Former Civil Rights journalist turned college professor Frye Gaillard came to town earlier this month at the behest of the North Carolina Civil War History Center Foundation (full disclosure — I serve on the foundation board). Gaillard discussed his most recent book, Journey to the Wilderness: War, Memory, and a Southern Family’s Civil War Letters. It is a curated account of one family’s Civil War experience through their letters, vividly illustrating yet again the excruciating ambivalence and pain that accompanied our nation’s deadliest conflict. Gaillard’s book also reminds us, as if we needed reminding in this election year, that we have yet to resolve many of the issues that troubled Americans 150 years ago.
Gaillard headed back to Alabama, leaving his audience with much to think about regarding long-running currents in American life, but I was struck as well by another of his works, The Books That Mattered: A Reader’s Memoir. A lifelong consumer of books, I was instantly transported to my earliest memories of books that have become part of me. Before I could even read, my mother read to me. We wept together when Christopher Robin decided it was time to put Winnie the Pooh away as a childish toy. We laughed when Scuppers the Sailor Dog hanged a “hat on the hook for his hat and his rope on the hook for his rope.” Later I lost my self in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Secret Garden and resolved to live in a tree house like the Swiss Family Robinson. Eventually, I moved on to the Nancy Drew series, biographies of famous women, and by the time I was a teenager, I read everything I could get my hands on, including some totally age-inappropriate books, probably swathed in blankets in hopes no one would notice me and my reading material.
From the time I could read, I did so until my eyes watered —sometimes under the covers with a flashlight and later boldly with my best lamp blazing.
Frye Gaillard reveals that his love of reading began a bit later in life. He was not smitten by fairy tales, most of which seemed to him to involve eating little children. At 9, though, he discovered Esther Forbes’ Johnny Tremain, a Revolutionary War tale which turned young Frye into a lifelong reader.
The grown up Gaillard organizes the books that speak to him by theme, with “Southern Voices” including Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, still among America’s best selling books over five decades after its publication. His “Darkness” chapter includes books that explore human evil, including Night by Elie Wiesel, Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl, Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut and John Hersey’s Hiroshima. A Southerner as well as a Civil Rights journalist, one would expect Gaillard to delve into issues of race and he does through African-American writers such as Richard Wright, James Baldwin and Henry Louis Gates as well as fellow white Southerners William Faulkner and one of my favorites, Walker Percy.
In “Poetry, Prose and a Sense of Place” Gaillard confesses that his favorite book is Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, a book both so Southern we can imagine it even today and so universal that people in other nation’s understand its truth. In “Family Values” he reminds us of the lessons Alex Haley teaches in Roots and those pounded in, perhaps inadvertently in The Great Santini by Pat Conroy. He gives a nod to Cumberland County’s own Tim McLaurin, an author whose snake-handling ways and Keeper of the Moon, his memoir of a boyhood on the eastside of the Cape Fear River, makes me sad that our paths never crossed.
Finally, Gaillard knows that while reading is how human beings have learned for millennia, sometimes we do it just for fun. Books resonating in that category for him include James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small, a favorite of the young Dicksons, Walking Across Egypt by North Carolinian Clyde Edgerton and the always wonderful Lee Smith, a Virginia girl who got to the Tar Heel state as soon as she could.
My list of books is long and, unlike Gaillard’s, totally unorganized, but reading his, we share many of the same books that have meaning for us. One of mine that did not make Gaillard’s list is The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, a novel by Rocky Mount native Allan Gurganus. A 99-year woman delivers nothing short of a spectacular monologue about her marriage at 15 to a 50 year old Civil War veteran, touching along the way on slavery, racism, the horrors of Reconstruction, the mysteries of marriage, raising children — in short, the human condition, a fictional account of some of the same themes Gaillard’s ancestors recounted in their letters. A tome by anyone’s definition, it is both a romp through things Southern and things true.
We all have our own lists, and Gaillard’s book pushes me to think about mine.
I would love to hear about yours.