- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 5, 2004

QUEEN OF THE TURTLE DERBY AND OTHER SOUTHERN PHENOMENA

By Julia Reed

Random House, $22.95, 180 pages

REVIEWED BY STEPHEN GOODE

This is a very funny, laugh-out-loud-and-often kind of book. Julia Reed, who grew up in Greenville, Miss., sets out to answer one question that’s been gnawing on her mind: Is the South as it’s been known for nearly two centuries dead, swallowed up by shopping malls, suburbia and fast-food chains so that it looks and acts just like the rest of America?

It’s something she’s heard from sociologists and other bean-counters, that Dixie is gone, that the South and its ways have been defeated (much as they were after the Civil War) by the overwhelming power of progress, if that is what it is. Thanks to the irresistible force of American modernity, Des Moines today is just like Atlanta and Lafayette County, Miss., is indistinguishable from Orange County, Calif.

Or so say some sociologists, but Julia Reed, a senior writer at Vogue and contributing writer at Newsweek, doesn’t buy it — doesn’t buy it for a minute, and she tells us why not in innumerable anecdotes and essays that are a pleasure, no, a joy to read.

By the end of her book, not only is the reader convinced that the South of gracious manners and startling eccentrics continues to exist, that reader is very likely to envy anyone who can claim the Southern heritage the author describes so well.

For example, she offers the following as evidence that Southern femininity, one of the South’s staples, still thrives despite deep inroads of feminism elsewhere in the country: “I once saw three Chi Omegas jogging on the Ole Miss campus at seven-thirty in the morning in pale pink sweatsuits, full makeup, and perky pony tails tied with matching pink bows.”

Case closed. How can such proof be denied? Or how about this eponymous example, as further proof of Dixie’s perdurability: “Every year since 1930, a turtle race known officially as the Lepanto Terrapin Derby has been run on a sixty-foot race course in downtown Lepanto, Arkansas.

“The derby only lasts about fifteen to twenty minues, but the festival staged around it goes on all day and usually features a performance by an Elvis impersonator and, of course, the crowning of the Turtle Derby Queen.”

Of such festivals is the culture of the South formed. In this part of the world it is not surprising, Miss Reed correctly notes, that “every city and every town is blessed with a pageant lady, one of those women who gets her hands on girls early, and who steers them — with their mothers’ blessings — from Miss Toddler Hospitality all the way to Atlantic City if they’re lucky.”

What makes the South unique? One thing is the need to look good, and that means looking just right. “Keeping up appearances — the appearance of wealth, the appearance of breeding, the appearance of piety — is a particularly Southern art form,” the author contends.

Looking just right amounts to a great deal more than donning clothes with expensive labels. “There’s more to getting dressed here than putting on an Armani suit and feeling fashionable and presentable.” Indeed, a great deal more: “The thing all of us, from the Carolinas to the Delta, have in common is the desire to look like women in every sense of the word.”

Another factor that makes the South Southern is its food. Miss Reed includes superb recipes for George Jones Sausage Balls (a recipe she got from the great country singer himself), for that strange Southern concoction called the frozen tomato (it’s not frozen at all) and for (of course) fried chicken.

Indeed, she becomes positively lyrical when it comes to writing about fried chicken. “To the Southerner, there is simply no other food that possesses the stature of fried chicken,” she writes, and then describes that made by her family’s cook, the incomparable Lottie Martin.

“She really did cook the best fried chicken in the world. And even though I conservatively estimate that I ate more than a thousand pieces of it before she died, I cannot tell you what made it so good.”

Of course no book about the South would be complete without discussing the big role that religion plays below the Mason-Dixon Line, a far bigger role than in most other places in this secular age. About what other region could the following anecdote be told?

“A few years ago in Atlanta, when a forty-one-year-old bodybuilder and mother of two was trying to decide whether to remain in her church choir or do some secular singing, she asked God for a sign.

“He told her to look up from the wheel of the car she was driving down Memorial Drive at a billboard for Pizza Hut.

“There, in a giant photograph of a forkful of spaghetti advertising the lunch special, she saw ‘the Michelangelo version of Christ,’ whereupon, she said, ‘I lost my breath.’

“Not only did she decide to stay in the church choir,” concludes Miss Reed, and the last part of the story is even more truly Southern than the first section: “She called up the Atlanta Journal-Constitution to report about what she saw. It turned out that dozens of motorists had already called, and before long, hundreds of believers clogged the road to check it out for themselves.”

Julia Reed is so excellent a writer and so expert at getting at the very soul of the South that it is nearly impossible to decide what she does best, but it may be when she describes the great personalities and eccentrics that seem always to have populated the states of the old Confederacy.

Her profile of country singer Tammy Wynette, for instance, is an example of what profile-writing at its best should be, generous, yet getting the subject just right, with the problems there to see too.

“She was of the generation of country entertainers who never stopped touring until the end, always thinking that but for the grace of God she might still be picking cotton.” And: “She kept some cotton in a crystal bowl on her living room coffee table as a reminder, and her beautician’s license, just in case.”

The eccentrics of the South’s past, too, get their fair representation in “Queen of the Turtle Derby.” The author brings up the incomparable Mississippi state representative N.S. “Soggy” Sweat, who made his famous “Whiskey Speech” before the state legislature in 1952 during the annual debate over the bill to legalize alcohol in legally dry (but only legally) Mississippi.

She quotes that speech almost in full, but an excerpt will suffice here: “You ask me how I feel about liquor. Here’s where I stand on this burning question. If when you say whiskey you mean the devil’s brew, the poison scourge that defiles innocence, dethrones reason … then certainly I am against it.

“But … if when you say whiskey you mean the oil of conversation, the philosophic wine, the ale that is consumed when good fellows get together … if you mean the drink that enables a man to magnify his joy … then certainly I am for it. This is my stand. I will not retreat from it. I will not compromise.”

In her book’s penultimate essay, Miss Reed takes up the ability of Southerners to entertain themselves, a final characteristic she thinks separates the South from the rest of the nation. “I am from the Mississippi Delta, where entertaining yourself is a high art,” she writes.

“Several years ago, in Seaside, Florida, I put on a pageant starring my six-year-old niece as a kidnapped mermaid, a slightly more reluctant but extremely sweet and patient friend as an evil catfish, and me as the good sea witch,” she recalls. “Until that moment I had not realized how few people are familiar with the concept of entertaining themselves.”

That insight causes her to call to mind another incident: “The other day I was listening to a radio interview with a ninety-year-old Ms. Senior Virginia contestant whose talent was telling about first ladies and whose evening gown was a velvet hoop skirt.

“When the guy from National Public Radio finally got around to asking her what I knew he could not fathom — why on earth she would participate in such an event — I could just imagine the ‘I-feel-sorry-for-you-young-man’ expression on that woman’s face.

“‘You have to do something to entertain yourself, you know,’ she said, adding that she also had three married boyfriends.” Further proof that the South is well and healthy.

Julia Reed not only tells great stories, she gets the beautiful language of the South down just right, and the result is pure delight.

Stephen Goode is a Washington writer.

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