Vignettes of a Culture
William Graham Jones
Introduction The Land The People The Stories In Conclusion References
Human beings have a tendency to distrust and even dislike others they
encounter simply because they are different, because of some physical
characteristic, but also due to differences in culture.
The twentieth century, for all its true greatness, saw many examples of
both come to pass around the world. There
are as many beliefs about the reason this is so as there are explanations for
our existence. Some say it is proof
that we are simply an advanced animal form.
Others say it is a learned behavior pattern, passed down generation by
generation. Others say it is
“just human nature.” Still
others assert that the roots of the problem lie at the feet of a tower built in
a land widely known as Babel. No
matter what the cause, the fact is, this kind of interaction among humans
goes on with some regularity. One
of the most glaring examples of this kind of thinking has been surfacing more
and more over the last twenty-five years or so: the culture war waged upon the
South by virtually every institution of the “modern, learned” world, from
the tusken turrets and parapets of the academia to the war rooms where empires
are planned by executives in the skyscraping headquarters of the various media
outlets in the sprawling, nerve-wracking, amoeboid, gluttonous metropoli around
the country. Whether it's
“Cousin Eddie” and his rag-tag family of degenerates as seen in most of the National
Lampoon's Vacation movies or an episode of TV's The Simpsons
which depicts in condescending fashion a rags-to-riches story of Lurlene
Lumpkin's rise to country singer fame from a life lived out of a travel
trailer and a waitress job at a local watering hole, folks from the country,
usually complete with a Southern accent of sorts, are shown as a rather base
bunch of bumpkins running the gamut from the loveable, harmless town dunce, to
the simpleton engaged in a series of campy adventures, to inept hooligans in
charge of local government and law enforcement, to the whiskey-running “good
ol' boys” they chase all over the county, to maniacal, Bible-verse-spouting
serial killers, all of which are implied to be a lower order of human life
simply because they are from a certain region, share a certain kind of culture,
or speak with a certain accent.
Against this backdrop of preconception, misconception, prejudice, and
stereotypes, Child to the Waters, a collection of short stories by James
E. Kibler, stands as a testament to the true nature of Southern culture. He shows that it is as rich as the cream skimmed from a pail
of fresh milk, as deep and wide as a river coursing its way through the hills,
as earthy as the soil itself, as warm and inviting as a chair by a roaring
hearth on a cold winter's night, as diverse in its origins as the birds in the
Carolina blue sky, as innocent as a young girl's voice raised in beautiful
melody, as alive as anything on earth, and full of respect for that life.
This testament, conceived not as an epitaph marking the passing away of a
culture but rather as a milestone on its long journey, is written in words that
frame the culture using the best elements of its definition: the land and people
of the South and their stories.
The South was, from the beginning of European settlement of North
America, a largely agrarian undertaking, and her communities grew accordingly.
Industrialization, while present, started later and did not have the
tremendous centralizing effect it had on the North, largely because most
industry in the South was involved in the collection or processing of raw
materials, and close proximity to these materials was a cost advantage.
People in the South therefore tended to continue to reside in small towns
and medium-size cities, keeping their closeness with the land.
Even today the South maintains a less concentrated population base than
almost anywhere else in the country. The
federal government publishes a list, The 100 Largest Metropolitan Statistical
Areas, which is updated with Census data.
One has only to scan the list to see that this pattern is still in
effect: the largest city in the South, Atlanta, ranks only 8th on the
list. The next Southern
“metropolis” on the list is Norfolk-Virginia Beach-Newport News (also known
as Hampton Roads or Tidewater), and it is 39th on the list and
takes up the entire southeast corner of Virginia just to reach this position!
Charlotte, NC, New Orleans, LA, Winston-Salem-Greensboro, NC, and
Nashville, TN are the only other cities in the South to make the top fifty, for
a grand total of six cities, which between them have a mean of 46th
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Elements of Southern Culture: The Land
Yes, the people of the South are close to their land, and therefore it is
natural that Kibler uses his gift for descriptive narration to bring into the
reader's mind vignettes of the lands he adores.
Ever so subtly, he applies his brushstrokes and so creates visions of his
locale without mentioning specific names too often.
The names he does mention allow the discerning among the readers to know
that he is speaking of an area north and west of Columbia, South Carolina, an
area laid upon rolling hills and possessing ancient forest and lush field alike,
with creeks and streams and rivers leading to basins which have formed lakes. But Kibler does not wish to draw direct attention to his
locale, hence the relative anonymity. He
wishes to draw pictures in the minds of every Southern reader (and even some
Northerners who have traveled in the South) that are at once familiar and
settling. He is drawing the
South for one and all.
Kibler's descriptions of the land itself and its features are usually
short and contain just a few details, but enough detail to draw the image in the
reader's mind, much like an Impressionist's short strokes detail the way
light plays on their subject. Consider
Kibler's description of two young boys' descent to a riverbank in A
Perfect Day for Tyger Fish:
the two wound their way across the valley slopes to the river, the maples and
sassafras burned orange-scarlet as fire coals under giant, arrow-straight tulip
poplars growing gold in the sun. […] The Tyger was moving serene in a glow.
Its tawny, rich waters had a slight cast of green. Its bubbles were as bright a
yellow as the brothers' blond hair, and the sun's reflection in the water
glinted bright in the boys' brown eyes. […] The muscadines on river's edge
were heavy with grapes. Wasps could be heard as they rattled and droned overhead
on the overripe ooze of sweet juice. (55-7)
The description is short, considering that it is
doled out in little bits over three pages.
It is vivid in color, provides a footing on the terrain, and fills in
little details that put the reader right in the scene.
This is typical of Kibler's descriptive passages, as is the way it
weaves its way into the story, surfacing every now and again amongst the people
or the action to add a splash of color or provide further description.
In another story, The Magnolia Fay, Kibler employs a unique,
first-person self-description by the plant itself, which features this dazzling
account of the moment this most Southern of blooms reaches its peak:
wings of the blossoms open white all around, shining white as sea-pearls and
foam from the wave. It is then that I wake most fully from out a deep dream. I
dance in the wind of a soft Southern twilight on petals that glow like my skin,
on petals as living and smooth as my skin. New light from the moon will call me
out wholly in air. The air is heavy with the smell of the bloom, none other
alike-heavy dripping with honey and nectared ambrosia, thick, richest perfume
of the woods and the earth. It is caught in the folds of my swirling and fiery
red hair that tangles and flies like the late purpling sun. (86-7)
This is the love of the land and its bounty.
From the passage and perceptive inferences, a reader can share this magic
experience using the senses directly stimulated: the sight of the colors
described, the twilight sky, soon to be followed by the moon; the sounds of the
oncoming night all around - crickets or maybe cicadas joining in chorus with
the wind blowing through the tree limbs while a dog barks in the distance; the
enticing, seductive scent of the bloom in the nostrils and on the palette,
awakening deep, universal desires; and the touch of the silken petals,
heightened by the caress of the gentle wind.
Again, this is the creation of someone in love with the land around him.
Although the Southerner's love of the land is equally as deep and wide,
there is also a love of place, a man-made addition to the land that
becomes familiar from birth and fulfills the mind's pursuit of security
through this very familiarity. And
so Kibler peppers his land with structures that are familiar to him, and also to
most other Southerners: Great
Houses, covered bridges, cabins, railroad
trestles, clapboard houses with multiple additions, filling stations on the
corners of the main intersections of town, gristmills, and whitewashed churches
are, like pepper to a hot plate of food, part of the accustomed “flavor” of
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Elements of Southern Culture: The People
The people of the South are as much a part of the culture as the land is
because of their relationship to it. Kibler
uses the same kind of techniques to sketch vignettes of his characters as he
does their surrounds, revealing just enough to form a good impression of each
person. In a certain way, Kibler
approaches character development like Michelangelo looked at his sculpted works:
he believed each one was already in the stone, and rather than thinking about
what he might have to do to the marble to make it look like the image in his
mind, he approached it by asking himself what parts of the stone would he need
to take away in order to reveal the image.
Some of his statues are not fully carved out, and still look as if they
are encased in a cube on one or more sides, yet the master artist apparently
felt they were finished and no more clarification was necessary.
The people of Kibler's tales are similarly revealed.
Sometimes the reader is given a person's full name, and other times
just a first or last name, and sometimes just a nickname.
Sometimes the person's habits are cataloged and other times the reader
is simply aware that the person is present in the story.
At points in the book the reader is given to know a character's race,
and other times it is not revealed. Each
detail comes out as the author sees necessary to complete the character for the
reader. And while Kibler brings to
life many Southerners from many different backgrounds, most share some common
traits: raw humanity, a sense of community, and some measure of faith.
The characters within the world depicted by the tales in Child to the
Waters are all unabashedly human, which lends them believability.
No one is candy-coated for a nice story-book snow job about how much
better the South is than some other place.
Humanity is imperfect, and thus so are Southerners.
Hard times and hard circumstances press them as much as any people, and
sometimes the results are not graceful. Kibler's
characters say ugly things about their strange neighbors, apply corporal
punishment (which is unacceptable to some these days), call people names and
taunt them, make mistakes, drink too much, eat too much, and run away from home
to rendezvous with their love. In Da,
the main character of the same name is finally able to return to her own home
after caring for her sick daughter and taking care of her daughter's family
for three months, so her husband Dave comes to bring her home one stormy day.
They have to traverse many miles in the storm, and at one point must walk
across a railroad trestle to pass over a flooded river.
Eager to get home as quickly as possible, Dave took to pulling on Da's
hand to try and get them over the trestle faster.
Looking back, “she remembered his eyes about to start out of his head
when she would stop about every two steps and shout to the Lord to get her off
of that thing. […] Da recalled with a chuckle how she took her old umbrella
and hit Dave spang a lick over his head, at which he dropped her hand and ceased
to pull” (Kibler 24). Few people
would have reacted that way in that situation; the action was questionable at
humanity is also overwhelming in its goodness other times, and the people in
Kibler's world do not disappoint in this measure.
They comfort each other in time of loss, offering encouragement and
giving the gift of stories told to relatives about one who has passed away that
otherwise might pass on with the deceased.
They take in the homeless child to raise as their own.
They care for their families' and communities' people and property.
These are people who know that empirical knowledge is only part of life,
not the whole of it, and accordingly they are content leave some of life's
great mysteries unsolved and just enjoy them.
They give spiritual matters their due place in life.
Even the most feeble-minded Southerner can usually be said to have a big
heart: in The Fool Killer: A Fable for Academics, two such people, Big
Biscuit and Davy-Joe, prove exactly this point: “They had learned at church on
the day just before that old Comer lay sick at the very time when his crops
needed gathering in. So the pair
were just out on their way to help with the harvest in their sick neighbor's
fields” (Kibler 117). The people
of the South have their faults just as other people do but they often more than
make up for them - their raw humanity requires it.
In a recent interview, the author indicated that this is how the South
can look its past in the eye, own up to the mistakes made, and move towards a
better tomorrow for one and all. He
believes that all of the people of the South have enough in common to build a
base upon that our differences will not be able to hinder the inevitable
progress as we journey away from the
A strong sense of community has bonded the people of the South for
generations. Whether it's
gathering to help one of their own who has fallen sick, as illustrated
previously, or gathering around a hot stove on a cold winter's night to share
stories and wisdom, or whether it's keeping vigil over a sick child with her
grandmother - whose family may have at one time in the past held yours in
slavery, or putting aside family feuds for the sake of the future generations,
community - a sense of oneness with one's neighbors and kin - has been the
rule rather than the exception in the South.
The South and the Christian faith have long been closely associated by
most Americans. It's not called
the Bible Belt for nothing. Churches
dot the landscape and cities throughout the region.
Though once in a while the church can be a divisive element in the
community, more often it is a unifier. Across
the lines of demarcation drawn by various denominations, and even between
Catholics and Protestants, and across racial lines, the gospel of Jesus Christ
is the central theme that all involved wish to perpetuate.
Going back to the scene on the railroad trestle and picking up just after
the umbrella incident, Da tells her husband, “I trusts in the Lord and I
ain't letting no mortal man jerk me out'n my prayer” (Kibler 24).
In The Revenge of the Great House, the main character, which is
Kibler himself, states, “his trusty King James was sure and had final,
absolute say. Where God puts a period, you never replace with a comma or big
question mark” (Kibler 94). These
show an unshakable faith in God, a true trust in biblical precepts that exceeds
the trust of a spouse or even oneself. Christianity
has played a major role in the development of Southern culture.
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Elements of Southern Culture: The Stories
The stories Kibler presents are part extant folklore and part new
creation, and this is highly symbolic of how the ways and stories and songs of
old are mixed with new to make hybrid works.
This special alchemy is the nutriment that will feed today's young so
that they can complete the cycle by stirring in a bit of their own ingredients
one day. Kibler identifies himself
as being of Celtic descent and it is evident by his penchant for story and song,
a hallmark of that much older culture.
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himself as a bard of old, Kibler has written stories to tickle the ears of young
ones, and pass wisdom to them when they are old enough to have ears to hear, and
yet he has encased Southern culture in a living diorama.
He has shown how the world looks to a typical Southerner: a close
relationship with the land yields an abundant life, a tempered self esteem helps
handle the raw humanity of self and overcome the weaknesses thereof, cultivating
a sense of community forms good relations with others, spiritual needs must be
met and not dismissed if a fulfilled life is desired, and lastly, life is too
short to fail to enjoy tale, song, and dance.
The author's own words about himself form a fitting description:
bard is a lover of the unseen. In his country, ambiguity can rest easily at the
hearth. Here it is faith limited to the laboratory that is misshapen and out of
place. The impoverishment of no belief is the rightful stranger here, having no
seat in the communal ring at the fire. Our bard's realm is thus a joyful land
of manifold richness, where the spirit holds absolute sway. (11)
May he continue to write his Celtic-tinged stories of the land and people of the South.
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Kibler, James Everett. Child to the Waters.
Gretna, LA: Pelican
James Everett. Personal interview.
12 March 2004.
United States. Federal Communications Commission. Consumer & Governmental Affairs Bureau.
The 100 Largest Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs). 17
November 2003. 24 April 2004.
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A "Great House" of the South.