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by Janisse Ray

Pub Date: Nov. 2nd, 1999
ISBN: 1-57131-234-X
Publisher: Milkweed

Ray’s redemptive story of an impoverished childhood brings to mind the novels of Dorothy Allison and the nature writing of Amy Blackmarr, but the stunning voice and vision are hers alone.

Ray grew up in a junkyard on the outskirts of Baxter, a south Georgia backwater “about as ugly as a place gets. . . . Unless you look close, there’s little majesty.” She looks close and renders all she sees in prose that’s a treat to ear and tongue alike. Precise, illuminating, and striking, her descriptions of family and nature are salted with the jargon of Southern cracker culture and the gritty poetry of the region’s flora and fauna. Ray’s narrative braids memoir and natural history into a common poignant theme: the search for what’s lost. Moving easily between the cast-off ugliness of the junkyard and the majesty of old-growth forest, she finds ample beauty in each. Exploring her family’s history of mental illness or chronicling the environmental devastation that destroyed Georgia’s once abundant longleaf-pine forest, she’s keenly attuned to the precariousness of systems—the chaos that awaits when they fly out of whack, the difficulty of reassembling them when pieces are missing. She’s blessed with interesting relatives: roguish grandfather Charlie is a legendary woodsman and coon hunter, grandmother Clyo a virtuous woman who bootlegs moonshine to feed her family, father Franklin a mechanical genius who subjects his family to fundamentalist Christianity so strict it prohibits Christmas. Despite poverty and social isolation, Ray recalls her childhood as happy and loving, recounting moments of searing pathos—as when she and her brothers sneak off to a corner of the junkyard to exchange homemade Christmas presents on the sly—without self-pity. “Turning back to embrace the past has been a long, slow lesson not only in self-esteem but in patriotism—pride in homeland, heritage. It has taken a decade . . . to own the bad blood.”

Own it she does, with a gutsy, wholly original memoir of ragged grace and raw beauty.