“Graceland, at Last: Notes on Hope and Heartache from the American South” (Milkweed Editions) is a collection of over 60 essays by author Margaret Renkl selected from those that have graced the pages of the New York Times over the past four years.
A resident of Nashville, Tenn., her writing puts forth her impressions of the South. When taken as a whole, they paint a picture that is far more nuanced than the stark, one dimensional red state / blue state characterizations usually served up by media outlets of all stripes, favoring attention-getting and therefore ratings-grabbing sound bites over sober, long-form analysis.
Renkl notes that her motivation to write her essays initially sprang from mourning over the sudden deaths of her mother and the prolonged decline and eventual passing of mother-in-law from Parkinson’s disease. Encouraged to use her already considerable skills as a writer to work through her grief, the resulting essay was the first of what would become a monthly and then weekly column for the Times.
The essays in “Graceland” are organized into six broad categories – Flora & Fauna, Politics and Religion, Social Justice, Environment, Family & Community, Arts & Culture – although as the broad headings suggest there is inevitably some bleed-through between one and another. Renkl calls the structure a patchwork, and alluding to the complex portrait of a part of our nation she has lived in and observed for so many years. She endeavors to explode the stereotypes many of us have absorbed and view as a blanket definition of the South and Southerners by declaring that “...in truth, there’s no such thing as ‘the South.’”
In one of the first ‘patches’ in her quilt, “The Flower that Came Back from the Dead,” Renkl chronicles the rescue of the Tennessee Cornflower, long thought to be extinct, thanks to the Herculean effort of concerned organizations and individuals. She presents the rediscovery and propagation of this “Lazarus flower” as an example of what can be achieved when citizens organize and cooperate to meet a worthy goal. And in the cleverly titled “Make America Graze Again,” Renkl takes a look at how a native of Nashville and dedicated environmentalist uses a traveling flock of sheep to manage local vegetation in an ecologically sound manner.
Not all of the essays that comprise Renkl’s patchwork are feel-good inspirational stories. Many are sound-the-alarm calls to action, such as “The Hits Keep Coming for the Red State Poor,” a disturbing five-page summary of largely successful efforts by Republicans in the Tennessee General Assembly to further weaken already lax gun laws, raise limits on campaign donations, end same-sex marriage and outlaw abortion under virtually all circumstances, to name just a few. And, as the author notes, the state of Tennessee is not alone in those efforts.
Many reviewers have characterized “Graceland” as offering readers a long sought ray of hope in what can seem to be a world fraught with an endless cascade of intractable calamities. But Renkl takes pains to point out that that is not her intent, stating that both hope and despair can rob us of agency, the will to act, if we believe that someone else is solving our problems or that our problems are insolvable.
She concludes in “The Hits Keep Coming ...” by underscoring the lesson she hopes “Graceland” imparts to her readers, that “...if Americans don’t start paying attention to what’s happening in states across the country, the republic may never recover.”
Special thanks to the Doylestown Bookshop (doylestownbookshop.com) for assistance in preparing this edition of Book Talk! Until next time, remember that “It’s always better with a book!”