Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Catfish Alley Examines Southern Race Relations in Both the 1930s and Today

I am still enjoying Lynne Bryant's first novel Catfish Alley (it is actually sitting on my desk, ready for me to dive back into it as soon as I finish posting this!), but I just couldn't wait another day to tell you about it. It released a couple of weeks ago, and with the craziness that is state testing and field trips and fundraising for our school's Relay For Life team, I still haven't finished it. That is not to say that I'm not enjoying it, though. Because I am -- immensely. In fact, somewhere around page 200 last night I began to realize just how much I am enjoying it.

It may not have been smart for me to read it on the heels of Kathryn Stockett's The Help. Although fundamentally different books, the subject matter of Catfish Alley is similar enough that I almost felt a kind of burnout for a few days while reading it and listening to The Help at the same time. I finished The Help almost a week ago, and then I sandwiched in a fabulous L.A. mystery (Guilt By Association by Marcia Clark, with a review coming up tomorrow!), so I was sufficiently ready to dive back into the south and race relations.

Catfish Alley is set in Mississippi, in the fictional town of Clarksville, which I assume is based on the real town of Columbus. Why do I assume this? Well, there is an actual Catfish Alley area in Columbus, so the pieces seem to fit. Decorator and main character Roxanne Reeves specializes in reviving antebellum homes to their former glory, using time-period-appropriate methods and materials. She also is the director of the annual tour of homes in Clarksville. When a newcomer to town purchases an old mansion Roxanne has had her eye on for years, Roxanne falls all over herself to please the lady. Her first request is that historical African-American homes be added to the tour.

Roxanne is negative about this assignment. What, she wonders, could be the benefit in adding to an already-thriving tour? And which buildings will they even be able to add? To help her do research, she calls upon retired teacher Grace Clark, an African-American woman living in a antebellum mansion herself. Grace requests that Roxanne take her all over town to the sites they are looking to add, and in exchange she will supply stories that will help the tour guides give factual information. Roxanne slowly comes to enjoy her mornings spent with Grace, and she learns much she never knew about her town.

Bryant hits upon several themes in this novel, one being -- of course -- race relations in modern day Mississippi. Although times have changed and progress has been made, many stereotypes and even hatred still exist. Bryant illustrates this with skill, both through the less likable, villianous characters and even through Roxanne herself. She also makes a strong statement about friendship and our innate need for human companionship.

Flashbacks to the 1930s are woven throughout the novel, giving a glimpse to that time period and highlighting both how things have changed and how they are still the same. Roxanne begins to see this as she visits homes where African-Americans still serve food rather than sitting down at tables with white people. Grace becomes a dynamic character through these flashback scenes, as well, through the telling of her own stories.

I hate to compare novels, even ones that are similar in setting and theme, so I will not do so now. Catfish Alley, as I said above, shares some things in common with The Help, but they are very different novels, too. Catfish Alley stands on its own with Bryant's unique writing style. Her characters are rich and well-drawn. Catfish Alley is the perfect novel to enjoy while sitting on your front porch, sipping coffee (or, as Bryant mentions in the novel, southern milk punch). That is exactly how I began it a week or two ago, and how I will finish it this week, as well!

To read the first chapter, visit Bryant's website for an excerpt. Bryant writes a blog about her writing life and is currently on tour for Catfish Alley.

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