A debut memoir that also reflects on the cultural transformation of the American South during the 20th century.
Haas-Bennett was born in 1927 in Durham, North Carolina, the descendant of old, Southern aristocracy, or as she puts it, “old plantation stock.” By the time of her birth, her family had little money but lived among antique relics of their former wealth—including furniture that they couldn’t afford to replace. Their area of North Carolina hadn’t received too many newcomers since the 1600s, she says, so intermarriage between distant family members was common—the author’s mother and father were fifth cousins. Haas-Bennett sensitively relates how the post-bellum South, in the middle of the 1900s, was experiencing a slow metamorphosis; while many vestiges of the Old South remained—particularly virulent racism, including segregation—there was also a liberal push for integration. She had plenty of occasions to experience this tense dichotomy; for instance, she and her first husband, writer Ben Haas, were threatened by members of the White Citizens Council, a pro-segregation group, when they withheld their support. After graduating from the Richmond Professional Institute College of William and Mary in 1948, the author opened a modest custom costume shop and designed clothes for dolls and debutantes, and this would remain her profession for most of her life. Haas-Bennett’s remembrance—co-authored by her former costume shop employee, debut author Hughes, who provides a prologue—is more anecdotally impressionistic than autobiographically exhaustive. As such, each chapter offers a charming, if meandering, vignette of recollection. The book concludes with a series of short contributions from those who know the author well, including her three sons and several former employees. Much of the Haas-Bennett’s attention is devoted to the idiosyncratic details of her life—which included two marriages and years of living in Austria—and although these reflections are relaxed and pleasant in tone, they’re likely to be of interest mostly to those who know her personally. However, her considerations of the South are remarkably nuanced while addressing its struggle with the legacy of slavery.
A wandering remembrance that offers astute commentary on the South.