I had so many literary loves in my youth that it is a puzzler, trying to nail down that definitive book that stayed longest and wrought the most change. Truly a dozen titles come to mind, though the story that continues to speak to me in middle age was penned by a good-natured British linguist named J R R Tolkien long before I was born. The book is The Hobbit. Try as I might, I cannot think how I came upon this charming little fantasy — I was raised in a culture that prized children’s lit for its hardline moralizing, and The Hobbit had hardly a moral at all, other than the assurance that the ordinary personality — in this case, Bilbo Baggins — could successfully complete the most extraordinary adventures if he is but willing.
And though I came to love it and reread dozens of times, I will confess that at first, I was not especially taken by the jolly descriptions of Bilbo’s round door and garden, his lack of height and his hairy feet. I was a child of the hardscrabble South, and was willing to entertain a good bit of magic in my religion, but in books, preferred realism to whimsy. But as the story unfolded, I found I had much in common with the shy, complacent Bilbo. I, too, had a Took side — mine not attributable to elfish blood, but to my maternal grandmother, who was of Alabama Huguenot extraction. Like Belladonna Took, she was considered a bit odd by her more conservative kin; given to writing poetry and plays; to wearing feathered hats and favoring the color lavender.
Bilbo’s Took side is the part of him that gets him drawn into his grand adventure, and as soon as I met the dwarfs, I was, of course, charmed, as they are the true Southerners of the piece: impatient, overly-polite, demanding, head-strong, and possessed of a mean sense of grievance toward a boasting enemy: the dragon Smaug. Tolkien makes much fun of them throughout the book — from their quarrelsome fights, their bad luck, their stamping impatience — that I felt a keen kinship, and an even keener kinship with the Ultimate Realist, Bilbo. Hapless, tired, and always on the look-out for the next meal, Bilbo speaks for the Everyman — or in my case, Every child — as he stumbles his way through every challenge that befalls him, some more honorably than others. Despite his ineptitude, his uselessness as a burglar, and his ongoing, droll misgivings, by force of his tenacity and his sheer wits, he continually lives up to Gandalf’s estimation, enough to outwit trolls, goblins, and one nasty Gollum.
By the time they have made it over the Misty Mountains and to the dragon’s lair, I was frankly proud of Bilbo’s mouthy give and take with Smaug, and even more impressed with his humility when he confesses to the dwarves how difficult it is, really, not to fall under a dragon’s spell. But he succeeds in this, as in all — imperfectly, but resolutely — and when even the hardy dwarves succumb to the lure of the treasure and war is imminent, it is Bilbo — no longer an ingénue, but sly enough to sneak through enemy lines and parlay with the king, who ultimately saves the day.
When Bilbo returns to the Shire, he is much changed after his adventure, as we all are after this sort of journey of discovery tale, which is at the heart of every true novel. My latest, American Ghost, is opposite The Hobbit in every detail. A historical romance, it is set in contemporary rural west Florida, and recounts how a young woman and a town are forced to come to terms with a shameful secret — a gristly lynching that took place sixty years before, and is long buried in silence. There are no magical bears, wizards, and nary a hair foot in sight, but it, too, is a journey of discovery, of a woman raised in a country as dragon-haunted as Bilbo’s, who overcomes as many deadly obstacles to fulfill her destiny and find her voice.
It is the heart of all heroes’ tales.
We’re giving away a copy of Janis’ novel today. Leave a comment on this post as an entry.
JOLIE HOYT IS A GOOD SOUTHERN GIRL living in Hendrix, a small Florida Panhandle town. The daughter of a Pentecostal preacher who sells insurance on the side, and the best friend of a lively beauty who moves to the big city to pursue a career in interior design, Jolie is all too aware of her family’s closet full of secrets and long-held distrust of outsiders. Nevertheless, she throws caution to the wind when she meets Sam Lense, a Jewish anthropology student from Miami, who is in town to study the ethnic makeup of the region.
Jolie and Sam fall recklessly in love and dream of beginning a life together, far away from Jolie’s buried past. But their affair ends abruptly when Sam is discovered to have pried too deeply into Hendrix’s dark racial history and he becomes the latest victim in a long tradition of small-town violence.
Twelve years later, when a black businessman from Memphis returns to Hendrix to do right by his father’s memory, Jolie and Sam are brought together again. They are forced to revisit the unresolved issues of their young love and finally shed light on the ugly history of Jolie’s hometown.
A complex and compulsively readable Southern saga, continuing in the tradition established by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and brought into the new millennium by writers like Karen Russell and Kathryn Stockett, American Ghost was inspired by Janis Owens’s extensive research on a real lynching that occurred in 1934 in Marianna, Florida.
American Ghost is a richly woven exploration of how the events of our past haunt our present.