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Life and Death in a Small Town: Memories of Shubuta, Mississippi
by Gayle Graham Yates
LSU Press, 2004
Trade paper, $24.95 (215 pages) 
ISBN: 0-8071-2937-2
 
 
 

About half an hour’s drive south of Meridian on U.S. Highway 45 one finds Shubuta, Mississippi—Population 675. Small town southern life has long been a prime source of material for southern writers, and Gayle Graham Yates has gone home to the banks of the Chickasawhay River to chronicle the history of her birthplace. 

Yates, a professor emerita of American Studies at the University of Minnesota, brings a scholar’s scrupulousness with sources to her history of “shoe-Booty,” as the locals humorously call it. Using archival material, newspapers, letters, and an old trunk full of memorabilia left by Miss Mary “Auntie” Weems,” Yates measures her words with great care based as much as possible on the records available to her. In one sense, this kind of professional attention to documentary evidence is remarkable given that Yates is writing about her home town, and she is to be commended for not romanticizing Shubuta. 

Like much of the rest of the South, piney woods Shubuta bears its own burden of racial conflict. In 1917, five black “people” were hanged without trial for murder from the bridge over the Chickasawhay, from which it acquired its name, “The Hanging Bridge.” Again in 1942, two black teenagers were lynched for scaring a white girl—so the stories say. Neither incident was ever investigated; no suspects ever identified. Interestingly, Yates does not shape her account of Shubuta—the name meaning “smoky” in Choctaw—around these events, nor does she aggressively inquire about them. Instead, they provide a tonal counterpoint to much in the book that is affirmative, and Yates’s intention seems to be to present her place of origin, the land, the settlement, and the people of Shubuta, all in plain view and with little passion. 

As the map of the South continues to reshape itself and Atlanta grows beyond recognition, towns like Shubuta frequently diminish, sometimes simply “drying up,” as the phrase goes. Beyond the hard facts of demographics is an even more significant development: the disappearance of southern culture itself thanks to a postindustrial society that flattens distinctive speech, abolishes regional difference, and steamrolls local businesses under the global economies of scale pioneered by southerner Sam Walton. Yates’s portrait wrestles ambivalently with the facts of life in a changing Shubuta. Attitudes toward race have moderated, but the elite families and businesses have largely fled. The town no longer has its own schools, but a new federal Post Office has been built. Residents talk for the first time about locking their doors at night, but Yates seems to find comfort in the fact that Shubutans have been lifted out of their provincial isolation and now participate in the national culture beaming directly into their homes.  

There is no cast of eccentric characters waiting for the reader in Yates’s memoir, and she does not invent them to satisfy the demand for Weltean peculiarity. With this book Yates has contributed to the demythologizing of the South, a region we sometimes see less clearly because of southern writers and their penchant for what is strange. Life and Death in a Small Southern Town will strike a familiar chord with millions of small town southerners, both those who have left and those who have remained.

 

Vince Brewton
Southern Scribe Reviews

 

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