Friday, July 5, 2002

Review - Sitting Up with the Dead: A Storied Journey through the American South by Pamela Petro

Sitting Up with the Dead is a travelogue and journal of writer Pamela Petro’s trips through the southern states to find storytellers willing to share tales of the Old South. In the prologue, Petro explains the spark for this novel. It was a kneejerk reaction she had to a line Tony Horowitz wrote in Confederates in the Attic. “The South is a place. East, West, and North are northing but directions.” She chose to seek out oral tales because they “are a plural endeavor; they’re the products of generations and geography and weather and all the other ligaments that bind a community together.” Once Petro knew what she wanted her project to be, she worked with friends who gave her contacts, history buffs, and the Internet to track down and meet some of America’s best storytellers.

Every chapter is about a storyteller. Not all chapters actually have a story. The people Petro meets along her journey are unique and interesting whether they share a story or not.

Petro divides the book into four sections, one for each of the four journeys she took to collect stories. Upon opening Sitting Up with the Dead, the reader stands beside Petro who “was wedged into the aisle of the plane, waiting impatiently to exit when a fellow passenger whispered uncomfortably close to my ear, ‘They say that when you die, you have to change planes in Atlanta to get to heaven.’” Petro shares her observations and realizations of her journey, as well as her thoughts and insights about each person she meets and each story she hears. With the opening “Akbar’s Tale” she describes “Listening to the slide show in the dark, empty room I had been aware of a white voice condensing and interpreting [Joel Chandler] Harris’s life. Now, here in his parlor, where Harris had been too pathologically shy to tell stories even to his own children, a black voice was conjuring new life from the briar patch for the children of strangers.”

The very first story is about Tar Baby. Remember that story from childhood? Brer Fox and Brer Bear are out to cause trouble for Brer Rabbit. Although the story is familiar, hearing it from someone who knows its origins makes it more entertaining and more poignant. For instance, the Brer Rabbit stories were “passed on within the confines of slavery from one African-American to another, these stories held a kernel of the revolution: they conveyed strategies, allowed for vicarious victories, and promised that organized systems could be overcome by cunning….Intelligence allows him [Brer Rabbit] to chose freedom by whatever means available, if he wants it badly enough: a message of hope, heartbreaking in its moral ambiguity.” The tale is entertaining for children, thought-provoking for adults.

The storytellers in Sitting Up with the Dead expertly draw you into their tales. The master storytellers are able to weave facts handed down to them through time with their own lives and make the audience believe that the entire tale is true. The storytellers are almost actors, but not quite; a few dress up in the characters they are portraying, but it’s more to preserve the persona of the character than to put on a show. The stories, no matter how incredible they sound, contain much more than a thread of truth to them. Petro “asked each teller for a story or a tale that revealed something of the nature of life in his or her corner of the American South.”

Sitting Up with the Dead is not a quick read. You’ll want to spend time with each chapter to reap the full flavor. Some stories are written in the storyteller’s speech. A great example is Ray Hick’s speech in “Ray’s Tale”: “An’ da-yoon yander then, ‘nother time, I’s a-comin’ up th’ ole’ mawntain road.” One entire trip that Petro took was to get Ray Hick’s story. He is a National Heritage Fellow. It took her two trips to find his house, as it is in a holler within the mountains of Boone, North Carolina. His house is located by a “hedgerow of junk” on an old gravel road. His story takes some time to get through, because it is in his own voice, but the Southern voice adds a sense of time and place to his story. Petro could have re-written his and many other stories in clean English, but by choosing to leave the stories in the speaker’s voice, she’s giving the reader a unique and memorable reading experience.

Although Sitting Up with the Dead is full of tales of the South it does include a link to New England: one storyteller had a “Yankee grandmother from Nashua, New Hampshire.” Petro discovers that the South is different from the rest of the country. Southerners are predisposed to storytelling because families there tend to stay put. It isn’t uncommon for kids in the South to grow up with their great-grandparents, grandparents, and parents all in the same house or very close by.

Sitting Up with the Dead is an educational, entertaining, and exciting journey through the South. It’s a great history lesson as well as an introduction to people with lots of stories to share. Pamela Petro lives in Northampton, MA, where she works as a full-time writer. Her first book, based on her personal history, Travels in an Old Tongue: Touring the World Speaking Welsh was published in 1997. She has written for the travel section of the New York Times as well as published in Atlantic Monthly, Islands, and Forbes.

Title: Sitting Up with the Dead: A Storied Journey through the American South
Author: Pamela Petro
Publisher: Arcade Publishing
ISBN: 978-1559706124
Pages: 414
Price: $25.95

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