Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Reading Local

Roots & Rabbis

Eat local. You can't escape this directive these days, it's there on the screen every time you turn on the internet. To that end there are farmers markets and dinner parties serving nothing but locally grown or butchered fare. The community at large is rallying around the agrarian community.

I've recently made the decision and a concerted effort to read local. Memphis is home to, or has given birth to, many fine writers. The land here seems almost as fertile for short stories, novels, essays and memoirs as it is for tomatoes, okra, radishes and melons. The literary community has roots that run deep in the Delta.

While at the beach last week, I finished "The Roots of the Olive Tree" by Courtney Miller Santo and immediately picked up "The Frozen Rabbi" by Steve Stern. Santo is an Oregon native now calling Memphis home while Stern is a Memphis native residing in upstate New York.

Both books are multigenerational with Santo's Anna Keller, the family matriarch, born in 1894, and Stern's Rabbi Eliezer ben Zephyr frozen in time in 1890. Both books are also steeped in secrets known and unknown. In "Roots of the Olive Tree," a geneticist comes to Hill  House, the family home set among olive groves in Kidron, California, to study the longevity of firstborn daughters, and clues and hints are gleaned from stories told and blood drawn. In "The Frozen Rabbi," the secrets hidden by Max Feinshmeker are kept under wraps - kept under layers of clothing - to keep him anonymous and alive; Shmerl Karp's equine lair is an intriguing laboratory of pulleys and cranks that will yield the mysteries held aloft.

Both books are also steeped in age - the age of the olive trees and women, the age of traditions and lore - yet driven by youth. When the youngest, Erin, shows up at Hill House unannounced and pregnant, the women of the family rally around her protectively even as family secrets seek to turn her world, and theirs, upside down. There are questions she wants resolved and chapters put to an end before her own child is born. And when the Rebbe ben Zephyr thaws after more than a century, it is 15-year-old Bernie Karp, a descendant of those entrusted with the safekeeping of the frozen tzaddik, who discovers him and introduces him to the present age, ways and culture.

Stern's book, while riddled with more Yiddish than drawl, is nonetheless colored by the South and with recognizable cultural and concrete landmarks to Memphians such as the Harahan Bridge, Pinch District, local newspaper and various city streets. Santo's book takes place almost entirely in the Pacific Northwest, yet its theme of family, storytelling and the tendency to come together over an item of food is instantly recognizable to all of us from the area. In fact, family is at the root of both novels and both storytellers are adept at bringing alive the individual characters and characteristics that detail each tribe as a whole.

Read local. There are nuances and details within these books and stories that one might only get from a local writer, whether they are in a manner of speaking, a reference to an obscure cultural icon, food or even weather pattern. They are details that will leave you nodding your head and whispering, "yes." Any bookstore in the area should have a section devoted to local writers, this is your farmers market. These books may not make up the bulk of your shopping list, but there should be one or two thrown in to add some homegrown flavor to your literary feast. Memphis is replete with good writers from fiction - Stern, Santo, Cary Holladay, Corey Mesler - to nonfiction - Kristen Iversen, G. Wayne Dowdy, Molly Crosby. And then, of course, there are those no longer with us - Shelby Foote, Peter Taylor and William Faulkner.

Buy their books, attend their readings, alert your friends both near and far of the tales they tell. These writers should be staples on anyone's shelf, for the health of our imagination and of our community.

The Frozen Rabbi by Steve Stern
2010, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill

The Roots of the Olive Tree by Courtney Miller Santo
Available Aug. 2012, William Morrow

Read more about Santo here