'Tis the Season

Ace Atkins does double duty; Winston Groom remembers Shiloh; and more from Mississippi.

After the relative downtime of January, February, and March, spring has always been an active time for publishers generally and for new titles of interest to Mid-South readers especially. That goes for books of fiction and nonfiction. In the latter category, for example, the month of April continues to see a wide range of studies dedicated to the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and to the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

For an overview of what’s new this spring, we’ll start, though, with fiction, because this season sees not one but two new novels by Ace Atkins, the writer from outside Oxford, Mississippi, who has, over the course of more than half a dozen novels, staked his claim on some special territory. Call it contemporary crime fiction, Deep South division.

Don’t go in search of the South, however, in Atkins’ Lullaby (from Putnam, published this month), unless you mean Southie — that’s South Boston — and it’s where one night a 10-year-old named Mattie Sullivan witnessed her mother’s abduction by a pair of thugs named Moon Murphy and Red Cahill. Later that night, her mother was found murdered. Mattie is convinced that Mickey Green, the man sent to prison for the murder, is innocent, and four years later, she means to do something about it: She visits the office of Robert B. Parker’s popular private detective, Spencer.

Ace Atkins was chosen by the estate of Robert Parker (who died in 2010) to continue the Spencer series, and Lullaby demonstrates the wisdom in that decision. Parker’s trademark no-nonsense dialogue is all here. Spencer’s habit of quoting from literary works is sprinkled here and there, including a line from W.H. Auden misinterpreted by one character as a reference to Bon Jovi. Atkins has Parker’s Boston down pat too, including that city’s neighborhoods, its eateries, its subway lines, its ethnic lines. Clearly, Atkins has done his homework. 

No homework needed in Jericho, Mississippi. Atkins knows this territory like the back of his hand — the territory known as Tippehah County, which is south of Tupelo and north of Starkville. The Lost Ones (also from Putnam, to be published in June) shows Atkins on firm footing as he leads his readers on hill-country Mississippi’s back roads in the company of Quinn Colson, the Army ranger back from duty in Iraq and Afghanistan and back where he belongs as county sheriff. 

In Atkins’ first Quinn Colson novel, The Ranger, the subjects were meth labs, Colson’s wayward sister Caddy, and a mess of corrupt civic leaders. In The Lost Ones, Colson’s up against child traffickers, gun-runners, and a Mexican drug cartel. Where’s Caddy? She’s moved from Memphis and back in Jericho to try to clean up her act. Some things, though, never change: that mess of corrupt civic leaders; Colson’s ace marksmanship and bedrock good nature; rednecks both law-abiding and law-breaking; and the gunfire that erupts in Tippehah County when the lawless meet the law. The Lost Ones: It’s Ace Atkins on home turf, back where he belongs.

No amount of contemporary bloodletting in Boston, Massachusetts, or in Jericho, Mississippi, can compare, however, to the butchery that took place in the Hornet’s Nest, along the Sunken Road, or at Bloody Pond on April 6th and 7th. The place was Pittsburg Landing, better known as Shiloh, a Civil War battle remembered for its carnage and remembered especially in this, its 150th anniversary year, by Winston Groom in Shiloh, 1862 (National Geographic).

Groom you may recall as the author of Forrest Gump, published in 1986. Since that time, he’s gone on to write of the Civil War in terms second only in vividness to Shelby Foote. Shiloh, 1862 makes that plain in a narrative that moves as swiftly as any novel; in research that is second to none.

Groom’s research included a memoir — one written by Elsie Duncan Hurt, who, as a 9-year-old, could hear the enormous battle sounds at Shiloh, because her family home was about a mile west of Pittsburg Landing. Her home in adult life was in Memphis, and as Groom explains in his notes on sources, it was Memphis lawyer Michael Cody who later bought the house in Central Gardens, investigated its history, and tracked down a copy of Hurt’s memoir, which Cody donated to the Memphis Public Library.

A 9-year-old’s memoir of what happened at Shiloh? Use of such a memoir is a sign of Winston Groom’s wide eye for history, which in Shiloh, 1862 also takes in the root causes of the Civil War, the military figures both Union and Confederate, and battle strategy and weaponry.

More than 100,000 soldiers. Twelve square miles in the wilderness of southwest Tennessee. Two days in April 1862. The dead, the wounded, the captured, the missing: all told, North and South, nearly 24,000 men. That was Shiloh.

Groom you may recall as the author of Forrest Gump, published in 1986. Since that time, he's gone on to write of the Civil War in terms second only in vividness to Shelby Foote.


And here’s what’s new this season from one press, the University Press of Mississippi, which continues to do outstanding work in area studies and across a broad range of interests — be it biography, scholarly analysis, or coffee-table-ready photography books:

For fans of Tennessee Williams, see My Friend Tom by William Jay Smith, who met Williams in St. Louis when both men embarked on their literary careers. They stayed in touch through the years — Williams the poet and, more successfully, playwright; Smith, former U.S. poet laureate, autobiographer, and teacher. This heartfelt book’s achievement: It grants to Tennessee Williams the recognition he deserves as both playwright and poet, which fuller biographies too often do not.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Mountaintop” speech in support of the sanitation workers’ strike in Memphis in 1968 is justly famous for its prophetic, closing two minutes, but the speech was in fact an hour long and more prophetic and biblically based than most of us realize. For full justice to that speech, see Martin Luther King’s Biblical Epic: His Final Great Speech by Keith D. Miller of Arizona State University. And for another, under-explored aspect of the civil rights struggle, see the work of Rychetta Watkins of Rhodes College. Watkins’ book is called Black Power, Yellow Power, and the Making of Revolutionary Identities, and her subject is the emergence of Afro-Asian power politics beginning in the ’60s. But perhaps a word of warning to the general reader: Watkins’ writing may be academically sound, but it’s heavy-going for nonspecialists.

Black Power: You remember it by the logo of a black panther. But did you know that that logo was used first in Alabama? It identified the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, which adopted the black-panther symbol in the organization’s drive to register black voters in 1966. Activists Huey Newton and Bobby Seale in California took note. They asked to use the logo for the party they were organizing — the second Black Panther Party.

For early evidence of that black panther in Alabama, see the shots by photographer Bob Fletcher, one of the nine photographers and their work collected in This Light of Ours: Activist Photographers of the Civil Rights Movement, edited by Leslie G. Kelen, with essays by Julian Bond, Clayborne Carson, and Matt Herron and with text by Charles E. Cobb Jr. The word “iconic” is so overused today as to render it meaningless. But “iconic” is the right word for these black-and-white images featuring the leaders of the civil rights movement, the community organizers, the student volunteers — and their sworn enemies.

The saturated colors she captures in places such as Merigold, Friars Point, Tutwiler, and Coahoma and on many of the houses and storefronts, the juke joints and cafes, are as true to the Delta as they are Sole's native Spain.

Magdalena Solé doesn’t shoot in black and white in New Delta Rising. It’s full color all the way and down the Mississippi Delta for this photographer who lives in New York City but who writes that, thanks to the hospitality she was shown, “the Mississippi Delta and its people feel like home.”

That’s how writer Rick Bragg feels about it too in his introduction to New Delta Rising. And a better home for the underserved in the Delta is the goal of the Dreyfus Health Foundation, which, in addition to helping to improve the area’s living standards, supported Solé in this project.

Is it any wonder, though, that Solé should have felt so at home? The saturated colors she captures in places such as Merigold, Friars Point, Tutwiler, and Coahoma and on many of the houses and storefronts, the juke joints and cafes, are as true to the Delta as they are to Solé’s native Spain. 

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