Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Review: Catfish Alley

Summary: Roxanne Reeves defines her life by the committees she heads and the social status she cultivates. But she is keeping secrets that make her an outsider in her own town, always in search of acceptance. And when she is given a job none of the other white women want-researching the town's African-American history for a tour of local sites-she feels she can't say no.

Elderly Grace Clark, a retired black schoolteacher, reluctantly agrees to become Roxanne's guide. Grace takes Roxanne to Catfish Alley, whose undistinguished structures are nonetheless sacred places to the black community because of what happened there. As Roxanne listens to Grace's stories, and meets her friends, she begins to see differently. She is transported back to the past, especially to 1931, when a racist's hatred for Grace's brother leads to events that continue to change lives decades later. And as Roxanne gains an appreciation of the dreams, courage, and endurance of those she had so easily dismissed, her own life opens up in new and unexpected ways. -- NAL Accent

I would consider myself a pretty big fan of Southern fiction despite spending almost my entire adulthood in the North. Maybe it's because I grew up in the South, but I have a feeling that Southern Fiction is just one of those genres that I truly appreciate. While I have read many terrific books that take place in the South over the past few years, I'm always on the lookout for new Southern authors or new Southern books. And that's how I discovered CATFISH ALLEY by Lynne Bryant.

CATFISH ALLEY tells the story of two very different women and their unlikely friendship. Roxanne is a middle-aged white woman who is extremely concerned about her social status, while Grace is an elderly black woman who lives in a plantation house. When Roxanne begins looking into the town's African-American history to see which sites might be included on a historic tour, her research takes her to Grace. Throughout the course of the novel, Roxanne not only learns about the history of Grace and other black families; but in the process, she also gains some wonderful friends and learns more about herself than she ever imagined possible.

I adored CATFISH ALLEY for so many reasons. First and foremost, it's just a good story with good characters. I found myself caring about all of the characters a great deal, especially Grace and Adelle; and I was anxious to learn about their pasts. Even Roxanne, who was a little difficult to like right off of the bat, captured my heart as I realized what a rough time she had dealing with her many insecurities. In addition, I liked the way that Ms. Bryant told this story. Much of the story took place during the present, but when Roxanne talked with Grace and others to learn more about the town's black history, the author used flashbacks to share the details about the events that occurred past. I thought the flashbacks were extremely effective because they kept my attention and, at the same time, made me desperate for more! Through all of Grace's stories, there were hints and references to some major events; and Ms. Bryant revealed the characters' stories in very smart tidbits.

CATFISH ALLEY has been compared to THE HELP a few times, so I wasn't necessarily surprised that I enjoyed this story. However, I was a bit surprised by how much this book affected me. Like many Southern stories, CATFISH ALLEY deals with how poorly whites treated blacks in the past. There are very sad and even disturbing scenes in this story about how blacks were persecuted in the early 1930s including beatings, rapes and lynchings. Part of me was disgusted and embarrassed by these stories, while the other part of me just cried. I have to tell you that so many of the characters' recollections just broke my heart.

But I also appreciated how the author demonstrated what is occurring in present day life between the races. Through the use of Roxanne and Grace, Ms. Bryant showed that we still have a long way to go before there will be full integration. For example, in the story, Roxanne is upper middle class life and basically has little interaction with African Americans (except for her housekeeper whom she only exchanged brief, transactional conversation.) Now, it's been awhile since I've lived in the South (and I never did live in the Deep South), but I felt as if the portrayal of these interactions between the races were pretty authentic.

Another thing that I enjoyed a great deal about this novel was the message about the basic goodness in people. No doubt there were some awful people in this story, but CATFISH ALLEY showed the strength and resilience of quite a few characters -- especially Grace, Adelle, and Mattie. They all had to deal with horrible setbacks and losses, yet they maintained their dignity (and their friendship) and eventually turned these negative events into positives. These three women were truly amazing!

I also loved the changes that occurred in Roxanne's character. She wasn't the most likable character when the story began, but I soon realized that she was carrying some baggage from her childhood which affected her ability to truly like herself. I loved that Roxanne eventually allowed herself to open up and truly hear Grace's stories, and she eventually didn't care about her social status. She realized that true friendships are way more important and valuable than what her snooty "friends" message thought of her. CATFISH ALLEY was a sweet story about the ultimate power of female friendships, and you know how I'm a sucker for books with that message!

There is an extremely interesting Author's Notes section at the end of this book which provided me with some addition insight into the story as well as Ms. Bryant's inspiration for the novel. The author gives a little bit of her history growing up in the Deep South, and I have to say that I loved her honesty. She even mentions in how oblivious of race she was growing up as a white child in the South, "We played separately, ate separately, shopped separately. And when my own daughter graduated from new Hope twenty-five years later, in 2002, there was still a black homecoming queen and a white homecoming queen."

CATFISH ALLEY should be a book that a lot of groups choose to discuss, and there is a terrific reading guide available in the back of the book to help facilitate conversation. There are so many important themes to talk about like race, prejudice, segregation, and the past. However, there are also some interesting (and universal) topics like loss, forgiveness, acceptance, redemption, self-confidence, mother/daughter relationships, and friendship which run throughout the story. The story in CATFISH ALLEY is one that I think most readers will appreciate; however, I think the real beauty of this novel is that it will cause many people to reflect on their own lives and their own behavior. I believe that there are some valuable lessons in this story!

While there is no denying that some of the scenes in this book are downright ugly, I felt as if CATFISH ALLEY was ultimately a book about hope and friendship. I highly recommend it!

Thanks to the publisher for sending a copy of this novel.


Sandy Nawrot said...

Oh, this sounds wonderful! I am the opposite...grew up in the Midwest but have lived in the South for over 20 years (Orlando will never be deep South though). So I love Southern fiction as well, and especially ones that address the divide between races and cultures. Great review!

bermudaonion said...

I can't wait to read this book! I've spent most of my life in the South and know that things have come a long way, but still have a long way to come.

Anonymous said...

Favorably compare a book to the Help and I'm in. I love books that show the basic goodness in people. I can't wait to read this.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I wasn't aware there was another book like The Help out there. This sounds good!

Laura at Library of Clean Reads said...

This book sounds like a great book club read. We really liked The Help when we read it as a group. I know nothing of the South except what I read in history books or have seen in movies. My reality (from Montreal) is so different. I loved reading your review. Thanks!

Karlie said...

Sounds like another good Southern Fiction read!