A debut family biography and memoir, presented through three narrative voices, depicts life on the Alabama-Georgia border from 1885 to 1964.
In 1915, in northeastern Alabama, a typhoid epidemic took the lives of Hugh Godwin’s beloved wife, Mattie, and their 11-year-old son, Right Handy. Shug Godwin was only 4 at the time, but this was when Hugh began telling him stories about his family. Only four years later, Hugh died. Shug, second to last in a line of 14 siblings, immediately assumed responsibility for his baby sister: “I understood from a very early age that I did not want and would not accept the luxury of a carefree childhood, but instead I’ve always been committed to watching out for and taking care of others.” Although his father earned his living from the farm, Shug learned early on that he could supplement the family’s meager income with moonshine. In 1924, at 12, he began building his own whiskey stills and developed a steady list of customers. Along the way, between making and delivering whiskey, Shug discovered that he loved working with close family friend John Owens at his sawmill. Logging and milling became Shug’s major business as he moved into adulthood. He eventually married John’s daughter, Vesta, a childhood friend, and they had five kids. The author was the fourth of these. The dense, meandering work tells the story of the Godwin and Owens families, first narrated by Hugh, then by Shug, and finally by Meyer, who carries the tale to her 1964 high school graduation. Through the three of them, the book creates vivid images of life in the rural and small-town South, first in Alabama, where Shug grew up, and then across the state line outside Tallapoosa, Georgia, where he and Vesta raised their children. Every vignette is loaded with colorful, minute details of daily life. But the monologues are often confusing. They veer off into tangents that spill out through stream-of-consciousness sentences that can twist their way through a full page without taking a deep breath.
While it requires patience to read, this account delivers an informative, poignant, and frequently jubilant tribute to the power of a family’s love.