Ozark Night Before Christmas
By Amanda McWilliams, illustrated by James Rice, Pelican Publishing, Gretna, La., hardcover children's book, $15.95.
This might not be the worst book in the history of the world. It's not even the all-time worst Arkansas-related book, as several of Bro.-Gov. Huckabee's earnest tomes give him a virtual lock on that honor. But it might be the worst Christmas book ever. And it certainly surely gives Clement Clarke Moore's classic Christmas poem such a dialectical drubbing as it is never likely to have to endure again. Man, it really reeks.
Lest you think I exaggerate, here is author Amanda McWilliams' hillbilly-accented variation on the poem's famous opening stanza:
"Twere Christmas Eve, an' mist a-crept off the crick.
An' the col' winner drizzly was a-comin' down thick."
No, really. I swear that's the entire, unaltered text of the opening page. It is supposed to enchant the kiddie readers, draw them into the tale. It is not meant to make them cringe, or retch, or make faces, though all those effects are likely of achievement. And the mountain-minor rhyme doesn't get any less painful on page 2:
"Snores o' thunder rattl't from Paw an' Maw,
But I lay wake t'ketch Santy, with m' dawg Arkansaw. We'uns kep' up all evenin', past midnight I reckin,
When that coonhound jump't up, a-sniffin' out sumpthin'."
I'm tempted to go on -- just to prove to you that as you continue to think page after page that it can't possibly get any more awful it continues to prove page after page that it damn shore can. But to go much further quotationally would be a cruelty to everyone concerned.
A terse synopsis, then: The narrator is an unnamed "tyke" who in the attendant illustrations appears to a twixt-12-and-20 boy, rather a dim bulb (probably from inbreeding), like one of the Darlings or the banjo retard from "Deliverance." He and the dog creep from their Ozarks shack out into the Holy Night and espy Santy a-paddling up the crick in a dugout canoe! Honest to God, he's come in a boat! Santy looks like an old hobo in "overhalls," and in place of reindeer the only critters he's brought along are a raccoon perched on his shoulder and a bat entangled in his beard. Word of honor, a coon and a bat. Why, you might wonder. Anyway, why the bat? Just to reassure readers, if not the boy and dog, why not at least a glowing red nose on the raccoon?
There are other questions -- such as why, if even the stupid houn' dawg rates a name, the narrator/hero doesn't Ñ and the short answer to them all seems to be that there just isn't room in a short seasonal poem to elaborate local color. Which would seem to undermine this whole project, and doom it to failure, if logic can be brought to bear on such a thing.
Santy has a goody sack, and he accompanies the boy and dog back to the cabin, where they have to convince Paw not to waste Santy with his shootin' arn. Paw wants to make Santy try to clim' down the chimbley, perhaps to prove he's not a revenooer, and you can sense him nudging Santy in that direction with the gun. Once back inside, though, Maw is downright hospitable:
"Maw said, 'Well, howdy! Come an' rest by the fahr.
Bring yer varmints in too. You-uns mus' be bone tarr.'"
Bone tarr! I swear on the sacred memory of Jubilation T. Cornpone that I'm quoting this masterpiece exactly as Amanda McWilliams, a Little Rock native who now lives in Louisiana, wrote it, and as Pelican Publishing Co. of Gretna, La., published it, and I will cease and desist forthwith. I'm sorry to have brought you this far. The original of this old poem has some lovely metaphors and thrilling turns of phrase, and I recommend it without reservation, but don't subject your young'uns, even if you don't like them very much, even if they're perfect little monsters, to this Hiawatha batbeard detour version.
The jacket notes reveal that "Ozark Night Before Christmas" is one of a long series of ethnic "Night Before Christmases" from the same publisher going all the way back to the "Cajun Night Before Christmas" of 1973, and including such exotic numbers as the "Cowboy Night Before Christmas" and the "Trucker's Night Before Christmas." One imagines that the series peaked with the "Pennsylvania Dutch Night Before Christmas" in 2000. It's hard to imagine what "Ozark Night Before Christmas" might have added to the hick lore that the "Hillbilly Night Afore Christmas" of 1983 lacked. There was also a "Redneck Night Before Christmas" in 1997, and if it wasn't set in a doublewide, in Pine Bluff or Bogalusa or outside of Lufkin, a rare opportunity, perhaps a unique one, was wasted.
This is a children's book, of course, and if you really do plan to inflict it on your unsuspecting offspring, be prepared to explain that the back cover illustration really is totally innocent of implications of impending bestiality. Anyway, that's what it looked like to me, but probably you have to have a dirty mind for such a thing even to occur to you.
Other new books that might be of particular interest to Arkansas readers:
Rowdy Memphis: The South Unscripted
By John Branston, Cold Tree Press, Nashville, paperback, $15.95.
The many faces of the city across the river, as reported by its most consistently interesting and readable journalist of the last 25 years. He ventures into Arkansas, Mississippi and middle Tennessee, too. This isn't a guide book, nor is it a book about Elvis, the blues, or barbecue; it's about politics and business and icons and public affairs. About a city as elusive in many ways as its ancient namesake. Eclectic; insightful.
Religion in the American South: Protestants and Others in History and Culture
Edited by Beth Barton Schweiger and Donald G. Mathews, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, paperback, $19.95.
Here's a really interesting and thoughtful selection of essays on Southern religion, and it should receive extra attention because of the impact that the yahoo Dixie churches had on the recent election. With the insights and background that this book provides, you might not feel any better about what happened at the polls last month, but you'll have a clearer idea of why it happened, and what it is that these characters are thinking.
One of the editors of the book, Beth Barton Schweiger, is assistant professor of history at the University of Arkansas. She has written at least one other book, about religion in the South in the 19th century. Another Arkansan is the subject of one of the most illuminating of the book's essays. That would be Sister Rosetta Tharp, who became a national celebrity in the 1940s as one of the first and certainly the greatest of the black-woman "guitar evangelists" who created the gospel-music movement and style. Sister Tharp deserves her own big biography Ñ and what a swell movie could be made of her life. Jerma Jackson, a North Carolina historian, wrote the essay about her here, entitled "Sister Rosetta Tharp and the Evolution of Gospel Music."
The Uncivil War: Irregular Warfare in the Upper South, 1861-1865
By Robert R. Mackey, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, hardcover, $34.94.
This quiet, tragic study by a career military man would be a good place to start in understanding the Civil War from the perspective of Arkansas. His first two chapters contemplate the guerrilla warfare in the Ozarks that turned into something much more savage, and then he widens his scope to treat irregular warfare across the entire mountainous Upper South. It's not a pretty picture and lends no credence to romantic interpretations of the war. Daniel Sutherland of the University of Arkansas, who is the great authority on the war in this theater, says Mackey's book represents "the first scholarly attempt to grapple with the complexities of the guerrilla war" in this region. The Arkansas chapters of "The Uncivil War" appeared in different form in a critically acclaimed book published by the University of Arkansas Press in 1999, entitled "Guerrillas, Unionists, and Violence on the Confederate Home Front," and edited by Sutherland.
'Scuse Me While I Whip This Out: Reflections on Country Singers, Presidents, and Other Troublemakers
By Kinky Friedman, William Morrow/HarperCollins, New York, hardcover, $22.95.
Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys were one of the few good things country-Western music had going for it the last quarter of the 20th century. Kinky still writes songs, but his writing has moved out in other eccentric directions, too. He's said to have written 17 mystery novels, with himself as narrator/hero, and a couple of mainstream novels, one of which, "Kill Two Birds and Get Stoned," is hailed in the publicity for the new book as having been a national bestseller. Maybe it was and maybe it wasn't: With Kinky you never know, and anyway, who cares?
"Scuse Me While I Whip This Out" is a typically lame Kinky title, typically stolen from Jimi Hendrix (his version of it was pretty lame, too), and it represents Kinky's debut as a writer of short, humorous non-fiction. Some of this stuff is really funny and a whole lot of it is not. It's sort of like what Groucho Marx might've done if he'd been Will Rogers. Or if Hunter Thompson, only half blitzed, hallucinated about being both Groucho and Will Rogers trapped in the same body, and that body was Texan, Jewish, Republican, a friend to Joseph Heller, Bob Dylan, Bertrand Russell and George W. Bush, and was a former Peace Corpsman assigned to teach farming to a primitive people who had been already perfectly good farmers for more than 4,000 years.
Kinky is currently running for governor of Texas with the campaign slogan of "Why the Hell Not?" The election isn't till 2006, so the slogan really ought to be "At This Point, Who the Hell Cares?" His main platform plank is that he would outlaw the declawing of cats. Either this book is being brought out to promote his gubernatorial campaign, or the gubernatorial campaign was just a gimmick to promote this book. Either way, it's something different, and can kill a couple of hours for you. My favorites were his ventures into travel writing. Don't be fooled: This is really a cosmopolitan man.