Deep Family: Four Centuries of American Originals and Southern Eccentrics by Nicholas Cabell Read and Dallas Read

click to buy

If you were asked to imagine an ongoing chronicle of life in the American South from the late 1600’s through the 1970’s, you might picture snapshots of agriculture, slavery, the Civil War and segregation. Nicholas and Dallas Reed’s “Deep Family” offers a different take on Southern life as it was experienced by three, progressive, wealthy families (the Baldwins, Craiks and Reads) living in Montgomery, Alabama.

Elaborating far beyond typical family lore, Nicholas and his wife, Dallas, weave family myths with information gathered from 500 plus letters they discover in Nicholas’ mother’s attic and in other heirloom boxes.

The book primarily centers on Nick’s three aunts: Mary Martin (Darlie), Juliet (Judy), Cecile (Sheila) and his mother Jean (Jeanie).  Early in their lives, the Craik girls receive the gift of the ‘four sisters’ houses’ (located side-by-side on Montgomery’s Perry Street) from their father, William Craik. However, at the same time as he offers these splendid dwellings to his daughters, Craik also encourages them by saying: “Live your own lives, and while you should always be considerate of others, do not allow yourself to become morbid about your duties, wither great or small.”

This progressive attitude fosters young women who, among other things, travel from New Orleans to Europe un-chaperoned at the turn of the 20th century, get arrested in Mexico for picking flowers and promote Communism in the rural South in the 1930’s.

Throughout it all, we have a picture of Hazel Hedge – the farm just outside of Montgomery where Nick’s grandmother Jean and later his mother Jeanie live out their days surrounded by amenities that now seem antiquated – a ‘three-holer’ out house, street cars and mule-drawn carriages and even a windmill that provides irrigation for a garden.

Nicholas acknowledges that his mother is ‘the mistress of narrative embroidery,’ so it is no surprise that every vignette that appears in the book’s 53 chapters includes an eccentric character or some twist of plot. One of the many intriguing passages includes a description of how Nick’s great-grandfather, William Owen Baldwin, came to inherit his practice from a temperamental predecessor, Dr. McLeod, who “shot and killed a juggler for attempting to abduct his wife and had to stand trial. He was acquitted, but died within a year, leaving his practice to young Baldwin.”

Not to be digested in one read, “Deep Family” provides thousands of detailed snapshots and quirky vignettes.  These stories are rare glimpses of the South, glimpses that many history books will never disclose, but that we would all do well to acknowledge as authentic versions of Southern life.

Leave a Reply