Of course my mother will forever remember it as the book I twice tried to steal from the local library (first inadvertently, then again later, less so) after learning it was out of print.
Which should be recommendation enough in itself–that such a book would spur to criminal intent an otherwise law-abiding kid such as I was.
[With the advent of eBay years later, I was finally-at-last able to victoriously–and legally–obtain a copy to call my own.]
Summary: Set in Charleston during the Great Depression, the story follows “twelve-year-old Izard and beautiful fifteen-year-old Julien,” the orphaned children of Charleston’s fictitious you-can-never-go-home-again author, as they sell the family heirlooms and move South to live with relatives they’ve never met: their grandmother Duchess, whose “vigorous hobby is preserving the Southern heritage and other old things, including herself”; their eccentric great-uncle Eleck, an historian “currently laboring on the History of Loblolly Plantation 1710-1865, in sixteen volumes; and February, the incomparable butler with a fondness for okra soup and a deep gratitude for a new-fangled invention called the washing machine.
Southerly: If the city of Charleston itself is not a strong enough character in this story to qualify this novel as Southern on that basis alone (the food, the names, the vernacular language and colloquialisms, the Gullah accent), the novel’s other merits surely warrant it an uncontested place in grit lit*.
Loblolly meets just about all of the generally acknowledged tenets of Southern literature:
- sense of place: Charleston (very much so), often with a specific focus on a house (in this case, two houses);
- sense of the past: The careful documentation of the past life of a plantation; the preservation of just about everything; the uneasy family relations from past events;
- emphasis on story-telling and the love of language: Deceased father was a writer; characters participate in actual story-telling; the colloquialisms, accents, and vernacular of characters, including the Gullah accent and even the songs of street huckster; the general tone and diction of the author, who himself is knowingly recounting the story;
- depiction of class and/or race: Being an old book set in an even older time period, tensions of race and class are evident throughout, and the book handles these with candor, cheek and a heap of irony. The following are good examples of this kind of irony: the well-to-do white socialites have formed a society to preserve slave spirituals [which they rehearse with gusto and in costume]; the social standing of the white aristocrats is determined in part by being recognized and remembered by the black butler; and the butler in one scene instructs the young white sub-debutante how to behave on King Street.**
Lest this become a dissertation, suffice it to say that family, exile, displacement, religion & the grotesque are represented as well!
Superlatives: Witty, regional, quirky, hilarious, and perfect. As a child I enjoyed this novel for its engaging story and zany characters; upon revisiting it in my adult years not only do I still enjoy it but I admire its easy style and pace, its tailored characterizations of person and place, and its seamless weaving of strong personalities, bits of history and vernacular verity into a narrative full of humor and eccentricity. A fun read that is accessible for adolescent readers and still entertaining for adults.
Lagniappe (a little something thrown in for good measure):
As they appear in the novel, a few Gullah phrases for your edification and pleasure…
- mend-the-pace ~ hurry
- bittle ~ food
- crack-a-day ~ sun-up
- sun-high ~ noon
- marsh-tacky ~ half-starved horse
- money gone to bed ~ money that makes interest while you sleep
If you have the pleasure of acquiring this delightful work (from eBay or the local library or a used bookstore somewhere), I know oonuh (“you”) will love it too, easy as kiss-your-hand!
Details: Gilbreth, Frank B., Jr. Loblolly. New York: Thomas Y. Cromwell Company, 1959.
Gilbreth, along with his sister Ernestine Gilbreth Carey, wrote the book Cheaper by the Dozen and its sequel, Belles on Their Toes. These stories recount their childhood growing up in a large family of twelve children; their parents were the famous efficiency experts Frank and Lillian Gilbreth. Gilbreth and Carey both published other works, which are now, for the most part, also out of print.
- Here the term “grit lit” is used to refer collectively and casually to literature about and of the South, not to denote the sub-genre of Southern writing (“Grit Lit”) aligned more primarily with grimmer portrayals of the grotesque.
** In discussions of race and ethnicity as pertains to cultural elements of the South (e.g., literature, music, etc.), this site will use “white” and “black” generally, and “African-American” to refer to individuals born in Africa who later moved to America.
Book cover photo courtesy of Amazon via a Google search.