I interrupt this blog-pause to bring you delightful literary news: Mimi Herman, one of my longest besties (’cause we’re not OLD), has just published a lively, authentic, and moving novel, set in our home state, North Carolina: The Kudzu Queen.
Oh, and that quote above? That’s from NYT best-selling novelist Lee Smith (once my 9th grade English teacher at Carolina Friends School, where Mimi & I met). You get your book blurbed by Lee Smith, you have arrived.
Some of you familiar with Southern landscapes might be thinking, “Whoa there! Kudzu? That awful introduced plant that tried to eat the South?”
But the dramatic irony of knowing what kudzu will become makes Mimi’s story all the more poignant, because her characters are present in kudzu’s Genesis moment, back in 1941. Why don’t I let the book’s flyleaf tell it?
Fifteen-year-old Mattie Lee Watson dreams of men, not boys. So when James T. Cullowee, the Kudzu King, arrives in Cooper County, North Carolina in 1941 to spread the gospel of kudzu—claiming that it will improve the soil, feed cattle at almost no cost, even cure headaches—Mattie is ready. Mr. Cullowee is determined to sell the entire county on the future of kudzu, and organizes a kudzu festival, complete with a beauty pageant. Mattie is determined to be crowned Kudzu Queen and capture the attentions of the Kudzu King. As she learns more about Cullowee, however, she discovers that he, like the kudzu he promotes, has a dark and predatory side. When Mattie finds she is not the only one threatened, she devises a plan to bring him down. Based on historical facts, The Kudzu Queen unravels a tangle of sexuality, power, race, and kudzu through the voice of an irresistibly delightful (and mostly honest) narrator.
The choice of 1941 is not accidental. Mere months before Pearl Harbor, Mattie Watson, her family, her community, and her country are all aligned on the cusp of transformation: Mattie into womanhood; her family (and, more dramatically, that of her best friend) into a new configuration; her community into the brave new world of cultural and economic change; and her country into its 20th-century world leadership. While kudzu is a very real part of this change–Mimi’s book is thoroughly researched–it is also a perfect metaphor for the way “growth” does not automatically entail “improvement”–or at least, not without cost.
But can I step away from theme for a moment to trumpet some sweet, sweet prose? For a taste:
“The afternoon’s brightness had traveled with me, infusing the white clapboard of our house with its own light. My mother’s azaleas were enjoying their brief moment of pink glory before they subsided into wilted blossoms the color of old newspapers.” (p.88)
“Sometimes a rain will start so quietly that after a while you realize it’s been raining for some time and you dadn’t even noticed. By the time I grapsed the fact that I was crying, I’d progressed to wet hiccups.” (p. 216)
Much as I enjoy The Kudzu Queen’s active prose, I think I admire its dialogue most.
“‘How many fish are we going to catch, Aggs?’ Danny asked.
‘A million?’ she ventured.
‘At least,’ he told her. ‘I was thinking more like two million.’
She laughed, a sound I heard so rarely that I almost didn’t recognize it.
‘How many can you eat?’ he asked.
‘Six,’ she announced.
‘Excellent. That means six for you and one million, nine hundred ninety-nie thousand, nine hundred and nine-four for me me.’ Danny tugged her sleeve. ‘This your fishing outfit?'” (p. 190)
It’s hard to write too much without spoilers, so I’ll stop with this recommendation: if you want to delve deep into a time of relative innocense without a drop of mawkishness; if you want to give yourself over to that narrator Lee Smith calls “the most appealing young heroine since Scout;” if you’d read anything David Sedaris–yes, David Sedaris!–calls “funny, sad and tender,” then–ask your local bookstore to order The Kudzu Queen, or order it yourself, here.
Oh–I almost forgot this part! Mimi’s “day job,” while producing her own writing, is to be a Teaching Artist. She’s taught gazillion classes and workshops over the years, to writers in every decade of life. Currently, she and partner John Yewell offer tantalizing Writeaways–extended workshops in exotic European castles and other inspiring places. Take a look at the link!
Congratulations, buddy. And Happy Reading, everyone!