“Feral, North Carolina, 1965,” by June Sylvester Saraceno

June Sylvester Saraceno

Reviewed by Claire Hamner Matturro

Feral, North Carolina, 1965 (Southern Fried Karma, 2019) is a powerful gem.  Told with wit and verve, the novel unfolds in vignettes that read like short stories, and in fact, many chapters were previously published as short stories. Feral captures a time and place with impeccable world building, astute observations, and subtle humor, yet does not hide from the bigotry and malice that drives the final chapters.

The young protagonist, Wilhelmina Mae Miller, is ten, hates her name, worships her brother Dare, is driven by curiosity, breaks rules, can be a bully, but through it all confronts the world head-on with tomboy energies. She is, however, understandably naïve. Her world—a segregated, rural community in North Carolina called Feral—is small, with sharp lines drawn in the sand. Yet Willie, as she prefers to be called, pushes those boundaries with enthusiastic innocence.

Willie might well be compared to Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird. Both spirited tomboys who don’t yet understand the ugliness of racial politics or the adult world, Willie and Scout could certainly be first cousins. But Willie’s brother, Dare, who torments her and will abandon her, is no Jem. And her father is most assuredly no Atticus Finch. Unlike motherless Scout, Willie has a mother who is more often than not the underplayed heroine as the stories develop.

Willie’s personality is aptly summed up in one of her early observations: “I figured out last summer that there were a lot of places you could go if you didn’t ask permission first and just stayed out of sight.” With that discovery, plus strong legs and a good bike, Willie ranges far and wide in her little world, but makes it home for supper. In one story, she goes where she knows she is not to go, Shillin Town, the community of blacks near the town of Feral. When Willie rides her bike into the midst of black kids playing, she raises her hand and waves, but the kids dart across ditches and disappear. Willie doesn’t understand “why everyone cleared out.” By the end of the book, sadly, she will understand their fear a great deal better.

While Feral is a well-done coming-of-age story, like To Kill a Mockingbird, it reaches for broader truths and does not shy away from the malice and hypocrisy in Willie’s narrow world. Yet much of the sweetness and magic of the book lies in Willie’s immature misunderstandings. For example, in the chapter called “Rapture,” Willie wakes one morning and realizes she hadn’t heard her mother “slamming around” in the kitchen. Raised as a fundamentalist with a heavy emphasis on the rapture, Willie feels “a little uneasy stitch in my chest” when she can’t find any sign of her mother—not even the bowl of cereal her mother always fixes Willie for breakfast: “A thread tightened through me. Scary words like the rapture and the second coming stitched their syllables in half thoughts and vague images.”

After working herself into a state, Willie screams for her mother:

And there in the bean rows, half of mother appeared. She rose and brought a hand to the top of her brow, squinting toward me. The thread snapped and a wash of relief, a welcome baptism, flooded me. I could have fallen right down in a prayer of rejoicing, but I just stood there, sniffling.

Not all the stories are so sweetly innocent, however, and hypocrisy is rampant in Willie’s world. In chapters called “Miss Alma’s Sugar” and “The Boy,” Willie confronts true cruelty fueled by racial hatreds and the looming integration of the high school. When tragedy and violence occur, Willie is haunted by the viciousness and can’t find a way to deal with it. Willie’s mother gives her a lesson, but that’s not enough to erase the nightmares:

even after days of riding my bike pondering, I couldn’t make any sense of it. I avoided ridding by Shillin Town as much as possible, knowing I’d look like someone from an enemy camp to anyone coming or going from there….Days felt heavy and all I wanted was for it to go back to the before time . . .

Feral, North Carolina might not plow deep new ground in the body of coming-of-age-in-a-segregated-South literature, but it’s a worthy addition to the growing collection of such books. The first-person voice is authentic, the sense of place is remarkably well done, the characters well-wrought and the short story structure makes for an easy and pleasant reading experience. Though Willie, as the star of the novel, is an intriguing enough character to hold center stage with her adventures, her attempts to make sense of her exploding narrow world surely echo a culture’s attempt to understand its own history of racial violence.

Feral, North Carolina 1965 showcases not just bright, spunky, curious Willie, but also author June Sylvester Saraceno’s talents. This might be her debut book, but readers will want to hear from her again.

Saraceno is a recognized poet, who currently chairs the Humanities and English Department at Sierra Nevada College, Lake Tahoe. She is the director of Writers in the Woods literary speakers series, and founding editor of the Sierra Nevada Review, with several books of poetry to her credit.

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