Review of Roads That Seldom Curve: Growing Up Along the Mississippi, by Al Allen. Little Rock: August House Publishers, Inc., ; 1990. 208 pp. ISBN 0-87483-168-7 Hardcover $19.95; ISBN 0-87483-167-9 Paperback, $8.95.
I loved this book. Probably the most interesting thing it has going for it, in a long list of things, is the wonderfully vivid picture of life in the rural Bootheel of Missouri in the 1930s. Chapter 8, "Doodledums," is my favorite. It describes, through the eyes of a ten year-old narrator, the terrible institution of the "company farm," which was the corrupt profiteer's solution to the cheap-labor shortage created by the demise of slavery and share-cropping. Much of the chapter is bleak, but the bleakness is counterpointed by glimpses into the other side of the poor Missourians' everyday lives, lore and customs -- from building rabbit traps to folksy wisdom about not eating rabbits in the summer to coon hunts and coon-liver feasts to balky mules.
Not only this chapter, but many others conjure up my own memories of a time twenty years later and a hundred miles or so northwest. Especially, I respond to Allen's baseless but tenacious fears of "mad dogs and blue racer snakes" (p. 45), fears that hovered over me in my Laclede County childhood like the furies over Orestes
Likewise, I wax nostalgic at Allen's mention of ice-cold RC colas which had to be fished from ice water-filled coolers (p. 38). One of my strongest memories of my pre-teen years is when those wonderful rarities went from a nickel to six cents -- and my weekly allowance didn't.
And his discussions of "Old Joe the Bottle Man" and "Change-for-a-Penny" remind me of the characters and cruelties of my own junior high years in Rolla (MO). There was "Ralph," who set pins at the bowling alley alongside us budding juvenile delinquents, apparently living out of a brown paper bag, subsisting on fried egg sandwiches and smoking "Wings" cigarettes (11 cents a pack) -- Ralph, whose only crimes were poverty and ignorance, whom we teased and tormented until he cussed at us. There was also old "Jim," at whose ramshackle, dirty old house I always stopped on my paper route to smoke roll-your-owns and feel grown-up.
Though most is familiar, some parts of the book surprise me. For instance, "a bat out of Joplin" is a new one on me. ". . . I ran and screamed like a bat out of Joplin," he says, when he talks about how he endured the belt-line hazing as he began seventh grade (p. 92). I haven't heard that one before and, though it's easy to understand how he uses it, I wonder what kind of reputation Joplin has in the Bootheel. I also wonder about the "The Little Woman in Black," which he tells about in chapter 5. It seems to be an experience with the supernatural, but he doesn't tell us for sure.
Overall, I really enjoyed this book. It is a lucid, personal, biographical narrative, sometimes sad, but most of the time not, set mostly in the Missouri Bootheel and Memphis of the 1930s and 40s. The anecdotes, which constitute the chapters, are well-chosen and well-told, giving a brilliantly clear picture of the place and time. Allen is a very good storyteller, with an ability to characterize his subjects with a few bold strokes, and an eye for the "character" and the telling detail.
The last half of the book, his Navy years and later, though equally compellingly nostalgic, is set in other parts of the country, only the final chapter coming back home to Missouri. That chapter, "Aunt Annie's Funeral," is an interesting look at our funeral customs, but somehow wrong. It takes up an image begun in the second chapter -- Uncle Will's sacrificial barn -- and turns it upside down. In chapter two, Uncle Will, a wise and stoic Bootheel farmer, rebuilds his barn on the same spot several times after it is destroyed by tornadoes, explaining that it is his sacrifice to the storms to save the house. The storms themselves are portrayed as menacing and fearsome. In the last chapter, Allen turns those same storms into a means to mock Aunt Annie's mourners, who increase the tempo of their funeral service until a thunderstorm put mourners and gravediggers alike to inelegant, undignified rout. It's a funny incident, but disappointing. The storms have served a higher symbolic purpose in the rest of the book. And Aunt Annie, too, has deserved a more dignified final portrait.
But it's a good book overall, and I recommend it to anyone who wants a clear and sensitive picture of life in the Missouri Bootheel in the 1930s and 40s. It seems an acurate picture -- and one that will be familiar to many. He points out, for instance, how the women had to get out of their sick beds to care for the men. And he depicts clearly the role of religion and describes the "odd" ones who seemed to be in every family, as well as the rapscallions and ne'er-do-wells. And he depicts his own initiation into sex tastefully but clearly. And more. Much more. Folklorists and local historians will also find it useful, but it is mainly a book for general readers.