Sometimes we tell stories in order to remake the world as we wish it worked. We tell stories about alienated loners being brought to life by unlikely friendships, about privileged citizens making sacrifices to aid their persecuted neighbors, or about people looking past others' external differences to see the individuals they really are inside. Frequently, what these kinds of stories express is the wish to live free of the burden of history.
In certain ways, Lynne Bryant's Catfish Alley is that kind of story. A dignified old black schoolteacher, Grace, is forced into an interaction with Roxanne, a self-centered white socialite. By the end of the book, Grace comes to value Roxanne for who she is.
Given the circumstances, some readers might wonder what saintly impulse made Grace decide it was worth the bother. After all, she and Roxanne live in Mississippi, where, says the 51-year-old author, "it is a little more difficult for us ... socially or in whatever context, to mix among African-Americans and whites."
Current residents can still remember the days when lynchings were all too common — and just such an event, in fact, is at the core of the personal history Grace recounts over pie and coffee as the women begin to bond. In that sense, Catfish Alley voices a Band-Aid fantasy shared by a lot of privileged people — Exculpate me from my white guilt by being my friend! — with a story that does its best to look at history and not flinch except where appropriate.
That bravery may be the book's saving grace. Bryant, now a Colorado Springs resident and professor of nursing at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, says she wrote Catfish Alley as a way of facing up to the deep currents of division that marked her childhood in the South.
"I've wrestled with this whole race thing in Mississippi," she says. "Why are we so slow to come to terms with the integration of the races and cultures? [Writing] is just my way of wrestling with that. ... You read and you tell stories to begin to understand."
Bryant doesn't dance around the ugliness of that process, whether it's the brutality of the Jim Crow '30s or the cagey politeness of the Aughties. Nor does she shy away from narrating the perspectives of all kinds of people: young, old, black, white, rich, poor.
That's something for which her Southern-class-conscious-lit comrade Kathryn Stockett (The Help) has caught a lot of flak recently. And it brings up worthy questions: Whose story is being told? Who's telling it? And who has the right?
Ultimately, Bryant's unassuming intentions win out. She wrote the novel as a Band-Aid, but it's not an absolution fantasy; as she explains in the handy back-of-the-book discussion guide, it's a story she told herself to try to understand. The historical portions of the plot might belong to the two young men who were murdered in Lowndes County back in the 1930s, but the theme Bryant addresses is hers: It belongs to her roots, her childhood, and her need for truth in a culture where assumptions and silences run deep.
"I didn't really question the segregated-ness of our worlds when I was growing up, because that's just how it was," she says. "Our schools were integrated when I was in the sixth grade, but we still stayed separate in just about every aspect of our lives.
"We don't even realize our unspoken biases, our prejudices, because we think we're doing the right thing."
Nevertheless, Bryant asks the reader to consider: What if these characters could relate to each other as people, rather than as tokens of their respective communities? And she does not allow Grace and Roxanne to sidestep history in order to answer that what-if. Rather, she makes them literally re-trace it.
Learning from difference
The events of the novel end up being transformative for everyone, but not before some painful truths come from the lips of both flawed, wounded and sympathetic protagonists. Black and white, they transcend race politics by facing their ugliness and tragedy.
What emerges is a novel of the South that, refreshingly, says just as much about openheartedness and authenticity as it does about race and reconciliation. It's definitely a novel In Which Our White Heroine Learns A Valuable Lesson, but not the one you'd think.
Grace teaches Roxanne the importance of not hiding from the world behind a false perfect veneer. As for what Roxanne teaches Grace — in our interview, Bryant seems surprised by the question.
"Let me think about that," she muses. "I don't think I've had that question before. ...
"At the beginning of the book, [Grace] is going to do this for Roxanne because she feels like she should, but she doesn't expect much from her ... Grace's perspective is changed by getting to know Roxanne as a person. When you get to know someone that you expect to be so different, it really can change how you see them."