“Alligator Lake” by Lynne Bryant

Review by Rhett DeVane

Lugging painful emotional baggage is difficult enough, but carting that baggage back to a small Mississippi town after ten years takes courage. When twenty-eight-year-old Avery Pritchett returns home to Greendale—“a place where racism reaches as deep and dark as the bottom of Alligator Lake”—for her brother’s wedding, she has more to worry about than her own issues. Growing up in Colorado, Avery’s beloved and beautiful mixed race daughter Celi has never experienced the cruel reality of deep-seated prejudice. “Shame is an elusive ghost that follows me around,” Avery says, “but the shame I feel is from having run away…My greatest fear is that Celi will sense this shame in me and take it on as her own.”

To complicate  matters further, Celi has contracted sickle-cell disease, a genetic condition that occurs only when both parents have black ancestors. The lineage is clear on the child’s paternal side, but where in Avery’s family tree does the causal ingredient hide? Avery seeks answers to what must be a buried secret, but will that secret undermine the reconciliation she seeks for both her and her daughter?

Through the first-person narratives of three pivotal female characters—Avery, her class-conscious mother Marion, and her feisty grandmother Willadeen—a tangled and often tragic story unfolds. This split perspective allows the underlying fears and hopes of the three generations to emerge. Winding through the 1940s to the ’70s to the early 2000s, the narrative connects the ongoing present with pivotal elements of the past. On a deeper level, Alligator Lake reveals the age-old and often complex issues between mothers and daughters and the instinctual need for parents to protect their children, no matter the cost.

But Avery’s recollections of her upbringing are not all tainted. Vivid imagery provides a clear feel for the South: “country roads lined with fences, pastures, and soybean or cotton fields”; Willadeen, smelling of “sun-warmed cotton, slightly of fish, and of worms dug fresh from the ground”; Big Ugly, “a ten-foot-long, two-hundred-pound alligator gar that lived in the murky east side of Alligator Lake”; and “the old familiar crazy mixed-up song of a mockingbird choosing his melody for the hour.”

Humor finds its way into even the most poignant scenes, as does mention of Southern comfort food—a “fish fry” on the lawn, biscuits and tomato gravy, and home-grown vegetables. The sometimes dreamy feel of the South shines through, as only a true daughter of the South can portray it.

The delicious treat for any reader is to curl up with a novel from a talented author, one who can be trusted to unfold an engaging, sturdy story with thoughtful, believable characters. Readers of Lynne Bryant’s second novel, Alligator Lake, will not be disappointed. As with her debut novel Catfish Alley, Bryant draws from her Mississippi upbringing to provide a rich tale of the colorful, often harsh realities of the Deep South, a place where change, when it does come, flows as slow as sorghum syrup.

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