Sitting Up With the Dead: A Storied Journey through the American South

PSitting Up With the Dead by Pamela Petroamela Petro
Arcade Publishing ($25.95)

by Lynnell Edwards

In Sitting Up With the Dead Pamela Petro has undertaken a Chaucer-esque pilgrimage through the American South to report on the culture and the people who preserve it through traditions of storytelling. Hoping to understanding how the South has become that great national "Other," she explains in the "Prologue" how stories are a key to understanding ourselves as well as the South: "Stories provide the connective tissue of a community, a region, or even a big, overgrown household like the South. They link the skin of the present to the unseen organs of the past, binding them into a continually shape-shifting body, by turns beautiful and terrible and occasionally—disturbingly—reminiscent of looking into a mirror." Petro has outlined an ambitious project, and like The Canterbury Tales, the collection allows the voices and the tales of the tellers to sing. It falls short, however, in resolving the disparate themes of Southern identity that Petro finds mirrored in herself and in American culture at large.

The book is composed of four separate "journeys" and Petro's research and references suggest that she has done her homework. The result is a comprehensive survey of tellers and tales that ranges from as far north as central Kentucky to as far south as Florida and the Louisiana Bayou, from the Carolina coast, through the Appalachians and down into the desolate Georgia and Alabama interiors.

She begins in Atlanta, the "New South," where Akbar Imhotep, a professional storyteller, tells the story of Brer Rabbit and the tar baby. With this tale the format and mood of the book is established: Petro picks up the trail of a new teller, navigates her way through a landscape of strange food, bad weather, and suspicious lodging, and muses along the way in alternately academic, personal, and humorous ways. She finally finds the pilgrim she has been seeking, and discovers he or she is not quite what she had imagined, often startled at the teller's level and professional demeanor or advanced education or both.

There is no single strong narrative thread, however two individuals and Petro's relationship with them do provide some urgency and impetus. Early in the first journey Petro meets Vicki Vedder, a professional storyteller who adopts the persona of "Granny Griffin"—the Depression-era matriarch of an extended and poor central Georgia family, each with individual quirks and stories that "Granny" preserves. Curiously, Petro does not get a story from Vedder during the first meeting, but their communication continues through the summer via an e-mail conversation wherein Vedder contributes a philosophical perspective on the distinctiveness and tragedy of Southern culture.

Typically, Vedder's responses are offered as the philosophical meat of the book, and while certainly her perspective has a certain authority, it lacks sufficient emotion or intellect to be satisfying. In speaking to the persistent pain caused by generations of racism, for instance, she writes: "There is a common element that connects us (Southerners, black and white)—and I hope it is what disconnects us from innocent Northerners or Westerners. In the South, the blacks and whites are intertwined in wrongdoing—a vicious cycle of hurt...When one person (a family or society) commits a violent act on some other person, both people end up hurt. It may take some time for the offender to recognize this, or he may never, but what happens is that the air becomes filled with tension and pain, a spiritual hurt...In my opinion the South is full of misunderstanding about itself." While this observation is not untrue, and is perhaps even a generous way to avoid specific or political blame, it certainly seems simplified.

The other individual at the center of the various threads is Ray Hicks, a singular figure who tells "Jack Tales" (a version of the "trickster" tale) from his home in the hills of North Carolina. Petro dedicates the entire "Third Journey" to "Ray's Tale" and the afternoon she spends with him. Hicks, a National Heritage Fellow who has been the subject of other academic study, represents a mystical embodiment of the past and the present, the living and the dead, for Petro. She remarks, awed, "In his speech—I found I could understand most of what he said—I could actually hear the past. It was a miracle. Ray's tongue and teeth used the same ordinary air I was breathing to produce sounds otherwise unheard for three hundred years."

The rest of the pilgrims that Petro encounters along the way are as varied and as quirky as the landscape of the South she travels. There are ghost stories and trickster tales, tragic love stories and West African mythology. There are creatures as fantastical as singing turtles, flying Africans, and talking corpses. The landscape is alternately urban and rural, lush and barren. And there are persistent themes that emerge, particularly the idea that the storyteller tells a story specifically for an audience and that each story somehow chooses its listener. Petro also uses her experiences and the stories she hears to suggest that the dead are with us, at least in the South, and that the horizon between the here and the hereafter is permeable.

There are dimensions to this book that are fascinating. In an emergent way, Petro's collection considers how local culture bends and shapes archetypal narratives. She showcases, for instance two versions of a similar tale: "Ta'een Po" and "Taily Po." In the multiple versions of this tale there are common elements: a devil creature raids a poor resident's garden or home, loses his tail in the process, which the resident later eats in a stew, and then the devil returns for his tail and eats the farmer as revenge. The story varies according to the local culture and geography and the differences are telling.

There are also hints here at how stories can provide a subaltern map of culture and ethnic identity. The American South provides a particularly rich mix in this case; buried in stories are the dark history of the slave trade, the religion of West Africa, the Creole culture of South Louisiana, and the remnants of Anglo-Saxon history that persist in the speech and rituals of Appalachia. Even an emerging thesis about how the weather shapes the culture is a fascinating subtext to which Petro occasionally points. The South, on every coast and plain, is plagued by storms and temperatures of Old Testament proportions, and it is not difficult to argue that the supernatural must be at work, both aiding and assaulting those in its way.

But the work as a whole falls short of satisfying any of these theses. There is not enough of Petro to be truly sympathetic or engaging, and only enough of the stories themselves to hint at what otherwise might be concluded about culture, race, history, or politics. There is certainly precedent for this subjective approach to ethnography—the sort undertaken by other pilgrims to the South like Tony Horowitz in Confederates in the Attic or John Berendt in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil—but to hear of Petro's every irritation with the heat, chiggers, a pulled back, inedible high-fat food, or poor directions is to flirt with the irrelevant, particularly in a book that has already proposed more theses than it can comfortably resolve.

And so the book itself is a cautionary tale for those who would chronicle the wildly divergent sweeps of history and culture manifested in folk stories: mirrors not only reflect; they also distort and even blind those who use them as guideposts. In Petro's "overgrown household" of the South, there are closets and skeletons and corners and cobwebs that must still be cleaned before anyone can see or hear clearly what is there.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2002 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2002