“Letter in a Woodpile,” by Ed Cullen

Reviewed by Julie Cantrell

Unlike many literary sites that review only the books being marketed heavily each publishing season, the Southern Literary Review is always on the prowl for stories that slip through the cracks. We are in constant search for the author who hasn’t yet been “discovered” and the manuscript that has settled at the bottom of the publishing sea.

Last week, I read such a title. Published in 2006, Letter in a Woodpile found its way to my door when a family friend recommended I give it a try. While the book is not hot off the press, the author, Ed Cullen, has proven his talents for four decades, working as a highly-esteemed journalist for The Advocate in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and serving as commentator on NPRs All Things Considered.

Letter in a Woodpile is a collection of 50 essays, many of which have been presented on National Public Radio or in Cullen’s weekly newspaper column. Each story offers an escape, as Cullen’s mastery of the written word draws readers into another place and time, all within a tight word count, the way he’s been doing professionally for 40 years.

But if you expect Cullen’s vignettes to be dry, standard samples of newspaper journalism, think again. With the simplest of strokes, Cullen magically creates vivid scenes. His characters jump off the page and walk with you for days after you close the book, and the emotional conflicts leave you laughing, smiling, and crying.

Bringing us through crucial life moments, Cullen allows readers to experience both the coming-of-age passions of a young Louisiana boy as well as the sentimental struggles of a man.

In one story, we’re brought back to the thrill of a childhood crush when we meet the Tutti Frutti girl who visited the snow ball stand where Cullen worked, the one that “rested on two tires and a Coke crate on a molten asphalt lot across the street from the A&P.” And just like that, we are fourteen again, “feeding a fresh block of frozen water into the whirling knives of a machine to make shaved ice” and brushing the warm fingers of the Tutti Frutti girl when she slides a quarter through the slot.

In another, we are on our first hunt, knowing “[t]he only way I was going to shoot a deer was in self-defense,” and feeling a deep connection to the hunting camp with the “warmth of the potbellied stove and the smell of blue smoke that leaked into the room.”

Then we are driving the long, dark expanse across the Atchafalaya Basin, spanning America’s largest swamp in silence while pondering UFOs. One moment we are tight with anxiety about losing the last of our marbles (literally). The next, we are wide awake, waiting for the phone to ring to announce the birth of our first grandchild.

Cullen’s stories open doors for us, welcoming us into back alleys and secret rooms, straight through the moments that matter most. Nature, family, friends, faith—it’s all there. Plus, there’s plenty about baseball.

My favorite piece shows Cullen’s reaction to a newspaper feature that claims “Southerners Not What They Used to Be.” With a snarky sense of humor, the author examines what the South means to him.

Ultimately, that’s what Cullen delivers the readers. A straightforward answer to the age-old question: “Who am I?” Each story is a snapshot, a captured moment of time that when put together in this brilliant collection, allows the answers to fall into place.

What does it mean to be a Southerner? Cullen says, “We are only sometimes found to be dangerous, illiterate, or racist, but always not what we used to be.” As his stories unfold, and Southern characters enter and exit each scene, the answers are clear. We are a thoughtful, compassionate, open-minded, hopeful people who love music, art, literature, sports, and tradition. We are family-focused, and we take root in our environment, tying ourselves tightly to the land we call home. We are as varied and diverse in our beliefs as people from North Dakota or California or New York City. But most of all, we are here. Now. Trying to make the most of every little moment, like Cullen.

If you’re looking for a feel-good read that delivers relatable characters, beautiful settings, and an escape from your daily routine, journey back to 2006 and pull out this Letter in a Woodpile.

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