Monday, March 27, 2017

DMI2017, Week 12: "A Southern Landscape" by Elizabeth Spencer

This week we embark on my reading list of Mississippi authors, thanks to the Ten of Hearts. I don't have any particular anthology from which to pull these stories -- instead, I made my list of authors and cobbled together some of their stories from various sources. (It gave me a good excuse to buy more anthologies, in a few cases.)


This week's story, "A Southern Landscape," comes from the anthology Growing Up in the South, and was the first story by Elizabeth Spencer that I've ever read. After this one, I think I need another anthology for my library! Spencer is possibly best known for her novella "The Light in the Piazza," which has been the basis for both a movie and a Broadway musical.

"A Southern Landscape" focuses on the story of Marilee Summerall, a teenaged girl who lives in the small town of Port Claiborne, Mississippi. Interestingly, the Port Claiborne of the story is a thinly-veiled stand-in for the real-life town of Port Gibson, Mississippi, which I visited a few years back. It's a beautiful, historic town that, despite figuring prominently in the Civil War as the site of a battle that was probably the beginning of the end for the Confederacy in Mississippi, was remarkably preserved throughout the war. Reportedly, this is because Ulysses S. Grant himself said that the town was too beautiful to burn, so it wasn't. In the story, Spencer makes mention of the famous golden hand pointing to Heaven atop the steeple of the First Presbyterian Church, and some of the action of the story takes place at the nearby ruins of Windsor.

The famous Golden Hand on the top of the
First Presbyterian Church steeple in Port Gibson, MS

The iconic ruins of Windsor

These sights and many others make up the "southern landscape" referred to in the title, a landscape not only in reality but of the heart and soul as well. Spencer's beautiful, evocative writing makes this clear:

Coming down the highway from Vicksburg, you come to Port Claiborne, and to get to our house you turn off to the right on State Highway No. 202 and follow along the prettiest road. It's just about the way it always was -- worn deep down like a tunnel and thick with shade in summer. In spring, it's so full of sweet heavy odors, they make you drunk, you can't think of anything -- you feel you will faint or go right out of yourself. In fall, there is the rustle of leaves under your tires and the smell of them, all sad and Indian-like. Then in the winter, there are only dust and bare limbs, and mud when it rains, and everything is like an old dirt-dauber's nest up in the corner.

So set against this landscape we have Marilee's story and her brief infatuation with Foster Hamilton, a boy a few years older than her. She calls him "Benjy" after the "big, overgrown idiot" character in Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury -- not because he's necessarily so big or overgrown, but he does often behave like an idiot. Mainly, Foster likes to drink, and it gets him into some awkward and embarrassing situations. The biggest situation occurs when Foster takes Marilee to her senior dance, and he's already two sheets to the wind, They leave the dance after about ten minutes because he's teetering "like a baby that has caught on to what walking is, and knows that now is the time to do it, but hasn't had quite enough practice," Outside, Foster falls into a ditch because he is so drunk, and Marilee has to drive him around in his car (not actually knowing how to drive before that night) until it gets late enough to go home without anyone being suspicious that the evening didn't go exactly as planned.

There's much more to enjoy in this pretty humorous story, especially Spencer's writing and her many Southern turns of phrase. The story is written in Marilee's voice, so it feels exactly like she is sitting down with you on the front porch and telling this story. It's worth five stars for sure.

Deal Me In 2017 is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

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