The fact it seems to have taken me forever to read this book has absolutely nothing to do with how I felt about it. Rather, it is a book to be read slowly, to digest all the facts and deeply thought out opinions about the modern South and how that is or isn't a reflection on its current state.
As a native Southerner raised in the North, I share a lot of opinions with Twitchell -though admittedly he's spent much of his life in Florida (technically the South, though not the Deep South), and I'm in Illinois. Not having grown up there I've been able to take a step back and really see it, something I'm not sure those raised Southern have been able to do. Had I been preparing to undertake such a trip as he did, I have no doubt I'd have the same sort of misgivings and feelings of excitement, he felt.
Unlike Twitchell, I have no historically significant family story to research, no well-known ancestor distinguished for having played a pivotal role. I had some relatives in the Civil War – and the Revolutionary, as well – but no family story aside from one relative having possibly received a medal of valor, and even that's unsubstantiated, since no one seems to be in possession of any proof. But to have a story like his in the family: a great-grandfather who began as a carpetbagger, became a state senator who advocated separate but equal schools for blacks and whites so early in history, utilmately ending the victim of a hate crime so vile he lost both arms, retreating to his home in Vermont in frustration and defeat. That's a different situation than mine, altogether.
If his family story were a novel it would be a riveting one, though all that happened in actual history would seem unrealistically over the top. And to know it's all true… It's amazing and exciting. To know your family had been so instrumental, so determined to change a part of the country so resistant, is a feeling I can only imagine.
Twitchell took a journey through the South to help answer questions like: is there anything left of the hatred that led to horrifying violence such as lynchings and murder of black sympathizers; are the stereotypes about the South true, that they're a bunch of lazy, Yankee-hating backwoodsmen; and, basically, who are these people today, and how does their history affect who they are? Or does it?
He and his wife travelled in an RV, taking historic Rte. 84, a journey roughly equivalent to driving Rte. 66, if it was still intact and the towns along the way still in existence. The intent was to see the countryside, not to whiz past on an interstate, and fortunately for them Rte. 84 has not yet been replaced – though it may be in the process.
Their itinerary led them through the mid-section of the Deep South, through Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and, ultimately, into the land of his ancestor Marshall Harvey Twitchell: Louisiana. What they found along the way was mixed, but nowhere did native southerners treat them with anything less than graciousness, never did they feel threatened, and despite the fact they were complete strangers in a strange land, every town featured at least one person anxious to show him whatever he wanted to see.
Several places they stopped to visit sounded so fascinating I've gone on to research them further, namely Gee's Bend, a formerly isolated island on which freed Blacks settled, cutting themselves off from the rest of society. On the island the most beautiful quilts were created, using every scrap of unneeded fabric. So stunning are they, they're now hanging in museums, taking trips around to various cities as travelling exhibits. And back in Gee's Bend itself, the people now sell quilts for outrageous sums of money, taking full advantage of their interesting history, losing what once made them so singular: their isolated culture.
Finally, Twitchell and his wife reached Louisiana and the Red River area surrounding Coushatta, where his great-grandfather had lived and distinguished himself as a man who built a fortune while working to improve the lives of the black citizens. He found local historians, who told versions of the massacre of dozens of black men, and also those of members of his own family, Twitchell could barely recognize. As for his great-grandfather, opinions on him and his reputation were likewise mixed. The legend he was shot by a man wearing green goggles, fascinatingly enough, was made more plausible when one of the historians placed them in Twitchell's own hands. He put them on, feeling a strange, creepy feeling the same man who'd cost his great-grandfather his arms had looked through these same glasses, handing them back with some haste, history having become almost too realistic.
In the end, Twitchell left with the name of the person who had killed his great-grandfather. Though he first thought he'd pass that name along, when all was said and done he changed his mind. Better to bury the dead, forgive the past, and move on with life. Now that he'd made the journey, answered some questions but opened up others, there could be a sense of closure.
This sense of closure is one of the major themes of the book. In the beginning there was curiosity, a need to answer questions about his family's history, but after having conducted such thorough research everything boiled down to whether he wanted to carry this newfound knowledge on his shoulders, to let it blossom into a grudge, or if it was best left in the past, stored with his great-grandfather's artifacts.
It would have been so easy to let anger rule, but he chose not to do that, learning the lessons of history and consciously not repeating those things resentment can produce. As such the book he wrote is a wise one, filled with one man's journey to the past by way of the present, learning what truth he could in the time he had. The result is a fascinating book introducing all new aspects of the South I personally had no idea existed, making me realize how multi-faceted the history of this area truly is.
Very highly recommended to all with an interest in all things southern, and also to those who'd like to know more about the Reconstruction Period.
Thank you to NetGalley for the free eBook of this title.