Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Catfish Alley

Catfish Alley by Lynne Bryant
Genre: Fiction
Publisher: New American Library - Penguin Group
Publication Date: April 2011

Lynne Bryant grew up in rural New Hope, Mississippi - outside of Columbus and admits she had little interaction with "Black folks", yet it was not until she reached adulthood and moved away, that she became intrigued with the history of her hometown and her obliviousness of the issues of race raging around her and uses many of the events as inspiration for her debut novel, Catfish Alley.

Lynne Bryant's debut novel, Catfish Alley is about a White woman in the South whose research into local Black history introduces her to several elderly Black women, and their stories of tragedy and endurance in the days before Civil Rights. In Clarksville, Mississippi, Blacks and Whites live largely separate lives, and racial prejudice maintains a powerful hold.  Although she claims not to have a self-serving motive, Roxanne Reeves didn't take on the task of adding African-American history to the town’s famous annual Antebellum House tour, because she had an interest in, or some deep desire to examine Black history, no, she did it so that she could get the contract to do the restoration at Riverview  – the most beautiful property in Clarksville; not only would it be a feather in Roxanne’s cap, but the money she’d earn from getting the contract  to restore it, would be substantial.  However, she thought it was going to be some simple little list of places that Grace Clark would come up with and they'd be done- Roxanne never thought she would get so pulled into their lives and their history.

Catfish Alley is a story involving Grace Clark, a retired Black schoolteacher who mysteriously owns one of the grand plantations of Clarksville.  She becomes Roxanne’s guide to undistinguished places that are sacred to the Black community because of what happened there - even, a senseless photographed hanging used as an initiation into the Klan.  Grace and a few of her friends share stories of the past, especially 1931, when they were young, happy and full of hopeful promise – yet a racist’s hatred for Grace’s brother, Zero, led to events that changed all their lives, and continued to touch people decades later.  Author, Bryant manages to a good job of maintaining the White characters' tone of entitlement throughout the novel, with ease; and sadly during this journey much is revealed about how the majority, if not all of the Black characters suffer terrible tragedies at the hands of White people, yet they continue to pursue their personal dreams, refusing to allow grief and loss to make them bitter, resentful or angry. 

Books of this nature generally depict Blacks living with the expectation that law enforcement would offer little if any protection against violence so they try not to make waves or seek help against their oppressors – but instead opt for the old turn-the-other-cheek mentality, and Lynne Bryant vividly expresses how her characters in Clarksville, Mississippi are content to preserve the status quo.  In the beginning chapters, the multiple points of view, and multiple time periods are slightly distracting, but evidently the reader can become accustom to it and follow along easily, as the author’s writing skill kicks in and demonstrates how  she can readily maintain the flow quite well. 

As Bryant wraps up the story, Roxanne and Del have gained a whole new perspective about the Black community in Clarksville Roxanne so easily dismissed, and her life opens up in unexpected ways;  thereby making Catfish Alley a somewhat heartwarming story of hope, self-discovery, and friendship.

This book contains extreme racially offensive content, strong language, and descriptions of horrible scenes of White brutality.  This book can also be considered extremely insulting and a challenge for anyone, but more so, if the reader is African American. 

That said,  I'm not certain if there was a need for yet another derogatory book written by a White woman, about Blacks in Mississippi – after all,  The Help managed to stir up enough controversy surrounding this subject to last the readers for quite some time.  The two books may not be exact in their content, but they are not far off the mark from one another.

Review copy provided by publisher. 

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