Southern Scribe
    our culture of storytelling


 Memoir Review   

My Grandfather's Finger
By Edward Swift; photographs by Lynn Lennon
University of Georgia, 1999
Hardcover, $18.95 (246 pages)
ISBN: 0-8203-2100-1

One of the singular traits of Southern literature has to be its emphasis on a sense of place. Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County, Welty's Delta, Percy's New Orleans, Wolfe's Asheville, and Taylor's Tennessee country provide not only a sense of home and its attendant joys and pains but also a sense of identity that is inextricably bound to a particular place. In the South, as in no other region, where we're from is who we are. 

Novelist Swift offers us his reminiscences about his own place, the Big Thicket area of East Texas. He recollects the joyful weirdness of a world of eccentric characters and idiosyncratic religious practices. Swift recalls that the relatives he grew up around were the "wildest of dreamers and the maddest of madmen…they were rabid individualists." And they were storytellers: "They were similarly marked with loose tongues and poetic speech. Not only did they live their lives as if they were characters springing from the pages of a book, they were front porch storytellers of the highest order."

Swift inherits his ancestors' penchant for a rollicking good tale as well as their ability to "enlarge upon a story while keeping it rooted in the truth."

In a series of humorous vignettes, Swift offers us a panoply of images of his weird and wonderful family. We meet his grandfather Brown, who was at once a man of God with "glassy eyes focused on the far away" and an addict of cough syrup. One day as he is out cutting a path through the Thicket with his machete, he accidentally severs the first finger of his left hand. Grandfather Brown simply put the finger in his pocket and carried it home, where Swift's Aunt Coleta pickled it in a jar and used it to discipline children. 

We also meet Hardy Cain, who lives in a fallout shelter he calls Rapture's Heights, playing any one of the numerous fiddles he has carved out of trees in his surrounding yard. Cain chooses a particular tree from which to carve the instrument because he can hear the music locked in the wood and his fiddle will free that music. We're introduced to Louise Owens, a flamboyant itinerant Pentecostal preacher who tries to baptize Swift's grandmother. We also meet Roy Pate, who cross-dresses every year to lead the Dogwood Festival Parade and Jethro Holmes, an ex-bootlegger who sold firewood from a wagon pulled up and down the streets by two oxen named Tom and Jerry. 

Swift's good-natured affection for his homeplace and its residents make us long to tell the stories of our own homeplaces and our deep bonds to them.


Henry L. Carrigan, Jr.
Southern Scribe Reviews

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