Memoir Review 

Southern Book Critics Circle Non-Fiction Book of 2000
Ecology of a Cracker Childhood
by Janisse Ray
Milkweed Edition, 2000
ISBN: 1-57131-247-1

 

Before I start my review of Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, I feel the need to admit to being a native of this area, in fact I am only an hour from Janisse Ray’s home.  I am also a tree farmer and a conservationist.  So, this book hit me on several levels that it may not touch others; but first and foremost, I found the memoir to be honest to a raw level and poetically beautiful about the region. 

Janisse Ray, using skills of a genealogist and anthropologist, digs into the history of the longleaf pine in south Georgia and blends it into the history of her family.  She shares the family folklore of how her parents shared a romantic walk in the woods and discovered Janisse as a babe, as if the trees produced her for them and thus she was a “child of the pines.” 

Lee Ada, her mother, was a direct line descendent of Wilson Baxley, the namesake of the south Georgia town.  Lee Ada’s parents probably had higher hopes for their daughter then to marry Franklin Ray.  A minister, who refused to perform the vows within the church walls for fear of Lee Ada’s father wrath, secretly married them.   Lee Ada and Franklin were a true match.  They raised their family at the junkyard they owned, where Franklin collected and sold parts from old automobiles.  Lee Ada had a large collection of figurines inside the house.  

Franklin Ray’s family history was brutal and self-preservation.  Also, a history of mental illness was present.  Charlie Ray, Franklin’s father, took refuge in the woods as a young boy.  Janisse learned the treasures of the pines from him.  Charlie Ray was a colorful character in life.  He was known as a fighter, and one spur of the moment brawl with a customer closed his successful restaurant. 

Janisse Ray shares the mental turmoil of her father as she was growing up.  Her mother was the only one who could reach him and bring him to a calm healing.  When that didn’t work, he stayed in the state hospital in Milledgeville.   Her mother lovingly carried her children there to visit as he heals.  A clue to Georgia’s mental illness history is given through the words of a doctor.  The doctor credits poor diets and eating an excess of corn during the Civil War as a leading cause of southern mental illness. 

Her father followed radio evangelist Bishop Johnson, whose followers were called Apostolics.  He found an Apostolic church in Brunswick, two hours away.  The Rays traveled each Sunday to the church there.  The religion believed in fasting for a spiritual quest, so the Rays didn’t eat or drink until sundown two days a week.   

Natural history is a strong part of Ray’s memoir.  She gives the history of the longleaf pine through it’s legend of fire.  Endangered species are described through childhood memories, and her experiences as she became an environmentalist.  Ray ends the book with lists of endangered species and longleaf resources. 

You come away from this book wanting to take the attack that Janisse Ray has softly ordered through the history of Crackers and disappearing southern landscape.  Ecology of a Cracker Childhood would be an excellent addition to Georgia secondary curriculum.  

Joyce Dixon
Southern Scribe Reviews

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