by Lynne Bryant
Reviewed by Rhett DeVane
Far too often, novels set in the South settle for clichéd one-dimensional characters: vapid belles, ignorant or radical African-Americans, belligerent white males incapable of change. This is not the case with Lynne Bryant’s Catfish Alley. From the first page, the author draws the reader into a realistic portrayal of “the real South,” switching easily between the character’s voices and two distinctive time eras.
Hailing from Mississippi, Lynne Bryant provides the ring of authenticity that only a native daughter can bring, with a fascinating tale of murder, friendship, racism and the hope of renewal.
Belle-wannabe Roxanne Reeves strives to maintain her hard-won social position by leading the Clarksville, Mississippi tour of antebellum homes. Added to that, she reluctantly acquires the responsibility of researching the town’s African-American history. “I know about slavery and segregation,” Roxanne says. “I just choose not to dwell on them. I prefer to appreciate the beautiful aspects of the Old South…”
Grace Clark, an elderly and feisty retired school teacher, agrees to guide Roxanne. From a lumberyard warehouse that once housed the first all-black school to the dilapidated Queen City Hotel where Louis Armstrong once played, Grace leads Roxanne down the path of old memories and dark painful secrets.
Fed by Grace and her circle of friends’ knack for vivid storytelling, Roxanne grows to appreciate the hardships, dreams and fortitude of a segment of her town she once dismissed. Details of the senseless murder of Grace’s beloved brother Zero Clark slip into the narrative, finally revealing the awful truth of the lynching in 1929, an event that dramatically altered the lives of so many of Grace’s family and friends. “We were all so young and full of dreams. We refused to believe that life could turn on a white man’s whim,” Grace states.
For the first time, Roxanne grasps the depth of the divide between black and white in her corner of the South, and a trusting friendship buds between the two women. Not only does Roxanne experience a shift, but also Grace and the other African-American characters the author introduces. Both sides seem to come to a deeper understanding, and move tentatively toward a place where both healing and hope live.
Though the novel primarily centers on the relationships between the female characters, it provides the male perspective of events as well. Zero Clark’s words pepper the pages, along with several others, both black and white. One in particular, Del Tanner, learns the truth about his father’s pivotal role in the murder of Zero Clark. In his own way, Del attempts to make amends by overseeing the restoration of the Union School. Del doesn’t suddenly morph into a champion of race relations, yet his actions and words indicate the hope for future change.
Again, in Roxanne Reeve’s words, “I think to myself, maybe Grace was right. Life is full of pain, but there is joy, too. Today, I choose joy.”
Catfish Alley brims with humor and pathos in equal parts, with realistic, three-dimensional characters sure to delight and intrigue from the start. Of all the novels set in the South, Lynne Bryant’s debut novel deserves an honored place on any bookshelf.
Lynne Bryant grew up in Columbus, Mississippi, and now lives in Colorado Springs, Colorado. This is her first novel.