“Stars of Alabama,” by Sean Dietrich

Sean Dietrich

Reviewed by Claire Hamner Matturro

Sean Dietrich’s Stars of Alabama is a beautiful novel, mesmerizing with its complex characters, lush settings, and lyrical language. It is, quite simply, Southern literature at its finest. Written with wisdom, insight, and captivating diction, it is poignant and hopeful, engaging and vivid, full of people who might have died were it not for the helping hands of others. Compassion is its principal theme.

Dietrich’s dedication reveals something of the tone and of the author: “I’d like to dedicate this book to the people of Alabama because it is about them. I hereby submit this work to the gnarled Alabama family tree, which I find myself a part of.”

 Stars of Alabama, set during the Great Depression, involves diverse characters moving toward each other, their journeys lasting for years before they wind up on the shores of Mobile Bay. While the story lines may seem, at first, distinct, compassion and hope unite them as the characters travel toward their common destiny.

Paul, his dog Louisville, and Paul’s sidekick and best friend, Vern, “the tallest black man Paul had ever known,” hear a cry in the woods. Louisville tracks the sound, and Paul and Vern find a violet-eyed, red-haired infant girl alone among the trees. They fall in love with the child and name her Ruth.

Meanwhile, Marigold, the child’s poverty-stricken, forsaken mother, is arrested in town for trying to steal food. She and her baby are starving, but the law is unkind to her. Many people are hungry in the Deep South at the time. She fears her baby will die alone in the woods while she is in jail. But for Paul and Vern, the child probably would have.

Sweeping westward, the story shifts to 14-year-old Coot, an orphan in the clutches of an unsavory, abusive tent-revivalist fake preacher. Coot, who has been preaching since he was seven, is the star attraction in the tent revival in the dry plains of Kansas, where folks often suffer from dust pneumonia.

Dietrich has a talent for capturing times, mood, and locale. Take, for instance, this description of Kansas and the figures who, seeking hope, visit the tent revival:

[Coot had] spent enough time on stages to know what his people were thinking. They were scared. That’s what was at the core of these people. They were terrified of the dust that hovered above the world. They drank the dust, ate the dust. The dust suffocated their children and wilted their food.

Paul and Vern, now Ruth’s adopted parents, take in a widow and her two young children. Paul, Vern, Ruth and the additional three become a family—not at once, but as they travel and work together, taking care of each other, they form bonds of love and loyalty. Their migratory lives are rough as they work on farms throughout the South.

Released from jail, Marigold finds her baby gone but doesn’t know that Ruth is safe—thanks to Paul and Vern. Prostitutes rescue the ill and starving Marigold, but she never becomes a harlot; she works instead as their maid.

Marigold discovers she has a rare and genuine gift that brings her into grave danger. Coot runs away from the abusive fake-preacher. Paul and Vern and their family face a life-or-death situation: as they seek shelter on the road to keep from freezing, armed locals accost them.

Dietrich can turn a phrase like nobody’s business. His words sing of sharp images and telling details. Consider this line: “[T]he old thing started burning oil and making strange noises that sounded like someone was hiding beneath the hood with a short-barrel shotgun.” Or this sentence that captures the true love of newlyweds: “He was handsome, yes. But he was more than that. He was the rest of her life.”

Christian themes—love, compassion, hope, and care—surface again and again without succumbing to preachiness. There’s a genuine, good preacher as well as the bad, imposter preacher. But the preachers don’t instantiate the theology of the book. That role falls to Paul and Vern, who save a starving baby and adopt a whole family. It falls to Marigold, who helps the lonely and the scared. And it falls to Coot, who opens his heart to the reality of love and goodness even though his childhood nearly led him down a criminal path.

Dietrich is a columnist, novelist, and creator of the blog, podcast, and radio show “Sean of the South.” His essays and articles have appeared in Southern Living, The Good Grit, South Magazine, the Bitter Southerner, ALFA Alabama Farmer’s Magazine, Alabama Living, and several Southern newspapers. He is also the author of seven books.

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