Bailey White’s South has a warm and hospitable atmosphere, a pleasant alternative to cold, bustling, Northern metropolitan centers. As a cousin of the Whites puts it when she calls from Philadelphia to announce she’ll be visiting overnight, “‘I’ve heard so much about Southern hospitality. Now I will be able to experience it for myself'” Mama, 48.
The language in Bailey White’s writings also delights, especially her characters’ manner of speaking, which contains many curious Southern expressions. My friends certainly would not say “persnickety” Sleeping, 125, “doodlebugs” Sleeping, 9, “junkets” Mama, 60, describe a club as a “tough juke joint” Mama, 3, or say, “‘She sho’ ain’t gon’ ride no ferry here'” Mama, 62!
Located in South Georgia, in the backwoods, White’s characters are allowed to do what they please without judgment from neighboring yuppies glaring down from their balconies. The village “â€¦is a place where they are kind to one another and indulgent of eccentricities” Publishers Weekly, 30 March 1998. The result is “endearing true stories about rural South Georgia” Publishers Weekly, 1 March 1993 on subjects as quirky as bathtubs and Porsches on porches, backyard camping, and road-kill suppers. After remodeling their bathroom Bailey and Mama find that their bathtub won”t fit in it anymore.
Instead of installing a shower, they leave the bathtub on the porch. Bailey explains that “with the midsummer”s afternoon breeze blowing through the high pine woods and the fragrance of the lilies, it”s a lovely spot for a leisurely bath” Mama, 25. Joining the bathtub on the porch is a 1958 Model 356 Speedster in original condition, because the driver refused to “‘just park it out behind the garden with those two tractors and that thing that might have been a lawnmower'” Mama, 21.
When inspired, Mama can and does go camping in the wilderness. Bailey, however, doesn”t have to worry about her aging mother alone on a trip: their backyard is wilderness enough for camping. “At night I could see a tiny glow from her fire. And just at dawn, if I went out to the edge of the pasture and listened very carefully I could barely hear her singing ‘Meet Me in St. Louis'” Mama, 38. Mama, whether camping or not, can get fast-food for dinner, Southern-style: road kill. White and Mama have “feasted not only doves, turkeys, and quail, but robins, squirrels, and, only once, a possum,” but Bailey draws the line at snakes, even when her mom protests “‘But it was still wiggling when I got there…Let”s try it just this once. I have a white sauce with dill and mustard'” Mama, 39. Despite the gourmet sauce, Bailey refuses to eat any animal her mom brings in without documentation–the model and tag number of the car that struck it–to assure her of a recent kill.
While chronicling small-town culture, White manages to make me laugh out loud, which is quite a feat for an author. The comical scenes from the small town of Thomasville will not only produce laughter, but a longing to move to such a quaint village. Instead of going into the Instant Care Facility, a modern walk-in medical clinic, one can, as Mama did, take advice from “‘surgeons, I”d say, from the amount of blood and brains on those white coats,'” who were actually butchers on their cigarette break Mama, 23. The provincial aspects of life in Thomasville are evident in Plums, in the extent of interest and pride community members exhibit when Roger appears in a photograph in the April edition of the Agrisearch magazine. At the Pastime Restaurant the waitresses tape up Roger”s picture next to the ‘In Case of Choking’ poster, Meade makes a mat for his picture out of construction paper left from her schoolteaching days, Hilma transposes Roger’s image onto two color photos for an artistic effect, Eula puts the magazine photo on her refrigerator, and others prop it up on their windowsills Plums, 4.
The detail in Bailey White’s stories come from her own experiences living in Thomasville, especially in her first two books, Mama and Sleeping, which are both autobiographical. “In my own town I know the story of every missing body part: an ear in an auto accident, a middle finger in a miscalculation at a table saw, a thumb in a freak accident involving a white horse and a Chrysler coupe” Sleeping, 5.
Since White’s books are set in the rural South, nature is a part of everyday life. What a contrast to everyday life in our Northern city, which typically finds us driving down treeless, paved streets, dashing from home to work to the supermarket! The primary concerns of the characters in White’s writings are not bills and work, but include plants and domestic animals. “ vignettes illuminateâ€¦the immense satisfaction that can be derived from an appreciation of nature” Publishers Weekly, 17 April 1995. In Plums nearly all of the characters’ jobs relate to nature. Roger is a plant pathologist; Tom and Gawain are foresters; Lewis is an ornithologist; and Della paints native birds ix. The rest of the characters frequently garden, all own Peterson Field Guide’s 160, and are vehemently opposed to environmentally unfriendly techniques like slash-and-burning 158-9.
Southerners are known for their slow speech, their Southern drawl especially slow compared to fast-talking New Yorkers. In White’s books the way of life is also slowed-down, with little pressure and plenty of time to pursue activities important to the characters.
Critics notice the slow pace, saying, “nothing much happens ” Publishers Weekly, 30 March 1998, “the characters don’t do a lot ” Friedman, and “Sleeping at the Starlite Motel celebrates the valueâ€¦of lives that proceed at their own pace” Fichtner.
Doing “nothing much” is the life the characters have chosen, though; they like the slower pace. Mama loves to “sit in her reclining chair all day, reading the UFO newsletter, listening to the radio, and drawing conclusions” Mama, 41. Bailey loves to garden; she put five years into creating a wildflower meadow, a time-consuming process because, as the “more responsible plant cataloguesâ€¦admitted, ‘we have not been able to develop a mixture suitable for Zone 9′” Mama, 160-5. Bailey, “in the thrall of that good old rural community spirit,” also has the time to make a “noble gesture,” becoming a volunteer fireman Mama, 177.
Besides indulging their own interests and whims, White’s characters take the time to care for others. Mama campaigned for Vernon Bryan, working “harder and harder” as election time grew closer: “She drove her old pickup truck into town every day to man campaign headquarters, and she spent hours studying voter registration lists and calling on the phone to urge people to vote. She volunteered for everything” Mama, 139-140. Mama also taught Luther, whose jam caused Bailey to rush over to the sink and wash her mouth out, the fundamentals of cooking, beginning with “Jams and Jellies,” moving on to “Pickles and Preserves,” then to “Biscuits and Pastry,” and finally “Sauces, Marinades, Shellfish, and Gameâ€¦.
poetry or prose and are knowledgeable about plants, flowers, birds and animals” Publishers Weekly, 30 March 1998.
White’s characters are also neither pretentious nor materialistic. When Aunt Eleanor is sulking over the modest plumbing disaster Bailey buys her a $60 watch and a linen skirt, and tells her that nowadays people judge not by plumbing calamities but by clothes, cars, and vacations Sleeping, 10. Aunt Eleanor, however, is not impressed: “‘I guess I’m just old-fashioned'” Sleeping, 10. When Meade and Hilma call on a new family, the women brags about her eagle statues–“‘exact replicas of a certain castle in Englandâ€¦they were not cheap'” Plums, 156. Later Meade brings up a house she particularly liked, explaining, “No pretension there” Plums, 159.
The key to White’s stories is her characters” wisdom: understanding that timeworn truths are worth paying heed to. When prissy Aunt Eleanor comes over for dinner, she praises the bird. “‘The quail are deliciousâ€¦I haven’t found a single piece of shot. How do you manage it?’ ‘Intersection of 93 and Baggs Road,’ recites Mama. ‘Green late model pickup, Florida tag. Have another one. And some rice, El'” Mama, 40. White’s stories “offer us snatches of humor in the largest sense, written with anâ€¦often self-mocking compassion” Trachtman.
White opens up for her readers a different world, one without many of the annoying traits of modern society: dull, gray scenery, traffic, impersonal contact, alarms, cell phones, male-dominance, uniformity, pretension, conflict, materialism, censorship, isolation, and superficial relationships. She reminds us of a life that, in most places, has ceased to exist and invites us to return to its comforts in the pages of her books.
SoufflÃ©sâ€¦. Desserts” Mama, 151-155. Bailey took time to listen to old Mrs. Bierce with the wandering eye, and to visit Mrs. Helgert, tolerating her frequent interjections of “Hot? Honey! That was a hot night” Sleeping, 38-41. Meade and Hilma looked after Roger’s house when his childhood horse Squeaky died. “‘He must be relieved of all the little household chores–laundry, the preparation of meals, housecleaning tasks. He should come home at night to a bright clean home, a supper warm on the back of the stove, and his bed turned down,'” said Meade, outlining her elaborate plan to take care of Roger Plums, 148.
The activities the characters choose in their free time demonstrate the importance of relationships. In Plums, “a charming story of human relations” Haddock, “White’s 14 or so characters are introduced and identified as they would be in any small town in the South: by their family relationships to others in the rural Georgia community” Publishers Weekly, 30 March 1998, thus showing the weight of family. In Sleeping, after Great Aunt El disappears twice and complains of elephants and ghosts, Bailey and Mama become concerned about her and decide it’s “time to get someone to look after her” 47.
Reminding Bailey that “‘Blood is thicker than water,'” Mama succeeds in bringing El’s nephew Ralph down to stay with her 49.
Unlike our male-dominated society, strong women dominate White’s world. The women are independent, with no need for marriage. They handle everything themselves, even if it means crawling under the house in “high-topped boots laced up tight, a turtleneck shirt, and a ski mask” to protect oneself from spiders, of course to move the telephone jack Mama, 34. All of the characters in White’s books are unmarried, which appears to be all right with the women, but the not-so-strong men express a longing to be married. As Dean Routhe repeatedly said, “Men need wives” Plums, 211. Ever since Ethel left Roger “the women in town have worried about Rogerâ€¦. Hilma and Meade discuss him at their weekly readings. Eula frets over his welfare–not to mention his appetite” Haddock. Within one year after Ethel left Roger, Ethel has two men lusting after her while another woman has left Roger.
The characters in White’s books, peculiar but delightful, working-class but educated, and understanding and accepting of themselves and each other, present a refreshing contrast to the conforming, pretentious sophisticates who inhabit our Northern cities. At the head of the long list of quirky characters is Mama, who attracts ornithologists Mama, 12, who then use Bailey’s 102 degree feverish body to incubate wild turkey eggs. Other memorable characters include the obsessed typographer who feels personally called to save vanishing typefaces, Louise, who thinks letters and string will entice creatures from outer space, the hippie fruit tree man with the jujube trees, and homeless Elmer who can only talk to horses.
Modern society is in the Information Age, in which technology demands more and more of us. The average workweek is 49 hours, and many so-called successful lawyers, doctors, and businessmen frequently work ten, twenty, or even thirty hours more. Even to reach the hiring stage takes a competitive drive and long hours studying. It is not surprising, then, when Bailey says, “Over the generations my family has metastasized from that hill to lower spots all over the county. Once members of the leisure class, we are now farmers, carpenters, teachers, and mechanics” Mama, 54. Bailey’s Aunt Eleanor recalls, after a minor plumbing disaster of her own, how great-uncle Melville ” ‘Shot right through the ceiling medallionâ€¦and landed in the tomato aspic'” Sleeping, 9. Bailey admits, “There’s no denying that our family fortune frittered away, the big house sold. We are probably not up to a second-floor plumbing disaster involving chandeliers and crown moldings” Sleeping, 10, which is what Aunt Eleanor says shows style, class, and breeding.
Although not up to showy plumbing disasters, White’s characters are educated. Hilma and Meade have a 50-year ritual of reading together every Thursday of every May Plums, 17. On summer picnics Lucy would read Pride and Prejudice aloud. Mama reads The Naked Lunch and decides she’s “â€¦tired. I’m tired of breathing the essence of a sheep fold; I’m tired of teaching babies to knit; I’m tired of being set upon by crazed Christians one minute and unbridled libertines the next” Mama, 38. “Two of the characters are retired schoolteachers to whom the classics of literature are daily companions; in fact, most of the characters, no matter how humble, quote lines from famous