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Wednesday, July 08, 2015

From the Pen of...Eudora Welty

Eudora Welty was a prolific writer of short stories and novels focusing on the American South. She won many awards over her lifetime, including the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1973 for The Optimist's Daughter. Her best known short stories include "The Death of a Traveling Salesman" and "A Worn Path." Experience the delights of Welty's acclaimed southern voice in one of her less well-known novels, Delta Wedding.

Delta Wedding begins with nine-year-old Laura McRaven traveling through Mississippi on the Yellow Dog to attend the wedding of her cousin Dabney. Laura’s mother has recently died, and she looks forward to the embrace of the infamous Fairchild clan to ease her sadness and loneliness. She is met by a clamor of family who sweep her away to Shellmound, the family cotton plantation on the banks of the Yazoo River. The year is 1923, and the South is picking up war fragments with the rest of the country, but the way of the manor is being threatened on all sides, economically and socially, and certainly within the Fairchild household. The Negro “help” (who get paid with bills that have been washed and ironed since new bills are no longer readily available) is the easel on which the Fairchilds rest.

Battle and Ellen Fairchild have nine children and number ten is on the way. As the extended family moves in and out with enormous presence and fanfare, they bring the daily hum to a roar. Conversations fly in all directions, seldom connecting with clarity and always relegating subjects of delicacy to mere allusions, anointing all unpleasantness with the fairy dust of denial. The Fairchilds love and hate, approve and reject, disparage and embrace within the safety of their circle, and history steadies them.

The focal point of the book is the wedding of 17 year-old Dabney who is marrying Troy Flavin, the overseer of the plantation. On the verge of adulthood, Dabney longs to both defy and uphold the traditions that have served her all her life but is having trouble setting boundaries. Troy handles the Negro help, quashing all problems, insulating the Fairchild way of life. Their marriage strains the family’s social fabric, although the idolized Uncle George has also married into the working class before her. But he has status in the family. She’s a beginner.

There is no other linear action in the book, but Welty’s brush paints a languid, loving portrait of the Delta. When she moves outside the cacophony of family you see a land “that shimmers like a lighted dragonfly wing.” You are swept through bayous with black whirlpools of danger and mystery; fields of lemon lilies, mint, cosmos and honeysuckle; the heat of the clay roads; and the dark cool of the cypress. Your heart nearly breaks with her love of it.

It is the South. The Fairchilds. But, really, the world.

-Lois Glick, Great Falls Library

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