By Scott Graber
It is Saturday, cold, but I’ve got a fire in the hearth and my Eight O’clock coffee. Today we are without a newspaper although there is People’s Pharmacy to fill the void.
I have, however, chosen to stay with “Kudzu Queen” (a novel) and this morning will re-visit the world of Mattie Lee Watson — a 15-year-old girl living in Cooper County, N.C., in 1941.
Cooper County and North Carolina were still hard, rural places in 1941. Most of the residents were farmers focused on cotton, corn and tobacco. It was not entirely desperate, or completely racist, but life was a series of tasks — physically hard tasks involving chickens, hogs, goats and, importantly, coaxing the tobacco and the cotton plants to marketable maturity.
Reading this novel has been a voyage of discovery — actually metaphysical discovery that has taken me back into my own past.
Let me explain.
Twenty years ago, before my mother died, she called me one morning wondering if I would drive her up to Plymouth, N.C.
“What’s in Plymouth?” I responded.
“Your mother’s family,” she replied. “Actually there’s a farm and a graveyard in Dardens.”
“Is there any barbecue nearby?”
“We’ll stop at the Skylight Inn at Ayden,” she said.
In the latter stages of her life, my mother became the keeper of her family’s history. In those days that meant going into county courthouses — mostly in North Carolina — and looking at deeds, mortgages and wills. It also involved talking to local historians who had written county-based histories in slim volumes that they published themselves. And it involved church records, family Bibles and graveyards.
And so I fired-up my mother’s aging Mercedes and we drove north on U.S. Highway 17 into eastern North Carolina, passing through Wilmington, New Bern and Washington. Eventually we found ourselves standing in front of a sagging, two-story house that appeared to be deserted. Just beyond the derelict house was a field that extended for 200 yards to a tree-line. That neglected field had no crop and was entirely inconsistent with my mother’s stories about the sturdy, industrious folk who had worked this land — our ancestors. My mother, sensing my disappointment, said, “Let’s go over to the cemetery.”
As we walked through the overgrown, untended graveyard, she pointed to almost every grave saying; “tuberculosis;” “died in childbirth;” “pneumonia at Fort Fisher.” Beyond a remarkable propensity to die at a young age, I got no sense of who these people were. What they thought. Who or what they feared.
Those who write fiction have the singular task of getting the reader into their story. Actually the job is getting the reader into the head of the protagonist. No, I take that back, the job is getting the reader to become the protagonist — a transfiguration that eludes all but the very best. But in “Kudzu Queen” Mimi Herman, the author, does this magic and one enters the mind and body of Mattie Lee Watson.
Mattie has always been precocious, but now her body is changing and she is experiencing a sexual awakening that has her confused. That awakening is triggered by Jim Cullowee who has come to Cooper County to sell its tobacco and cotton growing farmers on kudzu — a new, miracle crop that has USDA backing.
Although there is plenty of dialogue in this novel, most of the information and description comes to us from Mattie’s thoughts. It is reminiscent of Scout’s thoughts (“To Kill a Mockingbird”) that were done in voice-over fashion in the movie. Those thoughts give us wonderfully detailed descriptions of her best friend, Lynnette; her brother Danny; her mother Lydia; her young girlfriends; and the people who populate Cooper County, N.C.
In order to get published in the U.S., one must speak of the racism in the South making certain that particular box is checked. Ms. Herman does this in a way that does not demonize the white folk; or canonize the Black farmers. Rather she gives us Rose — the Mayor’s servant — who maintains her dignity, forthrightness and sense of humor in spite of segregation.
As I read last night I couldn’t help but think these Cooper County people were actually my own tobacco-tending ancestors. I could see the stoicism that my mother often mentioned. I could relate to the fatalism, the sudden death, and believe that my ancestors were pretty much the same as those depicted in “Kudzu Queen”.
Notwithstanding my connection, Mimi Herman has written a fine novel.
Scott Graber is a lawyer, novelist, veteran columnist and longtime resident of Port Royal. He can be reached at email@example.com.