Reviewed by Phil Jason
It’s 1969 and helicopters drum above the town of Crystal Springs, Alabama twice a day. At ten each morning they leave Fort Rucker for a training field: Field 10. Twelve hours later, the choppers leave in formation to make the return trip. The scheduled explosions of light and noise define the days of those who live in the arc of flight, keeping them vaguely aware of the war going on in Vietnam.
However, in The Wiregrass, a region embracing parts of Georgia, Alabama, and Florida, summer in the deep South offers fellowship, freedom, fun, and family to the young Campbell cousins (self-named as “Cussins”) who come each year to reconnect and frolic at and around the home of their Ain’t (this is the author’s dialect spelling) Pitty and Uncle Ben. Granny, the family matriarch, lives nearby.
Seven cousins, four in their teens, are ready for fishing, swimming, exploring, loafing, and also doing some tasks. The central character and narrator is fourteen year old Nettie, whose parents drive her, her one year older sister Sam, and her brother L’il Bit down from Virginia and leave them for the summer season. There they meet up with J.D. and his two sisters from another family and Eric from yet another.
It’s easy to label The Wiregrass a coming of age story, not only as it addresses the dawning of Nettie’s sexuality and moral insight, but also as it engages the issue of personal responsibility for all of the teens: Nettie, Sam, J.R. and Eric.
The catalyst for this growth is another teenage boy, Mitchell, a desperately troubled young man who is abused by his alcoholic father. The Campbell adults, charitably enough, allow Mitchell to mingle with their children.
Mitchell is the most sincerely respectful of the teens, clearly his mother’s child, and he is the most lost. Nettie develops a crush on him that at first is marred by Sam’s teasing, but soon enough Nettie is far more proud and pleased than embarrassed.
The idyllic nature of this tale is marred by two ingredients. One is the threat posed by Mitchell’s father. A cruel man with low-life accomplices in his criminal undertakings, he would quickly bring harm to anyone he thought might offer evidence against him to the sheriff. Poor Mitchell knows secrets that, if shared, could bring danger to himself and others.
The other ingredient is the series of night adventures by the older cousins: toilet paper packaging the homes of supposed enemies of Ain’t Pitty, as well as other related pranks. Under J.D.’s charismatic leadership, they enjoy the fun of their troublemaking without recognizing its possible unintended consequences. J.D.’s bright idea about how to bring a neighbor’s cat under control – trapping it in its owner’s mailbox – brings the mailman serious injuries.
They have to learn that their petty crime risk-taking is foolish; unfortunately, they have to grow up. They have to learn that apologizing only because they get caught is really no apology at all.
Fortunately, they are effectively guided by the authorities responsible for community safety.
Highlights of the novel include the extended portrait of the communal Fourth of July picnic, the families’ annual trip to Wayside Beach in Panama City, and the Labor Day celebration that marks the winding down of summer’s freedom. Though the children’s experience is marked by tragedy, the overall mood is one of upbeat emotions, of life being lived in joyful, if fading, innocence.
The “Cussin” cousins’ hijinks help create suspense in the novel, while the adolescent pleasures of their summer together in this Alabama section of The Wiregrass generate the dominant feeling of exhilaration. Pam Webber captures the youngsters’ voices and the exuberant turmoil of teenage life with a sure hand. She also captures the sight, sounds, smells, and cultural flavors of this southern pocket with consummate skill.
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