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John Still’s posthumous novel ‘heart-rending’

When I was a child riding the backroads of Western North Carolina with my grandfather in his big red Esso truck, he used to point out abandoned farms to me. Many of the barns and houses were branded with the three letters “GTT.”

“That means gone to Texas,” my grandfather told me. He added that many times the former owners were not really in Texas, but in High Point or in some distant place on the west coast called Sedro Woolley, but people tended to used GTT anyway since it had become a familiar way of saying, “I’ve had enough.”

In the wake of the depression and the dust bowl, poor farmers in the Southeastern United States often heard rumors of fertile lands and rich timber reserves in the east. Some of the cautious ones, reluctant to abandon the “old home place,” often sent a family member to investigate. In a sense that is what happens with Jim, the “going on 13” narrator of Chinaberry, who leaves Alabama with Ernest, a friend of the family and two local teenagers referred to as “the knuckleheads.” They hope to find steady work in Texas and report back to their friends and family in Alabama on such essentials as stable employment, the quality of the water, the food and the climate.

Although the water turned out to be pretty bad, Jim, Ernest and the knuckleheads blunder into employment with a wealthy landowner named Anson Winters who raises cotton and cattle. Jim thinks that he will spend the summer dragging a cotton sack through the tropical Texas heat with hundreds of other pickers.  However, while the boy is ruefully considering the shimmering heat and the soul-killing labor awaiting him, a remarkable event occurs. After picking cotton for only a few hours, Anson Winters suddenly informs Jim that he will be living with him and his wife, Lurie, in a place called Chinaberry. Jim never picks cotton again.

In many ways, Chinaberry, reads like a coming-of-age fable. Although Jim finds himself transported from poverty and primitive living conditions to a pampered life in a modern home where a doting couple strives to satisfy his every whim, he is homesick. Even as he becomes accustomed to clean clothes and a daily bath, he still watches the mailbox, hoping for news from home. Within a short time, he is gaining weight and is spending most of his waking hours with his surrogate father, Anson Winters. Gradually, he learns why Anson Winters is so protective.

Several years prior to Jim’s arrival in Chinaberry, Anson had lost his wife Melba, who died in childbirth. This tragedy was followed by another devastating blow: the death of Johannes, Anson’s afflicted son who had died at the age of six despite his father’s heroic efforts to keep the boy alive. Gradually, Jim comes to understand that both he and Lurie are surrogates and that Anson intends to spend the rest of his life striving to protect his wife and “his new son” from real and imagined dangers. Of course, it is an impossible task.

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The story of Anson Winters’ struggle to keep his loved ones from harm is heartrending. Especially affecting is the section that recounts the tortured father’s daily routine, riding with Johannes cradled in his arms and fresh diapers in his saddlebags. Repeatedly, when the ailing child has seizures and ceases to breath, Anson forces breath back into his lungs and revives him. When Johannes finally dies, Anson attempts suicide several times. Jim also discovers that there are locked rooms in the house which contain the belongings of Johannes and Melba — a kind of memorial to a dead wife and son. It becomes obvious that Anson’s attempt to “resurrect” his family are doomed to failure ... but then, life sometimes provides its own alternative ... which is what happens here.

However, as affecting as the story of Anson Winters is, Chinaberry’s greatest merit is James Still’s ability to capture the essence of a world that no longer exists. Jim’s trek from Chambers County, Ala., to Chinaberry, Texas, resonates with vital details. It is a different world — one where women “wear out like a cake of soap,” as they struggled with the common tasks of life. In Texas, Jim encounters washing machines powered by gasoline engines, marvels at the size of Texas jack rabbits and the fact that antelope often graze with the cattle. Jim ponders the immensity of a place that is “more sky than earth.”

Although he is plagued by the ubiquitous ticks and fleas (just like those in Alabama), he learns to treat his bites with Cloverine Salve. He adjusts to a humid world where everyone’s hands grasp fans as they eat and/or sit on their porches, and he becomes accustomed to telephones that utilize operators who live at home — and everyone listens to everyone else’s phone conversations. On summer nights, the people living in and near Chinaberry are troubled by cyclones and tornados. Summers bring epidemics of Rocky Mountain fever.

Although there is a tendency to comment on the “autobiographical content” in Chinaberry, there seems to be very little justification for that. James Still did not spend a summer in Texas when he was 13, although he did make a rapid trip there when he was in his 20’s. For readers like me who have always admired Still, I responded to this little novel as a kind of fantasy “with ticks and chiggers.” As numerous other Southern writers have noted, the story contained here “could have happened.” Jim’s journey has much to do with the way that James Still defined home. Is it a place or people? Perhaps it resides in the heart.

Shortly after James Still’s death in 2001, a number of his close friends began putting together some of the author’s unpublished works. Among his papers, they found the unpublished manuscript for Chinaberry. Another Kentucky writer, Silas House assumed responsibility for getting this work published.

Chinaberry by James Still. University of Kentucky Press, 2011. 153 pages

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