Between, Georgia has the most Southern stereotypes of any of the Georgia books we’ve read so far. It is also the only Southern Gothic book we’ve read so far. (Though A Cry of Angels by Jeff Fields fits that category as well.)
I am reading my way across the USA–5 or so books set in each state, with an emphasis on books where the setting becomes another character, and books that have something to say about the geography, history, and people of the state. We are midway through Georgia at the moment.
Between, Georgia is a real place, as well as the name of a book by Joshilyn Jackson. There’s a Wikipedia page on Between, GA, which gives background for the town’s name, but Jackson has a note about it as well.
I have taken some liberties with Georgia’s geography; Between exists, but I have never set foot in it. If its landscape and people resemble my version, then I will pray fervently that their Bernese moves far, far away, and state for the record that it is a coincidence. Also, in the forties and fifties, there was not a deaf day school within fifty miles, so I grabbed a corner of the Georgia School for the Deaf and pulled it east. I wanted Stacia to grow up with her family, but learn ASL in an environment that would value her resilient spirit. I promise I put the school right back after.
Physically, Between is located about halfway between Atlanta and Athens, but the Wikipedia page (linked above) indicates it is also between the two main towns in Walton County, both of which have tried unsuccessfully to annex it. The Georgia School for the Deaf is located in Cave Spring, Georgia, northwest of Atlanta, near the Alabama border.
Since we are midway through Georgia, I thought it’d be a good time to discuss some of the similarities between the Georgia books and what we’ve maybe learned about the state.
- Doll makers – Main characters in two of our Georgia books are artists making dolls–Stacia in Between, Georgia and Celestial in An American Marriage.
I’m still not entirely sure whether this was coincidence or if it reflects a Georgia thing, but I did discover that Cleveland, Georgia, outside Atlanta is the home of the Cabbage Patch Kids. There is even a “Hospital” ward that you can visit, which I assume is what Celestial refers to at one point in An American Marriage, and which is perhaps the basis for the museum in Between, Georgia. The fictional museum in Between, however, has the Southern Gothic twist of being a combination of doll museum and moth and caterpillar nursery… (shudder).
At first glance, it seemed innocuous enough; a large display case held a fully decorated dollhouse surrounded on both sides by a miniature forest. … A family of cheap plastic dolls lived in this midnight world, mass-market reproductions of some of my mother’s work. … As our eyes adjusted, we began to sense an undulating movement within the house. … Something shifted, caught at the corner of my eye, and I saw one of them in the nursery, pale green and glowing sickly in the light. It pulled itself along the back edge of the baby’s crib. Then I saw another, rearing up to bump its black-tipped head twice against the little girl’s shoes. Its sticky legbuds attached to her calf and it began to climb her, half disappearing as it went questing under her skirts. … In the playroom, behind the silent boys, a long cocoon stretched from the ceiling to the floor, attached by webbing at both ends. … The family glowed pale and still in their polka-dotted clothing, and the caterpillars crept all around them and over them, endlessly shitting. … The scale, the size of the caterpillars as they skulked past these children and their vacant, grinning parents, made the whole scene monstrous.
That’s gotta be one of the creepiest scenes I’ve read in quite a while! And, of course, in true Southern Gothic fashion, Bernese has no clue that it’s horrifying to the children who go through the museum.
- Family is a big theme in all the Georgia books we’ve read – the sacrifices we make for family and the sacrifices they expect us to make.
From the long-term familial consequences of imprisonment in An American Marriage, to the complicated family ties in Between, Georgia, to the extended family involvement in The Last Buffalo Soldier, families are messy, and complicated, and ultimately so important to us as humans.
Even in Among the Living, Goldah is expected to follow the Jesler’s in their religious preferences by shunning the other group of Jews, and in his profession by working at the shoe store. When Goldah returns to writing for the newspaper, the Jesler’s are not obstructive, but neither are they very supportive, especially since the editor is from the rival group. And Pearl treats him like a naughty teenaged girl who’s been caught kissing a boy when he accidentally meets Eva De La Parra and has a conversation with her.
But Between, Georgia has Nonny, who is caught between her two families–the family who both abandoned her and want her love and the family who adopted her; and her two men–the cheating husband who she is trying to find the will to divorce while at the same time sleeping with every chance she gets and her good friend and would-be lover. She’s so caught up in between that she can’t follow through on a decision to save her life. And in her professional life Nonny is also between–she works as a sign language interpreter for the deaf.
- Teenage pregnancy seems common–almost taken for granted, as is abandonment by teenage parents both mothers and fathers. And, perhaps as an outgrowth of this, or perhaps a (happy?) coincidence, so are extended family connections.
Roy’s mother (and others) in An American Marriage, Hazel Crabtree (and Fisher’s mother) in Between, Georgia, Becca, the granddaughter in The Last Buffalo Soldier–these characters are all teen mothers. In Between, the main character, Nonny, was given up by her teenage mother Hazel Crabtree, and adopted by Stacia Frett, but, in a parallel that shows the similarities between the two feuding families who see themselves so differently, Bernese’s daughter was also a teen mother who left her baby Fisher in Bernese’s care.
The family trees in Between, Georgia are extensive and well-known:
“We’re almost not unrelated.” I grinned back at him. This was our running joke. Henry was a transplant from the Louisiana branch of the Crabtree family tree. A couple of years ago, while Fisher and I were hanging out with him at the bookstore, we had tried to work out exactly how we were connected to each other. … We figured out we were fourth cousins, three times removed. On paper, anyway.
And it turns out the Alabama Crabtrees are even more Southern and more Gothic than the Georgia ones, and they come running at the drop of a hat to defend the family honor. Which brings us to:
- Family feuds a la Hatfields and McCoys figured extensively in Between.
Again, this sort of becomes an element of what makes the book Southern Gothic, and more stereotypical, and maybe that’s why it didn’t show up in the other Georgia books.
- No red clay, but plenty of pines.
I’ve noticed a distinct lack of Georgia red clay in all of the Georgia books so far, but instead we’ve had lots of Georgia pines, farm land and a few peaches and pecans. The lack of red clay was so pervasive that I even began to wonder if I had made it up in my Yankee mind, but according to Wikipedia, red clay is common throughout the south, so perhaps we’ll see it in some of our other southern states.
- Southern food in general and sweet black coffee rather than sweet tea.
The Last Buffalo Soldier had the widest variety of Southern food, Among the Living referenced the Southern proclivity for lard in a joke about keeping kosher, and An American Marriage had a few good meals–particularly Roy’s first after he got out, but Between, Georgia has the most memorable inclusion of velvet potatoes (albeit with a Gothic twist).
“Henry’s here,” said Jimmy blearily from the depths of the sofa. He had sunk down so low, his head was level with his feet, which were back up on the coffee table. One of his heels was resting in a drift of velvet potatoes; Grif had put his Chinet plate down in front of Jimmy when he was done eating.
And is sweet black coffee a Southern thing? I’m familiar with sweet tea (which did show up in Among the Living), but sweet black coffee is mentioned in both Between, Georgia and An American Marriage, where Roy makes the joke about liking his coffee the way he likes his women.
I tried a brief internet search on it, but only came away with this yummy sounding recipe from Epicurious for Mexican sweet black coffee . It’s not exactly traditional Southern, and not what was described in either book, but the molasses gives it a sort of Southern twist.
- Rural attitudes and racism.
As I mentioned in my review of An American Marriage, I was struck by the commonalities between rural attitudes and prejudice in the South and farming folks in upstate New York where I grew up. One of the elements of Southern Gothic is to use exaggerated racism to point out the social injustices inherent in the system, and Between, Georgia hits the mark there. Race is not overtly a part of the book–I don’t think there are even any minor characters of color in the book–but there’s plenty of slurs made against the town lawyer, who is Jewish and widely assumed to be homosexual, and between the two feuding families. (Ona Crabtree repeatedly refers to Stacia and Genny Frett as “the blind one and the crazy one.”)
In my reviews of The Last Buffalo Soldier and Among the Living, I talked about the writer showing not telling. In Between, Georgia, Joshilyn Jackson is, perhaps, not as skilled as Jonathan Rabb, however she did a wonderful job with the twist at the end.
We aren’t told in the reveal scene that so-and-so was actually the father, but it’s hinted at very strongly, and as we read that scene, we remember a statement from earlier that the boys looked like their father but the girl looked like the mother. It was very nicely done.
OK; SPOILER DONE!
So, Between, Georgia was great for my reading challenge for Georgia. It even took a stab at answering my question about what separates Georgia from other Southern states–although to do so it basically just slammed Alabama! (To be fair, An American Marriage said the same thing–if you think Georgia is bad, get a load of Louisiana or Mississippi.)
I’m interested in continuing my Southern journey, much as I did with the Plains states by reading Kansas and Nebraska back-to-back, but I’m also intrigued by those commonalities I’ve seen between rural communities all over the country. We have a couple more books to finish up for Georgia, before we decide where we are going next.