Last weekend I visited Mississippi to see some friends in Jackson and to attend my 20th high school reunion at the Mississippi School for Mathematics & Science in Columbus. When in Jackson, I stopped by Lemuria, my old stompin' grounds and one of the best damned bookstores in the country, to pick up an audio book to listen to on my road trip to Columbus, and while there, Maggie told me about Catfish Alley by Lynne Bryant, which is set in Columbus and reminiscent of Kathryn Stockett's runaway bestseller, The Help.
The book shuttles back and forth between 2002 and the years 1921-1931. Roxanne Reeves, director of her town's annual antebellum pilgrimage tour, and Grace Clark, a retired and quite elderly school teacher, anchor the modern segments, dipping randomly into the past with tales of Grace's youth, along with tales of her family and friends. When Lousia, a wealthy and influential Yankee suggests that the town add an African-American segment to the pilgrimage tour, Roxanne reluctantly agrees to do some research, with the hope that in doing so she will land the lucrative and prestigious renovation contract for Louisa's gorgeous antebellum home. Little does she realize that the awkward relationship she develops with Grace will become the most meaningful one in her life. Grace takes her on a weekly tour of the places in town with historical significance to the black community, and Roxanne grows less uncomfortable (saying "more comfortable" would, sadly, be overstating things) playing the minority role with each passing week, but she does become genuinely and wildly interested in all of Grace's stories, particularly those involving her beloved brother, Zero.
While this book does not tread fresh ground, and most readers will be able to predict the various turns of the narrative, there is an emotional heft here. It is, of course, incredibly sad and awful to contemplate that a moderate-sized town in Mississippi in 2002 still has a strong racial divide. Like most real people in our country, the characters in this book have a difficult time talking about race in any meaningful or constructive way, and as a reader I felt that lack of substance rather keenly. But despite the many cliches (Roxanne tries to make friendly overtures with her maid after, oh, fifteen years of service; a racist white man learns some unpleasant facts about his father and seemingly overnight turns over a new leaf), there are some very somber and sobering moments, and because of narrative style we get several points of view that drive home just how deeply entrenched racism is, as well as the fear and bitterness that racism engenders--and that its purview is not solely south of the Mason-Dixon line.
Catfish Alley is not a work of literary fiction by any means, but for me it was both an engaging and a quick read--what many people look for in a beach read, for example. I think its aim is higher than its reach in terms of a meaningful dialogue on race, but perhaps that is what will enable it to be widely read, because sometimes folks just don't want to have to face difficult and uncomfortable subjects. As it is, it comes across as a light read about women's relationships and thus will probably find toeholds among bookclubs and book bloggers in that genre.
(Just to bring the point home, here are the Library of Congress classifications, in order, listed on the copyright page of my book. [shakes head in disbelief]: 1. Tour guides (Persons)--Fiction. 2 . Historic Sites -- Mississippi -- Fiction. 3. African-Americans -- Mississippi -- Fiction. 4. Mississippi -- Race relations -- Fiction. Because clearly this is a book first and foremost about tour guides. And once again, race gets relegated to the last position.)