. As much as possible, we wanted each person to tell their own story, in their own words. We also encourage visitors to record their own story before they leave.

The writers of the book’s foreword, former Gov. Haley Barbour and former attorney and judge Reuben V. Anderson, describe the museums as “the largest classrooms in the state,” and they reflect positively on the statewide impact they will have in Mississippi and beyond. What do you expect that impact to be?    

School buses filled with children pull up at the museums every day! We want every child in Mississippi to visit the museums at least once during their K–12 years, and we are raising funds for an endowment for school visits. People of all ages will learn more about where they come from–and where they are going–at the museums. One man was amazed to see his grandfather, a civil rights activist, featured in the exhibits. Here, we can discover new facets about ourselves and how our stories fit into the complex tapestry that is Mississippi.

Museum of Mississippi History

Museum of Mississippi History

PAMELA JUNIOR

Pamela Junior is director of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum. A resident of Jackson, she is a graduate of Jackson State University with a degree in education.

Mississippi’s civil rights story has been long and complicated. While it may have a way to go, much progress has been made. How does the museum reflect that story, and what do you think (or hope) remains to be accomplished in Mississippi on the civil rights front?

The stories of the Civil Rights Era are complex, but Mississippi has done something that people thought couldn’t be done. Mississippi has reconciled its differences by making sure that all content in this museum is truthful!

What I know will happen is conversation–conversation about race relations. What I hope for is that people will be honest enough to share their inner thoughts, to tell the truth and face the problems regarding race so that we can get to the next level of making Mississippi the best it can be. Right now, we have done the spectacular, and that is building the civil rights museum in Mississippi–ground zero during the Movement.

Could you share an overview of the contents of the museum (its layout, major exhibits, etc.)? What have been some of the most popular displays?

The Museum is laid out chronologically and forms a circle that can be approached from either side.

There are eight galleries in total. The first, “Mississippi’s Freedom Struggle,” gives the history of Africans coming here through slavery and includes the Civil War. Gallery two covers Reconstruction and explores the flowering of African American communities and the passage of Jim Crow Laws. This gallery also contains the first of the monoliths that appear throughout the museum and lists the names of all the people known to have been lynched in Mississippi.

“This Little Light of Mine” is a large central space to stop, reflect on what you’ve seen, and to rest as the music of the Civil Rights Movement plays. An interactive sculpture hangs from the ceiling surrounded by pictures of the heroic women and men of the Movement.

The “Closed Society” gallery highlights the return of African American soldiers from World War II, the “separate but equal” doctrine, and the murder of Emmett Till. “A Tremor in the Iceberg” tells of the young people joining the Movement and the assassination of Medgar Evers. The “I Question America” gallery focuses on the work of Fannie Lou Hamer, Bob Moses, Aaron Henry, Ed King, and others, and contains an original film on the murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Mickey Schwerner.

Mississippi Civil Rights Museum

Mississippi Civil Rights Museum

“Black Empowerment” tells the story of the marches, sit-ins, and other protests that were continuing, changes in public education, and the murder of Vernon Dahmer. The final gallery–“Where do We Go from Here?”–examines the election of African Americans to political office across the state and gives visitors a chance to reflect on the courage of the many people who died for a cause greater cause than themselves–and what they might do to make things better today.

Why is this museum and its message so important to Mississippi?

Our message is of hope and racial healing. Out state has some of the greatest people and the greatest minds. We must put our heads together and fight the demon of racism. We have more in common than we have differences.

RACHEL MYERS

Rachel Myers, director of the Museum of Mississippi History, has lived in Jackson for 10 years. She earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in religious studies from Brandeis University and her Master of Arts in museum studies from Johns Hopkins.

The opening of these museums came as Mississippi marked its bicentennial–a history that the Museum of Mississippi History and this book examine through, among other things, our state’s role in conflicts and wars, survival during the Great Depression, its economic swings, racial strife and progress, and its accomplishments in sports, music, storytelling, writing, crafts, and the arts. How does the Museum of Mississippi History play an important role, as historian Dennis Mitchell puts it, in “sharing our stories, clearing away myths, and inspiring and children and grandchildren’?

Our role is to inspire the exploration and appreciation of our state’s history by presenting an honest representation of Mississippi. Visitors will find stories that resonate with their experiences, but we hope they’ll also find new and surprising ways of looking at our state and its many stories.

This museum is a place that elicits stories. I’ve enjoyed watching families reflecting on the history of their communities and sharing stories passed down over generations. The experience of seeing an artifact or a film or standing in a recreated historic site can facilitate conversations that strengthen our identity and challenge perspectives.

Some students find it hard to engage with lessons about history. What would you say are some of the exhibits/displays at the museum that may win them over? Are there some things that patrons may be surprised to see?

With four original films, dozens of digital interactives and immersive scenes, and more than 1,600 artifacts, the museum is designed to capture the attention of a wide range of visitors.

Students have been excited to walk through time and peek into the different living spaces of Mississippians throughout history, investigate their artifacts, and hear their stories. Visitors are often surprised by the size and scale of this museum, the amount of history we are presenting, and the range of voices that are highlighted and uplifted in the exhibits.

The book tells us that Mississippi’s story has evolved as history has recorded the presence of its first native peoples, followed by Europeans, Africans, and later people from Germany, Russia, Poland, Slavonia, Italy, Lebanon, China, and others. How do we see the impact and the accomplishments of such diversity of our people reflected in our state today?

To me, the story of Mississippi is one of the most fascinating in our country. We see here on the local scale our national themes of people from different groups and places coming together to form something greater than themselves.

Our theme of One Mississippi, Many Stories celebrates all those who have shaped and defined our state–and continue to do so today.

The hours and admission for the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum can be found here. The hours and admission for the Museum of Mississippi History can be found hereTelling Our Stories can be purchased at the museums’ store, or from Lemuria Books and its online store.

Author Q & A with Ann Fisher-Wirth

Interview by Jana Hoops. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (February 4)

As an Army brat who swore in her teen years that she’d never live in Mississippi, poet and University of Mississippi professor Ann Fisher-Wirth has, after nearly 30 years as an Oxford resident, decided that Mississippi (along with parts of California) now feels like home.

Not only has she felt moved to compose poetry honoring Mississippi’s culture, history, and people, but she is devoted to preserving its land, which she believes has suffered “severe environmental degradation that cannot be separated from its history of poverty and racial oppression.”

mississippiHer newest book, titled Mississippi, is a collaboration with acclaimed photographer and Delta native Maude Schuyler Clay, offering a different perspective  on her current home state–one that is both visual and literary. The volumes includes 47 sets of Clay’s striking–and sometimes haunting–photos, each paired with one of Fisher-Wirth’s reflective poems.

Photographs and letterpress poems from this project are on exhibit throughout Mississippi, and a performance piece involving six actors has been created from two dozen of the poems.

Fisher-Wirth’s other poetry books include Dream CabinetCarta MarinaFive Terraces, and Blue Window. She has alos published an academic book on William Carlos Williams and four poetry chapbooks. With Laura-Gray Street, she co-edited the groundbreaking Ecopoetry Anthology.

She has been the recipient of several residencies, is a Fellow of the Black Earth Institute, and received a senior Fulbright to Switzerland and a Fulbright Distinguished Chair award to Sweden. She is also a past president of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment. Fisher-Wirth teaches American literature and poetry workshops and directs the Environmental Studies program at Ole Miss. She has recently completed a sixth poetry book manuscript, Because Here We Are.

There was a time when you swore you’d never live here. Tell me about your Mississippi experience, and why you’ve stayed.

I was an Army brat; when I was 10, my father retired and my family moved to Berkeley, California, where I spent my teenage years. Living in Berkeley in the 1960s, I paid careful attention to the civil rights movement; that’s why I swore I’d never live in Mississippi. I lived in southern California, Belgium, and Virginia.

Ann Fisher-Wirth

Ann Fisher-Wirth

But in the late 1980s, we cam here (to Ole Miss), lured by the terrific English department, the literary community centered in Square Books, and the fact that Mississippi seemed to be a very complicated, culturally fascinating, beautiful and troubled place. We came in a spirit of adventure, and a feeling that we could do good work here. We’ve stayed because we want to. The English department has just gotten better and better–it’s a friendly and increasingly heterogeneous department. I love working with our MFA poets as well as with the undergraduates who study American literature and creative nonfiction with me. I also love directing and teaching for the minor in Environmental Studies, and ahve had some fantastic, dynamic students over the years.

Our children are all grown–our three daughters live elsewhere, but our two sons are here, as are two of our grandchildren–a major attraction. I’m attached to our house, old and drafty as it is. And Oxford is just plain an incredible place to be a writer.

How did you and Maude come up with the idea to create a book together? Were the poems written to go with the photographs, or were the photographs taken to go with the poems?

Maude Schuyler Clay

Maude Schuyler Clay

Maude and I have known each other socially for decades and have known each other’s work. At one point or the other of us casually remarked, “We should do something sometime.” She thinks I was the one; I think she was the one.

A few years ago she started sending me photographs she had taken but never published. I had recently published Dream Cabinet and The Ecopoetry Anthology and was looking for a new project. I was moved by her photo of a tree in water–this has turned out to be the cover image for the book–and I wrote the poem based on the yoga pose Vrksasana that begins “You stand in Tree…” A little later, she sent me a hauntingly beautiful image of a boat in greenish water. I knew I wanted to write a poem based on this photo, but had no idea what it could say until Made mentioned that the boat had belonged to her close friend who had just died. Immediately, the poem “Between two worlds / the soul floats…” came to me, and eventually that became the opening poem of the book. Others followed as Maude continued to send me photographs over the next couple of years.

Nearly all the poems were written to go with photographs; in only on or two cases, we found photos to go with poems I had already written. But as you know, the poems don’t just describe the photographs, and, with one exception, the photographs don’t have people in them.

Instead, the poems are spoken in voices of fictive characters that the photographs somehow suggested to me. Creating this book was, for me, very much an act of channeling voices, scraps of lives that I have encountered since living in Mississippi, sometimes combined with scraps of memory from my own life–exploring the incredible richness of this region’s spoken language.

What is the message of the blending of this poetry with the sometimes bare, sometimes harsh images of the state’s landscape, that you want to leave with your readers?

Poems are more about experiences than messages, so I don’t really have a message per se. I wanted the poems to reflect the variety of voices, and hence the variety of people, in Mississippi: old, young; wise, foolish; poor, middle-class, wealthy; loving, hateful; male, female; lettered, unlettered; black, white, Native American. Some of the poems are harsh and bleak, and speak to the realities of racism, poverty, violence, and environmental damage that are part of Mississippi. Others are lush and beautiful, as befits the beauty and gentler aspects of the people and places.

How did you develop an interest in writing poetry–and then realize that you were so good at it?

I come from a family of English teachers and readers, and I’ve always wanted to write poetry. I wrote a little bit in high school, then stopped, then wrote a little bit more while writing my dissertation, then stopped. Until I got tenure at the University of Mississippi, my writing was academic–a book on William Carlos Williams, a numbers of essays on Williams, Willa Cather, Anita Brookner, Robert Haas, and others.

Then just for fun I audited a poetry workshop that my friend Aleda Shirley was teaching, and after the first day, I said to myself, “This is it. I’m writing poems from now on, and never looking back.” Some time later, I attended a week-long workshop in California called The Art of the Wild, and wrote a poem called, “What Is There to Do in Mississippi?” It became my first published poem, in the magazine The Wilderness Society, and it even paid–so I took my whole family out to dinner to celebrate at City Grocery (in Oxford). After that, it took a while to get my first book, Blue Window, published, and the rest has followed. It’s always a a lot of work, always an adventure.

Thank you for saying I am “so good at it.” I sure love it. I’ve always loved writing, but my confidence about it is never a steady-state thing.

Your poetry style here is at once stark and powerful–there are no titles, no punctuation, no apparent patter of wordplay–and grammatical rules are cast aside. Tell me how this design contributes to the interpretation of the poetry.

I wanted to get rid of the conventional accouterments of poetry and just let the voices be heard. I also wanted the eye to be alive on the page–to treat the page as a field of composition and make use of negative space in order to capture the way we actually speak, which is never a steady march forward, and never completely grammatically. One of the strongest elements of Southern literature is its orality, and I wanted to honor the living voices in every way.

There are several recurring themes in your poetry in this book: racism, sexual desire, death, family, tragedy, memories, and nature’s beauty and fury. Why these topics?

Is there anything else? I’m partly kidding. But a writer doesn’t exactly get to choose his or her themes; these are topics that have greatly concerned me my whole life. They’re central to human experience, no matter where or when. By the way, I love the phrase “nature’s beauty and fury.” That “fury” is so important.

Do you have plans for future writing projects?

Well, I have a lot of uncollected poems and a desire to create another book, but as yet it has no shape. I’m writing new poems all the time, some of which are worth keeping. For the pas two fall semesters, I have team-taught with my colleague Patrick Alexander in the Prison to College Pipeline program for pre-release prisoners at Parchman. This has been an intensely rich experience for me and I’ve been writing about that. And there are a couple of editing projects I’ll be working on–but it’s too early to talk about them.

Ann Fisher-Wirth and Maude Schuyler Clay will be at Lemuria on Friday, February 9, at 5:00 to sign and discuss their new book, Missisippi.

Author Q & A with Karen L. Cox

Interview by Jana Hoops. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (January 7)

Goat Castle: A True Story of Murder, Race, and the Gothic South (University of North Carolina Press) uncovers the details of what came to be the highly sensationalized case of the 1932 murder of Jennie Merrill, a wealthy white Natchez woman who was killed during an attempted robbery of her antebellum home.

goat castleThe book, which documents the obvious racial injustice with which the case was handled by local officials, gained national attention because of the eccentric lifestyle of initial suspects Richard Dana and Octavia Dockery, who lived in a decaying antebellum home overrun with crumbling furnishings, pervasive filth–and a pen of goats, among many other animals.

Emily Burns, an African-American domestic worker and Natchez resident who unwillingly found herself at the scene of the crime, was unjustly tried and convicted of the murder, and sentenced to life imprisonment at Parchman Penitentiary.

It was award-winning author Karen L. Cox, a history professor at University of North Carolina at Charlotte, who came across the story when she was conducting research for another book at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History in Jackson.

Karen L. Cox

Karen L. Cox

A native of West Virginia, Cox said her ties to Mississippi go back to when she first arrived in Hattiesburg to pursue her doctorate degree at the University of Southern Mississippi in 1991.

“There’s hardly been a year that I haven’t been back to the state to work on a research project,” she said. “After writing Goat Castle, I fell in love with Natchez and made good friends there.”

Cox, who teaches courses in American history and culture, also authored Dixie’s Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture, which won the Southern Association for Women Historians’ Julia Cherry Spruhill Prize; and Dreaming of Dixie: How the South Was Created in American Popular Culture. She is also editor of Destination Dixie: Tourism and Southern History.

As a distinguished historian widely recognized for her knowledge of the American South, Cox has written op-eds for The New York TimesThe Washington Post, CNN, and The Huffington Post, and she has been interviewed by the Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, The Daily Beast, The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal, and numerous other American newspapers, as well as papers in Germany, Denmark, Ireland, and Japan. She has also appeared on numerous television news outlets around the country, as well as the BBC.

How did you learn about this case, and why did you decide to write  this book about it?

I learned about this case while working in the State Archives in Jackson. I was researching a previous book, which included the tourism generated by the Natchez Pilgrimage, when Clinton Bagley–a longtime historian/librarian at the Archives–told me that I should be looking at Goat Castle. As soon as I learned the barest of information on the story, I instinctively knew I’d write this book. It has so many layers to it and the “characters” are real. The truth is really stranger than fiction.

The investigation after the crime revealed that Dana and Dockery, white neighbors of Merrill’s, had plotted with George Pearls, an African-American, to rob Merrill’s home. But things wen terribly wrong, and Merrill was shot during the attempted robbery. After Pears was soon killed by an Arkansas policeman for an unrelated incident, an innocent black woman, Emily Burns, would ultimately be charged with the murder and imprisoned. The book states that the murder had become national news within less than 48 hours. Why was this?

Why it became national headlines so swiftly had to do with Jennie Merrill’s status as a descendant of planter aristocracy and being the daughter of Ayres Merrill, Jr., who was the former Belgian ambassador. Yet, within a week the story became less about her death and more about her eccentric neighbors, Dick Dana and Octavia Dockery. They, too, were from elite Southern families, but in 1932 lived in absolute squalor at their home Glenwood, which the press nicknamed “Goat Castle” since the pair kept a pen of goats inside the house.

The news coverage after the murder seems to have focused much more on the strange, eccentric lifestyle of Dockery and Dana than it did on the fact that a murder had been committed and Burns’ future was at stake. Please describe the public’s obsession with “Goat Woman” and “Wild Man,” and the press’s fascination with keeping the story focused on their “Old South” heritage–even as Burns remained in prison.

In addition to the squalor, the press nicknamed Dick Dana the “Wild Man” and, it seems, needed to give one to Octavia Dockery as well. She became the “Goat Woman.” The press was obsessed with what it saw as the decline of the Old South as seen in the lives of Dana and Dockery–the shocking contrast between the grandeur of the Old South and what appeared to be a Gothic novel come to life. This obsession resulted in a tourist trade to go to Natchez to see the house and the odd couple who lived there. It should be no surprise that little attention was paid to Emily Burns, a black domestic. Jim Crow justice meant that she was assumed to be guilty.

This book is well-documented, with 20 pages of notes. It seems that the research must have been painstaking, as you include a great deal of description about the city of Natchez, its crumbling antebellum homes at that time–and, just 70 years after the Civil War had ended, the mindset of the descendants of those who had fought in the Civil War and those who had been enslaved. How did you approach the research for this material, and how long did it take?

The timeline of the research looks like it took me five years (2012-2017), but it’s important to note that as a professor of history, I am also teaching classes, grading papers, going to meetings, etc. So, I’d have to plan research trips to Jackson, Natchez, and even Baton Rouge–a week here and a week there. Fortunately, I had a sabbatical that allowed me to write full time beginning in the fall of 2015. I wrote the book in about seven months. It went through a few months of editing and then was submitted in 2016. It takes about a year after submission for a book to come out.

Please describe the run and filth that Dockery and Dana lived in–along with ducks, geese, chickens, cats, dogs, and of course, the goats–and explain how they actually profited off of their eccentric lifestyle.

I’d rather that people read the book for those descriptions. They profited off of their notoriety by selling tickets to tour the grounds. There was a second charge to enter the house, where Dick Dana played piano. The pair also went on a tour of towns in Mississippi and Louisiana and appeared on stage as the “Wild Man” and “Goat Woman” of Goat Castle.

The city of Natchez was not fond of the publicity brought on by the trial at that time, but it was a boon for tourism.

How did the city deal with this circus of a crime story invading it on a national scale?

It’s not clear how the city of Natchez dealt with it. Certainly, local restaurants benefited. People would also tour other houses while in Natchez. On the one hand, there was profit to be made. On the other, it had become an embarrassment. So, the best way to deal with it was not to talk about it publicly.

What can we learn today from this story of criminal injustice 85 years ago–as a state and as a nation?

What is evident in this story is that the double standard of justice that sent an innocent black woman to prison still exists. Octavia Dockery’s fingerprints were found inside of Merrill’s home, not Burns’. Yet Dockery got to go home. Also, 85 years late, it’s still true that the majority of women sent to prison are women of color, especially African-American and Hispanic women.

Do you have other writing projects in mind that you can share with us?

I’m still trying to figure that out. Goat Castle only came out in October and I’ve still got book events coming up. I’ll be back in Natchez in February for the Literary and Cinema Celebration, which will be focused on Southern Gothic. I’m also going to be in New Orleans in march for the Tennessee Williams Literary Festival. My guess is that my next project will include Mississippi, as all of my books have done.

Pioneering conservationist Fannye Cook was truly a Mississippi hero

By Jim Ewing. Special to the Clarion Ledger Sunday print edition (November 27)

fannye cookFor many outdoors enthusiasts in Mississippi, Dorothy Shawhan’s book Fannye Cook might be described as one about the most influential person you never met.

The term “hero” is often overused, but in this case, Cook lives up to the label, as Shawan details.

Approximately 150,000 people (mostly children) annually stream through the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science, says former director Libby Hartfield, who contributed to the book. And that is directly due to Cook, who founded it and served as its director until her retirement in 1958.

Of import to hunters, fisherfolk, birders, conservationists, and others, however, Cook was instrumental in creating what is now the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks.

Her impact goes even beyond that.

As Shawhan describes, Cook, a graduate of what is now Mississippi University for Women, began her lifelong study and promotion of Mississippi’s natural resources in 1926. The wildlife population in Mississippi—including its most popular game species—was threatened by lack of habitat, overhunting, and overfishing.

“The forest resources that had covered 95 percent of the state in 1800 were practically gone by 1930,” Shawan reports.

Cook, with the help of the federal Depression-era Works Progress Administration, conducted a comprehensive plant and animal survey in Mississippi that she designed. Traveling across the state speaking to local groups and schools, she spearheaded a successful effort for public education and scientific research of wildlife resources.

The results of her efforts were twofold:

  • After her pushing for seven years, the state Legislature approved creation of a state game and fish commission in 1932 to regulate and conserve natural resources;
  • To house the enormous data she amassed, she was instrumental in opening the state’s first natural science museum in 1939 for the survey’s “28,732 fish, reptiles, birds, plants, amphibians, and mammals collected.”

It was an incredible turnaround in the public’s appreciation and support for habitat that lives on today.

Subtitled “Mississippi’s Pioneering Conservationist,” the book delves into the obstacles that stood in Cook’s path both personal and professional, as a woman in a “man’s” field, as well as her achievements and friendships along the way.

It’s full of recognizable names, including author Eudora Welty, with whom she lived as a boarder in Welty’s Jackson home, and Aldo Leopold, considered by many the father of wildlife ecology in the United States, with whom she collaborated.

Cook serves as a role model not only for women, but for all who have a dream and are willing to work tirelessly to achieve it.

Cook’s work and memory live on with the museum, the state’s largest, that now houses more than 1 million scientific specimens, along with creation of the 2,600-acre Fannye Cook Natural Area in Rankin County soon slated to open to the public. It’s the brainchild of Wildlife Mississippi, which also helped underwrite this book.

Shawhan, a Delta State University professor, died during course of writing the book and the manuscript was completed by Marion Barnwell, professor emerita at Delta State, and Hartfield. It’s a fascinating account of a most extraordinary Mississippian.

Jim Ewing, a former writer and editor at the Clarion-Ledger, is the author of seven books, and serves or has served on numerous state, regional and national boards involving wildlife conservation, forests, agriculture and food.

Marion Barnwell and Libby Hartfield will be at Lemuria to sign and read from Fanny Cooke on Sunday, December 3, at 11:30 a.m.

Author Q & A with Carter Dalton Lyon (Sanctuaries of Segregation)

Interview by Jana Hoops. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (November 26)

A strategic program that was begun to awaken Jackson’s segregated white churches to the idea of opening their doors to their African-American Christian counterparts in the 1960s will be commemorated with several public events next weekend that will honor that struggle.

More than 50 years later, that effort has been documented in Carter Dalton Lyon’s Sanctuaries of Segregation: The Story of the Jackson Church Visit Campaign, published by University Press of Mississippi.

sanctuaries of segregationWhat began for Lyon as a doctoral dissertation while he was a history student at Ole Miss more than a decade ago eventually resulted in his debut book, which unfolds in meticulous detail why activists and students at Tougaloo College acted on what they believed was a necessary element in advancing their goal of racial integration in the capital city.

A native of Lexington, Kentucky, Lyon now teaches and chairs the History Department at St. Mary’s Epsicopal School in Memphis. He and wife Sally Cassaday are the parents of two daughters.

Your new book, Sanctuaries of Segregation: The Story of the Jackson Church Visit Campaign closely examines a 10-month effort by Tougaloo College students and activists who set out to integrate what you called “the last sanctuaries for segregationists” in the city–white churches. Why was this an important goal of the civil rights movement in Jackson in the early 60s?

One thing that I found early in my research was that segregationists throughout the South had been worrying about the potential desegregation of their churches for many years and that organized groups of students had been testing the attendance policies of white churches as they were challenging other segregated spaces. They would, in effect, conduct a sit-in at lunch counters on Saturday and try to attend white churches on Sunday. This had been done in other cities in 1960, but not in Jackson until 1963.

The idea for these “kneel-ins” was to tug at the conscience of white Christians, especially those moderates who favored a more voluntary approach to desegregation or who didn’t really appreciate the immorality of segregation. Being barred from church would make visible the reality of racial discrimination in the house of God. Activists in Jackson in 1963 had a more specific reason as well: they had tried mass marches and sit-ins, but the local movement had fractured a bit, and there were those, like Rev. Ed King, who wanted to give the Jackson community another chance to shift course–and appealing to white Christians seemed like a logical approach.

Although the participants in this movement faced a great deal of resistance from congregants and church leaders, the effort slowly began to gain some ground with white ministers and members. What was the trigger that finally broke through the resistance?

For the churches that were “open” to black visitors during the campaign, it took a combination of ministerial and lay leadership to sustain that. Even if the minister had ordered the doors to be open or favored open doors, the extent to which they would in fact be open really had to do with logistics–who was at the door and who was organizing them. The minister really needed the backing of a majority of lay leaders to make this work.

For those who began to change or who opened the doors in the years after the campaign ended, it would be nice if I could say that i was because of a change of heart, but there’s really little evidence to that effect. The Jackson church visit campaign forced their regional or national denominational bodies to clarify the open-door policies of the denomination, and so these churches needed to consent to this, especially if they wanted to call a new pastor. Some church members didn’t and formed break-away churches and, in the case of the Methodists, formed a new denomination.

Ultimately, what did this movement accomplish?

The Jackson church visit campaign made the reality of racial discrimination visible in these sacred spaces and forced white church people to confront the essential question of these activists: was racial exclusion following the will of God? These visits sparked internal debates within congregations throughout the city and certainly led to turmoil and division in many churches. But I see the church visitors as exposing a fatal flaw in these churches. They had retreated into these sanctuaries of segregation, but their practices contradicted their faith and were in defiance of the stated beliefs and policies of their own denominations. As a result of this campaign, you see denominations moving to clarify their attendance policies and become more deliberate in examining segregation within their bodies.

You write that many ministers secretly agreed with the students and activists who attempted to join in worship services in their churches, but believed they could not share their feelings with their congregations for fear of losing their jobs and/or causing a split in the church. From your research, how did these ministers ultimately deal with their mixed feelings?

Each minister dealt with it differently and there really isn’t a general way of answering this, but I can say that all of the ministers who fit this description certainly battled with the feeling that they had been called by God to this particular church and they were determined to remain. Some had been at their churches for at least a decade and even when their lay boards voted to bar African-Americans, the real moment of truth came when black visitors were in fact blocked at the church doors. For those who held onto their positions as activists were being rejected outside, I see a real sense of exasperation on the part of these ministers, that their message, and the Gospel’s message of inclusion and brotherhood over the years, had not gotten through to their congregations.

As a Kentucky native, why did you decide to bring this topic to light about Jackson’s past now, and how is it relevant in today’s social, spiritual, and/or political climate?

Carter Dalton Lyon

Carter Dalton Lyon

This book has been germinating for a while, but when I began researching this, I frankly noticed a dearth of analysis on the white church response to the civil rights movement on a local level. In the last decade and a half, historians and theologians have been doing great work filling in that gap, and I hope my book adds to that body of scholarship. The great Mississippian Ida B. Wells once wrote that “the way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth on them,” and my hope is that this book helps in some of the truth-telling that is happening in Jackson.

Your research for this book is extensive–with 65 pages of notes and bibliography. How did you go about your research, and how long did it take to put this book together?

This book grew out of my thesis and dissertation work in graduate school at the University of Mississippi, so the bulk of the research was conducted during those six years, and I’ve spent the last six years of so refining and getting it into book form. I should say that it was very important to me to try to capture all sides of this struggle and to track down as many people who were a part of this effort as I could. I realized early on that there were folks who wanted to sweep this story under the rug or deny it outright, so I aimed to be as careful and extensive as I could in documenting this and getting the story right.

Although you mention several Catholic and Protestant houses of worship, much of the book is devoted to how the “closed door” policy was carried out by Methodists. Why was that?

In the early months of the campaign, the visitors cast a pretty wide net and attempted to attend churches from a variety of denominations: Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist, Lutheran, Disciples of Christ, Episcopal, Unitarian, Church of Christ, and Catholic. For those that routinely barred their entry, such as First Presbyterian and the Baptist churches, they reasoned that they would have little hope of cracking open those doors, so they began to focus more on the churches with regional or denominational bodies that they could use as a potential wedge against these churches.

Then about midway through the campaign, the police arrested three students outside the Capitol Street Methodist Church, and made a total of 40 arrests on subsequent Sundays, and that suddenly brought national attention on the problem of segregation within the Methodist Church ahead of the 1964 General Conference. Methodist ministers and, later, two bishops from across the country began joining students on their weekly visits for their own reasons, but certainly to expose a problem that they hoped (the conference) would solve.

Carter Dalton Lyon will appear at Lemuria to sign and read from Sanctuaries of Segregation on Thursday, November 30, at 5:00 p.m.

‘Goat Castle’ revisits Natchez murder

By Jim Ewing. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (November 12)

In fiction, it’s not uncommon for an author to go back in time to solve a mystery, often with shocking results. Less common is for a nonfiction book to do the same, but with a searingly honest view that’s sadly revealing today.

Karen L. Cox does so with her book Goat Castle (University of North Carolina Press).

LogoAddressing the Aug. 4, 1932, murder of Natchez heiress Jennie Merrill at her antebellum home Glenburnie, Cox peels back the layers of sensationalism surrounding the case to reveal the hard truths of racism and Jim Crow justice of the time.

Subtitling the book “A True Story of Murder, Race, and the Gothic South,” Cox details the lurid aspects of the case that transfixed the nation with its depiction of a South in ruins and the remnants of Southern aristocracy in squalor in the decades following the Civil War.

The headlines of the time focused on Merrill, called an aging recluse, allegedly killed by a black man and her black housekeeper, with her white neighbors as possible accomplices.

The neighbors lived in a falling down mansion they shared with goats and other livestock wandering the halls (hence, the name “Goat Castle”).

“Murder, aristocracy, recluses, and goats,” Cox notes, “these were the subjects more likely to be found in a Southern Gothic novel, and in fact journalists immediately drew parallels to the fiction of Edgar Allan Poe, and later, William Faulkner’s novels about the social decay of old Southern families.”

It was the type of news story that kept Depression-era Americans grossly entertained.

But Cox dives deeper than the headlines, through excellent historical and journalistic investigation, to bring to light a horrible injustice.

Whereas, Merrill’s white neighbors, Dick Dana and Octavia Dockery (she, the daughter of a Confederate general; he, of a family of a famous authors and journalists) got off scot-free, the two black suspects were either killed or imprisoned.

Cox details the lives of Merrill and her alleged paramour and cousin, Duncan Minor, who discovered her body. And she recounts the often bitter and ongoing disputes of the aristocratic Merrill with Dana, called the “Wild Man” who was known to wear only a burlap sack while living in the trees on his property, and Dockery, called the “Goat Woman,” who was glib, clever, and vengeful, albeit living hand to mouth.

The new knowledge of the case is Cox’s painstaking research into the lives of the two black suspects, Lawrence Williams, the alleged triggerman who was gunned down in Arkansas while making his way home to Chicago, and Emily Burns, who received a life sentence at the notorious Parchman Prison farm at Camp 13–the Women’s Camp.

Burns’ sentence was indefinitely suspended after eight years because even in the Jim Crow South that saw black men imprisoned or killed for allegedly improperly looking at a white woman, Gov. Paul B. Johnson Sr. said he was “thoroughly convinced of (her) innocence” and that she was convicted solely upon “circumstantial evidence.”

As Cox details, Burns’ treatment was based on a coerced “confession” and included the belief that unless someone was held accountable for the crime in a court of law, white citizens might have taken matters into their own hands and she might be lynched.

“Emily was presumed guilty because of her race.”

Filled with astonishing photographs and copious notes, Goat Castle is sure to invite attention anew to an old crime in the Bluff City and reinvigorate current debates about racial justice.

Jim Ewing, a former Clarion-Ledger writer and editor, is the author of seven books including his latest, Redefining Manhood: A Guide for Men and Those Who Love Them.

Karen L. Cox will appear Wednesday, November 15 for the History is Lunch series at the Old Capitol Museum at 12:00 p.m. She will appear at Lemuria at 5:00 p.m. on Wednesday to sign and discuss her book, Goat Castle.

‘Live from the Mississippi Delta’ provides a front row seat

By DeMatt Harkins. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (October 15)

No matter how well one may know Mississippi, more layers, subcultures, and haunts appear. They prove endlessly fascinating from a historical, literary, culinary, or musical perspective. In her first book, Live from the Mississippi Delta (University Press of Mississippi), photographer Panny Flautt Mayfield shares her snapshots encapsulating all of these in the greater Clarksdale area.

live from the ms deltaWhile the Coahoma County seat may not be a booming metropolis, the camera-wielding Mayfield frequently found herself in the right place at the right time, during culturally significant events and times over the past 30 years. Her casual stream-of-consciousness photo journal lets the reader in on the energy, with the perspective only a local could provide.

Clarksdale functions as one of the more important blues towns in a state filled with many. Famous native sons include John Lee Hooker, Son House, Ike Turner, and Sam Cooke.And Muddy Waters, W.C. Handy, and Robert Johnson lived there as well. On those shoulders stands a world-renowned musical legacy that supports an enduring local music scene and pilgrimage destination.

This is what Mayfield documents. She exhibits the role Clarksdale and surrounding radius palys in blues past and present–intertwining people, events, and locations, decades and miles apart.

Two excellent sources of material prove to be the town’s Sunflower Blues Festival and King Biscuit Blues Festival in neighboring Helena, Arkansas. Mayfield’s tome displays excellent shots of stalwarts Bobby Bland, Albert King, Little Milton, Denise LaSalle, Jessie Mae Hemphill, Charlie Musselwhite, Otis Rush, Koko Taylor, Pinetop Perkins, Junior Kimbrough, and Honeyboy Edwards–each pictured in the throes of performance.

But Mayfield has also witnessed another level of visitor to the vicinity. She covered John Fogerty and Pop Staples attending Charley Patton’s headstone dedication in Holly Ridge. When famed Smithsonian archivist Alan Lomax returned to Clarksdale after years and years, Mayfield captured him sitting down to hear a picker. She was also on hand for sitting President Clinton’s walking tour of downtown Clarksdale. ZZ Top invited the national press to Mississippi. They were kicking off a million-dollar campaign for the Delta Blues Museum. Guess who was front and center?

Perhaps most stunning of all is Mayfield’s friendship with Robert Plant. The Led Zeppelin frontman’s academic fascination with blues music has manifested in a series of trips to Clarksdale. Throughout the book, Plant pops up, letting the golden locks hang low in practical anonymity. His rapport with Mayfield eventually landed her at his band’s 2007 London reunion concert, depicted in the concert film Celebration Day.

While undeniably interesting, global luminaries are not the appeal of Live from the Mississippi Delta. As Mayfield demonstrates, the magic is in the local mainstays. As the first black disk jockey in Mississippi, Early Wright’s Soul Man Show on WROX–replete with impromptu ads and PSAs–endeared listeners for decades. When he wasn’t opening NAACP chapters across the state, WAde Walton cut multiple generation’s hair. Mrs. Z L Hill ran the Henderson Hotel boarding house for 53 years and even hosted John F. Kennedy. The after-school blues students of Johnnie Billington flew to Washington, D.C. to play at the White House.

However, Mayfield provides more neon than neoclassical. She places the reader in the middle of Clarksdale’s finest music venues. From the dance floor, one can observe the likes of The Jellyroll Kings, Super Chikan, or Bilbo Walker playing Smitty’s Red Top Lounge, Margaret’s Blue Diamond, or the Bobo Grocery. And as the photos make clear, the stars of the evening are not always on stage.

In Live from the Mississippi Delta, Mayfield serves as her own acoustiguide. Sometimes the narrative explains the picture, other times the photo illustrates a point. Regardless she delivers an engaging look into multidimensional Clarksdale and the pleasure it holds.

DeMatt Harkins of Jackson enjoys flipping pancakes and records with his wife and daughter.

Panny Flautt Mayfield will be Lemuria on Wednesday, November 1, at 5:00 to promote her book, Live from the Mississippi Delta.

Jamie sings the praises of ‘Sing, Unburied, Sing’

Since I’ve been working at Lemuria, I’ve self-imposed a  rule of not writing about a book till I’ve finished it.

I am currently breaking that rule. Demolishing it. Splintering it without a shadow of hesitation or guilt.

sing unburied singJesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing is lots of things:  brilliant, gorgeous, haunting, raw, tender, honest. Much like her National Book Award winner Salvage the Bones (a personal favorite of mine­), Sing takes place in an impoverished area of the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Both books’ characters find themselves in a mix of relationships—familial, internal, romantic—yet Sing is in no way a cookie-cutter redux of SalvageSing shifts through various first-person narrators, and does so in a way that’s easy to follow.  If you’re having nightmarish flashbacks of Faulkner, don’t: these leaps between characters (mostly the 13-year-old, endearing Jojo and his difficult mother Leonie) aren’t pretentious displays of cleverness for its own sake. One of Ward’s gifts as a writer is a conspicuous wedge of human empathy. By getting into the mind of Jojo, we see his desire for toughness and tenderness, his need to be protector for his younger sister Kayla, and his longing to be a surrogate father for Kayla the way his own grandfather is for him. While Jojo lends us his frustration at his absent mother, the chapters from Leonie’s perspective help round her character. Her drug use isn’t entirely selfish—it’s her way of self-medicating the hurt of the violent death of her older brother. We see her doubting her own abilities as a mother, cursing herself, but trapped in her own self-doubt so as to prevent her from risking connection with her kids. Ward isn’t necessarily excusing Leonie’s behavior so much as she is explaining it, and showing us the complexity of the human heart in conflict with itself, to steal a phrase from Faulkner.

Ward’s fiction and nonfiction shows us the importance of personal, familial history, and how things from previous generations aren’t really all that previous. Her memoir Men We Reaped illustrates the struggle of generational poverty and quiet, systemic racism perfectly. The notion of inheritance manifests itself in Sing in a fascinating way: ghosts. I would never classify this novel as a fantasy/supernatural genre piece, nor do I think that is Ward’s intent. Leonie sees her dead brother, Given, but can’t hear him speak; Jojo meets his grandfather’s dead friend Richie, who tells him about their days in Parchman. The past isn’t past—another Faulkner phrase I’ll paraphrase—and the ghosts in Sing show us that.  The myriad difficulties of poverty, compounded with the burdens of racism, are hard to get away from.  They haunt their victims, float constantly over their shoulders, peek in-and-out of their vision, or sometimes present themselves in full view.

There’s probably more about the novel that this piece is missing. I’m halfway through the book, and as soon as I finish this post, I’ll open Sing, Unburied, Sing back up and skip sleep.  The book’s that good.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll get back to it.

Author Q & A with Panny Mayfield

Interview by Jana Hoops. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (September 3)

Panny Flautt Mayfield

Panny Flautt Mayfield

As an award-winning journalist and lifelong Mississippi Delta native, Panny Mayfield of Tutwiler has captured decades of blues and gospel music history through her camera lens–and her debut book, Live From the Mississippi Delta (University Press of Mississippi), tells that unique story through her unique, up-close perspective.

The recipient of more than 30 awards granted by the Mississippi Press Association, the Associated Press, the Mississippi Film Commission, and the College Public Relations Association of Mississippi, Mayfield’s work has been exhibited in museums across the U.S. and in Europe.

In Live from the Mississippi Delta, she shares more than 200 photos of Delta performers and their musicians, fans, friends, and families, taken at churches, clubs, festivals, and iconic juke joints, alongside her own detailed accounts of the lives and fortunes of dozens of familiar blues and gospel performers–including those who were Delta natives as well as international superstars who traveled from around the world to pay homage to the legends who influenced their own music.

Tell me about your childhood in Tutwiler and how you came to be a noted Mississippi Delta photographer.

Growing up in Tutwiler, a busy railroad town south of Clarksdale, I enjoyed small town life watching Randolph Scott movies at the Tutrovansum Theatre (a [portmanteau] for the Mississippi communities it served: Tutwiler, Rome, Vance, and Sumner), playing kick the can, and catching lightning bugs in Mason jars. I was aware of places like Lula Mae’s Sunrise Cafe where infectious music spilled out on the street, but it was totally off limits to me until I became an adult.

Photography fascinated me at about the age of 12. I began taking pictures and writing about cross-country family trips, became newspaper editor in high school and at Ole Miss, and began a lifelong career as a journalist and photographer.

I began taking blues photographs in the late 70s when Sid Graves founded Clarksdale’s Delta Blues Museum. Bluesman Wesley Jefferson needed a portfolio and asked me to photograph his Southern Soul Band playing at Margaret’s Blue Diamond Blues Club on the railroad tracks in Clarksdale’s New World District. I organized a folder for James “Super Chikan” Johnson who needed to get serious booking gigs.

It was Mae, Michael James’ lady, who began teaching me to dance to blues music in her kitchen. Decades later, I’m still working on my dancing and sharing the drama of the passionate music that is the Mississippi Delta blues.

After a career as a newspaper journalist and a public relations director for a community college, Live from the Mississippi Delta is your first book. How did this book come about?

My careers with newspapers, magazines, and Coahoma Community College were incredibly busy. Although I considered a book somwhere down the line, I was busy making a living and meeting ever-present deadlines until I retired in 2013. I was encouraged to put a book together by Molly Porter of Vermont, who scanned many of my photographs. Initially it was a book of photographs until Craig Gill, University Press of Mississippi’s director, urged me to include stories and text about many of the images, musicians, and events. The book itself is half text, half photos.

Explain what the blues, as a music genre, means to the Mississippi Delta.

I’m not sure if I can explain how much blues means to the Mississippi Delta. They are inseparable, conjoined. When the eminent folklorist and musician Alan Lomax returned to Clarksdale in 1994, he emphasized the similar, unique qualities of Coahoma County blues to the original rhythmic music of Senegal in Africa, and he encouraged a cultural revival in the Delta.

You helped launch Clarksdale’s Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival in 1988. Are you still involved in it?

Jim O’Neal, co-founder of Living Blues magazine, and research director of Mississippi’s Blues Trail, co-founded the Sunflower River Blues Association, and he was here last month for the festival’s 30th anniversary. In 1988, we were considered an avant-garde bunch, but we followed Jim’s lead, staging a free music festival showcasing local musicians as well as well-known artists.

I asked Jim at that time what he thought of today’s Sunflower (festival), and he said he was glad it continued to be a unique, grassroots event where people felt comfortable and at home. This year, we had people from New Zealand, Italy, Germany, Paris, and Bangkok, Thailand.

I’m still publicist for the festival and I love our multiracial, diverse membership. I believe this contributes to the success of our festival.

Your book includes sections on Delta landscapes, “homegrown” and international blues musicians, Delta festivals, juke joints, and more, and your career as a photographer has given you front-row access to scores of musically influential events and people. What have you enjoyed the most and what have you found to be the most challenging?

My book begins with my own beginning in Tutwiler–also the birthplace of blues. it’s where W.C. Handy first head a guitar being played with a kitchen knife in 1903, and where the charismatic Robert Plant paid tribute in 2009 to the music that influenced his own phenomenal career.

I have been one incredibly person to have this background and to fine-tune it in Clarksdale, center of the blues universe. My books “homegrown icons”–radio broadcaster Early Wright, who invited me to his birthday dinners every February 10; and barber Wade Walton with his stuffed monkey Flukie–are just as important to me as international celebrities ZZ Top, James Brown, and Garth Brooks.

Describe Clarksdale’s association with its “sister city,” Notodden, Norway.

Clarksdale’s sister city relationship with Notodden, Norway, began in 1996 with initial visits by Norwegian journalists, musicians, and then city offiicials interested in researching blues history to enhance their own international festival and its connection with the Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival.

Norwegian officials dined on catfish; were entertained at the Rivermount Lounge, a local club favored by Little Milton, Ike Turner, and Bobby Rush; and were taken to a Marvin Sease blues show at the City Auditorium that went on until 2 a.m. The next morning, they attended a service at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church at Friar’s Point, where members lined up to shake every Norwegian’s hand. Overnight, we became “cousins,” and exchanges between the two cities have flourished.

Tell me about the cover of your book.

live from the mississippi deltaI get emotional about the cover of my book. The musician–Arthneice Jones–is one of the most talented and articulate bluesmen I have known. A harmonica master and singer/songwriter, Arthneice was leader of The Stone Gas Band–a talented and popular bunch who played all over north Mississippi and Memphis before his untimely death. A musician who worked in concrete, Arthneice intrigued, charmed, and connected intimately with Sunflower acoustic audiences each summer with sidewalk philosophy mixed with music.

My initial choice for the book cover was a juke joint scene from Shelby’s Dew Drop Inn. But when University Press of Mississippi emailed, unannounced, the image of Arthneice imposed on raw Delta cotton fields, i cried. It was so perfect.

Do you have any plans for more books?

As a journalist trained to condense news and feature articles into brief, interesting opening lines with zero personal commentary, writing a book was a new experience. Fortunately, Craig Gill and the UPM staff were patient and encouraging. Helpful also were remembrances of my mother’s storytelling traditions.

A future book about 25 years of celebrating America’s great playwright with the Mississippi Delta Tennessee Williams Festival is a possibility.

Ace Atkin’s Quinn Colson is back as sheriff in ‘The Fallen’

By Jim Ewing. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (August 27)

Fans of Oxford novelist Ace Atkins will savor the butt-kickin’ return of protagonist Quinn Colson as sheriff in The Fallen (G.P. Putnam).

atkins fallenAll the familiar denizens of the fictional town of Jericho, Mississippi, (faintly like the Oxford we all know, perhaps stripped to its roots) are there–if not in person, then in memory.

Loyal, tough-as-nails, and sharpshooter deputy Lillie Virgil is there–but for how long? The loyal one-armed mechanic, Boom, is there; this time, sleuthing out the mystery of two missing teens as the behest of Colson’s sister, Caddy, behind the sheriff’s back.

His Elvis-worshipping momma Jean is there, still dishing out heaping helpings of Southern food and sound advice.

The major clash is a trio of ex-Marines who, having returned from war, want excitement, cash, and blood through heists while brandishing weapons and wearing Donald Trump masks (complete with R-rated quotes from the president while robbing banks).

In many ways, book 7 in the Colson series is like many of the others: Colson, a former U.S. Army Ranger, enjoys tooling around in a big pickup (the Green Machine), smoking cigars (now Drew Estate Undercrowns over his previously preferred La Gloria Cubana), and finding himself in binds caused by the local good ol’ boy power structure while dealing with deadly scofflaws.

His love life is still hopelessly conflicted , with the rekindled romance of his high school sweetheart now a hurtful memory, the fling with the coroner Ophelia Bundren cut short after she threw a steak knife at him, and the continuing unresolved tension with Virgil.

But there’s a new woman in town, Maggie Powers, who it turns out, used to run with Colson when they were kids.

She’s grown up nicely–but has conflicts and dangers of her own.

This time around, there’s a new owner of the strip club/rent-by-the-hour motel on the interstate: Fannie, a striking redhead who oozes reserved sensuality, hiding her brutal upbringing with fine cars and clothes, but knows how to hurt and even kill with indifferent calculation.

The old guard–despite the old crime boss Johnny Stagg now in prison–is still quite virulent, though keeping in the shadows. And, in a foreshadowing of Colson books to come, it seems intent on regaining full power, with the help of the Southern mafia from the Coast.

All in all, The Fallen is a worthy contender in the series and the type of fast-paced mystery Atkin’s readers have come to expect.

There is one jarring issue that stands out in this book, a plethora of foul language. In previous novels, there was plenty of cussing, and, it’s perhaps to be expected among some of the characters, including military types and hardcore criminals. That’s easily shrugged off. But The Fallen abounds in profanity, even from children.

Atkins, a master craftsman with 21 novels, including the deftly written Spenser books, seems to have fallen into a trap of substituting cursing for dialogue. And there’s no difference in the spewing of it by the various characters, as if all were merely one person speaking out of several mouths. It flattens their texture, destroys any nuance, robs them of their individuality, and (the ultimate sin of the writer) distracts from the narrative.

Jim Ewing, a former writer and editor at The Clarion-Ledger, is the author of seven books including his latest, Redefining Manhood: A Guide for Men and Those Who Love Them.

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