Books by Mississippi Writers 1996-2010
By Ellen Douglas (Algonquin hardcover, $18.95, ISBN: 1565122143; Plume paperback, $12.95, ISBN: 0452281024, 9/1999) Earnest, searching inquiry into family and regional history "and the pivotal but mutable role memory plays in both" by one of the true grand dames of southern letters. Douglas, author of seven books of fiction (Can't Quit You Baby, 1988; A Lifetime Burning, 1982; The Rock Cried Out, 1979;) turns to nonfiction, though her musings on the connections between life and art demonstrate how unsatisfactory genre classifications can be. As the narrative moves backward in time (each selection exploring an earlier period than the preceding one), the style changes from fiction to personal essay. "Grant," about a terminally ill uncle who moved in with Douglas's family, is a textbook example of the short story form. "Julia and Nellie" is a long, convoluted (and sometimes confusing) exploration of the tangled allegiances among small-town Southern families. The book is a kind of owning up: Douglas tells stories that, for reasons from personal shame to a need to protect relatives, she couldn't tell as a young woman. Striving to settle accounts, to discover a personal or historical truth, she runs up against her instincts as a novelist "an urge to extract meaning by fictionalizing, to imagine the cause of events" which clash with her desire to record or discover what really happened. In some instances she's able (even willing) to invent. Mulling over the "ancient romance" at the heart of "Julia and Nellie," she dreams up several explanations for the scandalous common-law marriage of distant cousins, then rejects them as too romantic. In others ("Hampton" and "On Second Creek," in which she strives to understand the 1861 massacre of slaves belonging to her family), neither her fictionalizing nor the spotty family record is enough to fill in the missing links. Slightly more valuable for its insight into Douglas's fiction than for what it says about history's subjective biases. ―Copyright © 1998, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.