April 09, 2009


Mama Makes Up Her Mind and Other Dangers of Southern Living. By Bailey White. Da Capo. $14.

An American Trilogy: Death, Slavery, & Dominion on the Banks of the Cape Fear River. By Steven M. Wise. Da Capo. $26.

     The American South remains, for better or worse, a less homogenized area than most of the rest of the country. Its differentiation is not strictly geographical– northern Florida is more “southern” than southern Florida. It is a matter of attitude and lifestyle rather than having anything to do with the Mason-Dixon Line (which passes north of Maryland, a state that few would regard as “southern” in any meaningful way except for its now widely reviled state song, which is a pro-Confederacy remnant). What is especially enjoyable about Bailey White’s Mama Makes Up Her Mind is the small number of words the author needs to communicate the essential Southernness of her Georgia roots. The 225 pages of text in White’s book comprise no fewer than 55 short-short stories, and most of them are small gems. Sometimes White needs only a sentence or two to convey in full the atmosphere of a particular part of the South: “I drive through Mayo and Day, tiny little towns that are slowly being reclaimed by flora and fauna. Wisteria is quietly disassembling the abandoned Victorian hotel on the only street in Mayo, and spreading fingers of Bermuda grass grow out over the white streets of Day.” At other times, it takes her a bit longer to make a trenchant point, for example in her story of the “Imagination Game” that she was at first unable to play as a child – she closed her eyes but did not see anything – until one day she began seeing giant dancing chicken feet. At still other times, White uses matter-of-fact language to make readers accept extraordinary things: “My mother is old, but she doesn’t make up stories that aren’t true, and she doesn’t see things that aren’t there. That’s why we didn’t doubt her for a minute when she told us she had seen a flying saucer go over the house early one spring morning.” White’s vignettes of herself, her region and her childhood enthrall and charm through their very simplicity and brief duration. These are small stories of small occurrences in more-or-less-ordinary everyday life, which touch on “big-picture issues” associated with the South only occasionally, as when White’s mother campaigns in south Georgia for a black politician who is foredoomed to lose because of the region’s lingering racial history. But even this story is told in a matter-of-fact manner, without a trace of the hostility or condescension so often inflicted on the South by people from other U.S. regions and by self-proclaimed “enlightened” Southerners themselves.

     One of that latter group would be attorney Steven M. Wise, who lives in the far southern reaches of Florida amid scads of transplanted Northerners. Wise, author of Rattling the Cage: Toward Legal Rights for Animals and other animal-equality books, is a polemicist who marshals his arguments with lawyerly tendentiousness. In An American Trilogy, he uses his interpretation of religion to examine and interconnect the shameful past treatment of Native Americans and African-American slaves with what he considers to be the equally shameful current treatment of pigs. There are very strong arguments to be made against factory farming, and in favor of pigs in particular: these are intelligent animals scarcely deserving of the horrendous conditions in which they are often kept. But Wise, who focuses on the town of Tar Heel, North Carolina, both as an exemplar of what he and other members of the self-proclaimed intelligentsia regard as the Deep South mentality and because it is the site of the world’s largest slaughterhouse, is so over-the-top that he is likely to dismay people who might otherwise support at least some aspects of his cause. Wise’s jeremiad leads him, for example, to discuss the wonderful life of Francis of Assisi in ways that make the saint seem a trifle unbalanced (“he removed worms from the road so they would not be trampled”). Wise is simply trying too hard: “Ending the industrial farming and slaughter of hogs does not contradict a single biblical verse. Instead, the Bible demands that we end them: ‘the earth is the Lord’s,’ and we are its steward, not its enemy. But we are also sinners. Once we sinned against Native Americans. Now we repent that past. But the Indians are nearly gone. Once we sinned against black slaves. Now we repent that past. But slavery ended 150 years ago, racial segregation half a century ago. Today we sin against much of God’s Creation and grievously against the hogs of Bladen County. We have an opportunity, not to repent a past, but to repent the present, to become salt and light and end our sinning when it can do some good.” Nearly 300 pages of this sort of thing becomes immensely tiresome, and it is hard to imagine that Wise is preaching to anyone but the converted. The Wise dittoheads would surely give this book a (++++) rating, but for the vast majority of potential readers – the ones Wise would have to reach to have a real chance of making a difference in the fight for expanded animal rights – this one-dimensional bit of hectoring barely rates (++).

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