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Sitting Up With the Dead:
A Storied Journey Through the American South
By Pamela Petro
Arcade Publishing, 2002
Hardcover, $25.95 (432 pages with photographs)
ISBN: 1-55970-612-0
 
 
 

Pamela Petro, who lives in Northampton, Massachusetts, claims Rhode Island as home, and who has traveled extensively in southern England and Ireland, has taken Southern storytellers as the topic for her book, Sitting Up With the Dead.

As a child growing up in the northeast, her only associations with the south were the television images of "blurred scenes of race riots and fierce men with fire hoses, dogs attacking crowds of protesters, and marchers in pointy hats and white sheets. The South looked like the site of a haunting: a dream world, not a waking one."

She maintains, " .... scratch the surface of nearly all Yankees and there remains a prejudice against the South, an unvoiced, but understood, moral superiority."

In an effort to find, "a sense of my country as a place, .... and on a personal level, a voice....." Petro decided to travel through the American South using the oral tradition of storytelling as her guide. On her four journeys, each starting from Providence, Rhode Island, she traveled as far south as Hernando and Cedar Key, Florida and as far west as Mansura, Louisiana. Her travels took her into wealthy South Carolina communities, working class mining communities in West Virginia, and the radically changed city of Selma, Alabama. 

Each of the storytellers offered her Southern hospitality in addition to their stories and tales. Ray Hicks, a National Heritage Fellow; Kathyrn Tucker Windham, Alabama's "ghost lady"; and two time Grammy Award winner David Holt are among the better known "tellers." She heard stories rooted in Native American, West African, English, and Irish folklore. Tricksters, singing turtles, mule eggs, ghosts, plateyes, and boo-hags all take their places blending and changing the oral traditions from which they came. 

Along the way, Petro confronts her expectations, prejudices, and anxieties with the help of friends, a fine bottle of Scotch, and a well-honed sense of irony. Unwilling to ignore any opportunity, she's rewarded with the gift of answers to her questions. 

Sitting Up with the Dead is thought-provoking, literary in the best sense of the word, and provides a fine introduction to the oral traditions of the South for first time readers. 

Pamela Petro has contributed to The New York Times travel section, Atlantic Monthly, Islands, and Forbes publications.

 

Pam Kingsbury
Southern Scribe Reviews

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