Where does the name Waxahatchee come from?

Locator map, Waxahatchee Creek (Map data ©2014 by Google)

Locator map, Waxahatchee Creek (Map data ©2014 by Google)

Waxahatchee is a Brooklyn-based music project headed by Katie Crutchfield.

The music press tell us that Waxahatchee is the name of a creek in Alabama. In January 2011 Crutchfield “was living at her parents’ house on Waxahatchee Creek, nursing the bruises of a few bad relationships and wondering what to do with her adulthood.” A severe snowstorm, unusual for Alabama, confined her to the house, and she started writing music: “song after song about loneliness, ambivalence and relationships failing to last or fulfill.” 1

Now there are two albums, American Weekend and Cerulean Salt. She’s playing tonight at Bottletree Café here in Birmingham. So this seems like a perfect time for me to geek out about exactly where the name Waxahatchee comes from, and what it meant.

The name contains a mystery.

Indian names

If you’re one of those people who’s satisfied to hear that Waxahatchee is “an Indian word,” you can stop reading. Go sit under your nylon-stringed dream catcher. If you care to know which Indians, what language they spoke, and so on, then read on.

Which Indians? Creek Indians. The Creek Nation, in what’s now Georgia and Alabama, was once the largest Indian political grouping within the United States. Two hundred years ago, the Creeks suffered a series of American invasions. The Battle of Horseshoe Bend (March 28, 1814), in which Andrew Jackson’s army slaughtered Creek men, women, and children, is believed to have killed more native people than any other single day in the history of U.S. wars against Indians.

This battle is usually described as if it were the end of the Creek Nation. But Creek people held onto their territory for another two decades until Jackson, their worst enemy, became president and placed “Indian removal” at the head of his agenda. Even then, many Creek people fled to Florida where they joined their Seminole relatives in continuing to resist the U.S. Most modern Creek people live in Oklahoma, and an unknown but growing number still speak their own language as well as English.

What language? Waxahatachee comes from the Muskogee (or Muscogee) language, the most widely used of a half dozen or more languages spoken in the Creek Nation. Seminole is a dialect of Muskogee. Related languages include Choctaw, Chickasaw, Alabama, and Koasati. (For more, see the excellent Creek Language Project online.)

What does it mean? Waxahatchee translates as “Wakse Creek.” The -hatchee part is from the Muskogee word hvcce (sounds like “hutchee”), which means “creek,” “stream,” or “river.”

Now for the mystery.

The Waxa- part of “Waxahatchee” probably comes from Muskogee wakse (sounds like “wocksy”), a very old word that is both a clan name and an element in some personal names.2 (Creek people each belong to a matrilineal clan, although not all modern Creek people are aware of their clan lineage.) Clans were usually named after animals or plants (especially food plants). Two exceptions are the Wind Clan and Salt Clan.

The Wakse clan (Waksvlke in Muskogee) belong to a small set of clans with names that have lost their meanings. This decay was brought about by removal to a very different natural environment, where the plants or animals associated with the clan no longer existed; by loss of traditional knowledge as U.S. bureaucrats broke up traditional institutions and schooled children to forget their heritage; and by drastically reduced use of the Muskogee language.

My guess is that the word wakse refers to a plant that bore some kind of edible fruit. There is a clue in the name of an old Creek town, recorded as “Waksoyochees” on a U.S. tribal census from 1832. The actual Creek name may well have been Waksvyoce (sounds like “Woksa-‘yo-chee”), meaning “wakse picking place.” But this is only a guess.3

Where is Waxahatchee Creek? It’s a tributary of the Coosa River, which starts in northwest Georgia and flows southwest to central Alabama, where it merges with the Tallapoosa to become the Alabama River. Waxahatchee Creek flows into the Coosa’s right bank in Chilton County (coords. 33.0222, -86.5208°).

Since 1914 the creek’s lower reaches have been flooded by Lay Dam, forming a part of the Lay Lake reservoir. It’s one of the many ways that Alabama Power Company transformed much of the state’s topography in the 20th century.

If you drive Interstate 65 between the small cities of Calera and Jemison, you’ll speed over some bridges that cross tributaries of Waxahatchee Creek. One of these tributaries originates near Calera.

The Texas Waxahachie

Just to complicate things, there is a Waxahachie Creek in Texas, where a city of Waxahachie was founded in 1850. Today it’s part of the Dallas metropolis. No Creek Indians ever lived in the area, as best we can tell.

There is a distant connection, however. For one thing, an Alabama native named Emory W. Rogers is usually credited with founding the town of Waxahachie. But this is probably a red herring, for two reasons. First, Rogers came from Lawrence County in north Alabama, a long way from the Coosa River and Waxahatchee Creek. Second, the city in Texas gets its name from a creek that was, apparently, already named before white settlers arrived.

So who named a stream in Texas Waxahachie? According to a diligent Wikipedia contributor, the name is probably from the Alabama language, related to Muskogee. This is plausible because many members of the Alabama and Koasati tribes, which had been part of the Creek Nation, migrated to Texas before the rest of the Nation was forced to Oklahoma in the 1830s. (The tribal name Koasati is also spelled Kowassati or, in Texas, Coushatta.)

So if the languages are related, the meaning of the name should be similar, right? Wrong. In Alabama, the common word for “creek” or “stream” is pahnosi. The word hachi means tail — more literally, a thing that sticks out or stands up. So our anonymous Wikipedian concludes that Waxahachie Creek is “Calf’s Tail Creek.”4

Seems like a stretch to me. But if you want to see for yourself, there’s a pretty good Alabama-English Dictionary online. (It won’t work on a small screen.)

The Wichita connection

It may be that the resemblance between Waxahatchee, in Alabama, and Waxahachie, in Texas, is just a coincidence. It may be that the Texas name was distorted beyond recognition by English speakers. As many 19th-century “Gone to Texas” migrants were from Alabama, they might easily have assumed that “Indian names” in Texas ought to sound like the ones back home. And back home, just about every other creek has a name ending in “-hatchee.”

Anyway, there’s a theory that the Texas Waxahachie gets its name from the nearly extinct Wichita language (related to Pawnee). If so, the original name was waks’ahe:ts’i, “fat wildcat.”5

Fat Wildcat Creek? Maybe. There have been other names just as strange.

Anyway the word Wichita gives me a way to tie this essay back to its beginning. As Katie Crutchfield fans will already know, the Waxahatchee warbler recently signed a contract with an indie label out of London. Its name? Wichita.

A few links


Footnotes

1 Daoud Tyler-Ameen, Waxahatchee: A Love Song, Without the Love“ 

2 William A. Read was the first to suggest that Waxahatchee translates as “wakse creek.” Jack B. Martin and Margaret McKane Mauldin, authors of the definitive Muskogee-English dictionary, agree he’s probably right. See Read, Indian place names in Alabama (1984), p. 75; Martin & Mauldin, “English place-names of Creek origin,” in A Dictionary of Creek/Muskogee (2000), p. 181. 

3 See Martin & Mauldin, A Dictionary of Creek/Muskogee. Most of the fruits native to the Southeast (grapes, muscadines, pawpaws, persimmons) have names that survive in modern Muskogee. A notable exception is the Chickasaw plum (Prunus angustifolia), which ranges throughout the Southeast and up to Kansas, but is absent from eastern Oklahoma where the Creeks were forced to relocate. In modern Creek a plum is pvkanuce, “little peach,” or pvkanv-catuce, “little red peach,” and the peach is an adopted non-native fruit. 

4 ”History and name”, in Waxahachie, Texas, Wikipedia (31 Mar 2014). 

5 This theory is attributed to linguist David S. Rood, a scholar of the Wichita language. I get the sense that a Wikipedia contributor either lost track of the article Rood published this in or else got the information from personal communication with Rood. Either way, the information is not well sourced. It could even be an elaborate hoax. Caveat lector

Answer: Hate the South

A man with a cane beats a prostrate man who holds a quill pen in his right hand and a scroll in his left. The caption reads, Southern chivalry. Arguments versus clubs.

Southerners. You see how they are. (Lithograph by John L. Magee, 1856.)

This Friday marks the first anniversary of one of the meanest pieces of writing I’ve seen from a liberal pen. It is Sara Robinson’s piece for Alternet (picked up by Salon) on “conservative Southern values” as an existential threat to our republic.

While there’s a glimmer of truth to Robinson’s portrait of what she calls “Plantation America,” there are enough distortions, exaggerations, and oversimplifications to make it downright harmful. Her version of U.S. history reminds me of how New Age charlatans often use science-y language to justify their chosen conclusions. Their method: Cherry-pick facts, ignore contrary evidence, and freely associate until you like what you see. 

What does Sara Robinson see?

  • First, history is made and culture is shaped by elites. (Wrong.)
  • Second, the Northern elite is composed of earnest Puritans and the Southern elite is a crowd of slave drivers from the Caribbean.
  • Third, everything good in our elites comes from the North; everything bad from the South. (Life is always that simple.)

What are we to do about it? Robinson has nothing constructive to propose, just a litany of reasons to hate and despise the South. “Southern values” must be stopped at any cost, or else. 

This is the kind of error made by many bright but heartless and soulless progressives, including the late Gore Vidal. What this country needs, they like to suggest, is another civil war. No more ambiguity. Everyone will be forced to take sides, our side will be in the right, and their side will be in the wrong. Violent struggle will arbitrate all our disagreements for us, and no one will dispute the final result. 

Of course this is nonsense. Worse, it’s seductive nonsense because it is skillfully expressed and offers a feeling of mastery over a complicated past and present. All you have to do is accept Sara Robinson’s thesis and suddenly the motives of your political enemies become so clear! Their behavior is predetermined by their perverse culture. You won’t ever have to respect them or acknowledge their shared humanity again. 

How Opa-locka got its name

View of a white building with a dome and tower, resembling a mosque, with palms and a live oak in the foreground.

Opa-locka City Hall. The Moorish architecture has been typical of the city since its founding by aviator Glenn Curtiss in 1926. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Locator map of Opa-locka, FloridaOpa-locka is a small city in the Miami metropolitan area of south Florida.

Its unusal name is supposed to have an Indian or “Native American” origin. But there is no documentation for the name before about 1926. That’s when the aviator Glenn Curtiss founded the city, during the 1920s craze for Florida real estate.1

When Curtiss first scouted the site, he was told that its “Indian name” was “Opa-tisha-wocka-locka.” He shortened this to “Opa Locka,” which sounded vaguely “Arabic-Persian” to him. This was the era of wildly popular “Arab” movies such as The Sheik and The Thief of Bagdad. So Curtiss dressed up Opa-locka in fanciful Moorish style to match the mood of the time.

The original name of the site almost certainly comes from the Creek/Seminole language. Most likely, it was Vpelofv rakko (“up-pee-LO-fa THLA-ko”), meaning “big hummock.” A hummock (or hammock) is an area of raised land within a swamp.2

The Seminole Indians were nearly all forced out of Florida by the mid-1800s, and those who remained were confined to two reservations. The English speakers who replaced them probably pronounced the name of the future Opa-locka as something like “Opalofa-locko.”

But by the mid-1920s, when Curtiss found out about it, the name had been corrupted to “Opa-tisha-wocka-locka.”

Disclaimer

There is no way to be certain about the origin of “Opa-tisha-wocka-locka.” Because of the gap in time, and the apprent lack of evidence for any name before 1926, all we can do is speculate about the prior history.

All I’m offering is informed speculation. We can be sure that “Opa-tisha-wocka-locka” comes from Seminole, which is closely related to Creek. (Seminole and Creek differ only in pronunciation and vocabulary, like American English and British English.) And we know that the name already existed when Glenn Curtiss arrived on the scene. He didn’t invent the name from scratch or borrow it from some other part of the country.3

By the way, the authoritative Dictionary of Creek/Muskogee derives Opa-locka from the same source as the name of Opelika, Alabama, viz., opel’ rakko, “big swamp.” But this hypothesis overlooks the evidence of the long version of the name, “Opa-tisha-wocka-locka.”

Besides, local traditions are remarkably consistent about the meaning of the original name. They all describe a hummock, or elevated ground within a swamp, rather than the swamp itself. We can never be sure, but vpelov rakko seems much more likely than opel’ rakko to be the original Seminole name.

Corruption of the name

So how did we get from Seminole vpelofv-rakko to English “Opa-tisha-wocka-locka”?

Once the name Vpelofv-rakko was translated into English sounds, it lost its semantic meaning, becoming a sequence of nonsense syllables. One nonsense syllable is as good as another. So as the name was transmitted orally, it became further corrupted in a series of steps we can only guess at now.

First, the final “o” was probably turned into a shwa, giving us “Opalofa-locka.”

Next, the “lofa-locka” sequence may have caused confusion among some speakers. Was it “Opa-lofa-locka” or “Opa-locka-lofa”? Someone must have substituted an entirely different sound for one of the troublesome syllables, and we had “Opa-tisha-locka.”

Next, someone may have remembered the final “locka” as “wocka,” leading to more confusion. Which was correct, “Opa-tisha-wocka” or “Opa-tisha-locka”?

Someone resolved this by stringing together both versions: “Opa-tisha-wocka-locka.” That’s the version heard by Glenn Curtiss in the mid-1920s.4

Translations

Since the city was established, local writers have suggested ever more elaborate translations of “Opa-tisha-wocka-locka.” Besides the most plausible meaning, “big hummock,” one finds the following prosy variants:

  • “big island in the swamp covered with many trees” 5
  • “a dry place in the swamp with trees” 6
  • “the high land north of the little river on which there is a camping place” 7

All of these appear to be elaborations on “big hummock,” a plain translation of vpelofv rakko.

So there you have it. To see how pedantic I am capable of becoming on this subject, click through to my work page on the derivation of “Opa-locka,” in my personal userspace at Wikipedia.

Notes

1 Glenn Curtiss was a celebrity in the early 20th century due to his exploits at designing and building motorcycles and airplanes. Curtiss founded an aircraft company and sold planes to the U.S. Navy. In the 1920s Curtiss jumped into the Florida land boom, founding or co-founding the cities of Hialeah, Opa-locka, and Miami Springs. Opa-locka, with its fanciful Moorish architecture, opened the same year as the 1926 film The New Klondike, which spoofed the Florida craze. A hurricane also roared ashore in south Florida that year, causing serious damage to Opa-locka. 
2 In IPA transcription: |əpi’lofə’ɬako| And for those who don’t already know: A swamp differs from a marsh in that a swamp has trees, but a marsh has grass. You might say a swamp is a forest with wet feet. 
3 Local historians all agree that the name antedates Curtiss’s interest in the place. Probably the first monograph about the city is Frank S. Fitzgerald-Bush, A dream of Araby: Glenn H. Curtiss and the founding of Opa-locka (Opa-locka, Fla.: South Florida Archaeological Museum, 1976). More recently, Opa-locka comes under discussion in Jan Nijman, Miami: mistress of the Americas (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010), p. 27. 
4 This is pure speculation, of course. For another sequence of corruptions, see my work page on this topic at Wikipedia. 
5 See, among others: Larry Luxner, “Opa-locka rising,” Saudi Aramco World (Sept./Oct. 1989): 2-7. 
6 See, among others: U.S. Rep. Kendrick B. Meek, “80th anniversary of the founding of the city of Opa-locka, Florida,” Congressional Record 152 (part 7) (May 2006), p. 8922. 
7 This one appeared in some Miami Herald ad supplements and, in nearly identical wording, in Nieuwsbrief van de FAK, a newsletter from a Belgian arts faculty. Not one of the unique elements — “little river,” “north,” or “camping place” — is linguistically plausible. K.U. Leuven Association: Associated Faculty of Arts and Architecture (FAK), “A tale to be retold – Chevy Ridin High – Defining Place, Naming Place,” Nieuwsbrief van de FAK (March 2011): 4–7 [PDF]

Viola da gamba concert: Live from Moravia

How is it that I never heard of Petr Wagner, the Czech viol player in this video? This is the best concert I’ve seen online in a very long time.

Gottfried Finger (c1660-1730) was a Moravian composer and viol player from Olomouc, in the present-day Czech Republic. He secured a gig in the court of James II of England, where his first name became “Godfrey.” Around the time that James was overthrown in the Revolution of 1688, Mr. Finger set out on his own as a composer of operas. He died in Mannheim, Germany.

For more Petr Wagner:

The Joels and their Islamic Antichrist

Heard the one about the Islamic Antichrist?

That’s the latest story seeking to grant American Christians a license to hate in the name of love. Muslims, the story goes, are willing dupes of Satan, anxiously waiting for the arrival of their messiah, called the “Mahdi.” This mighty ruler is the person identified in the Bible as the Beast and the Antichrist.

Just ask Joel Richardson. Haven’t heard of him?

Joel Richardson is a painter and lay preacher who has turned out books arguing that the Antichrist will be Muslim. Islam, therefore, is evil. He often remembers to add that all Muslims are not necessarily evil. It’s just that they follow an evil belief system that serves the Devil.

Richardson seems to think he has been chosen by God to “release new prophetic understanding concerning the end times.”*1 Mostly this understanding consists of reading the books of Daniel, Ezekiel, and Revelation as if they explicitly refer to Islam.

Of course, no one had heard of Islam until A.D. 622, nearly six centuries after the New Testament was finished.*2 People would probably give Richardson a hard time if he claimed to find references to Coca-Cola or NASCAR in the Bible.*3 How then does Richardson justify finding Islam in there?

Well, he says he did a lot of reading about Islam. Books about “Islamic eschatology.” But more important, Joel Richardson has a personal hotline to the Lord.

How do you suppose that Satan has planned to include the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims in his grand end-time deception? Did Satan fail to foresee and strategize regarding the global spread of Islam? Or has Satan included the Muslims of the world in his end-time strategy? Will Islam, the world’s third monotheistic religion, also undergo the persecution of Satan along with Christians and Jews as they all resist the Antichrist together? Or will Islam — the religion that prides itself on resisting any form of idolatry — simply submit to a demonic and false religious leader without putting up any real fight? For years, I questioned the Lord about these issues. In time, as my knowledge of Islam deepened, the answers to my questions became very clear.*4

After all, a prophetess told Joel’s wife she would marry a man with privileged knowledge of the end times. There were seven thousand people in the room. So there.*5

The other Joel

Richardson is not the only Joel working the Islamic Antichrist beat. Joel C. Rosenberg is a political organizer, filmmaker, and fiction writer who, like Richardson, has vaulted onto the New York Times bestseller list with a book about an Islamic Antichrist. The difference is that his books, The Twelfth Imam and The Tehran Initiative, are fictional thrillers about a super-scary Iranian nuclear weapons program aimed at bringing about the end of the world.

It’s only fiction, right? Well, yeah, except that Rosenberg’s publicity touts him as “a modern Nostradamus” who cranks out books that seem to anticipate real events. And like his fellow Joel, he distorts Muslim beliefs into a yearning for a “Twelfth Imam” who is identical with the Antichrist.

I’m convinced that both these authors are out to deceive Christian readers who crave reliable information about Islam. Under the guise of “love for Israel,” and even “love for Muslims” (if they convert to Christianity), the Joels peddle a vicious stereotype of what Muslims actually believe.

Shall I try to set the record straight? I’ll keep it short.

  1. The Mahdi is not the Antichrist. We know this because Islamic traditions (hadiths) mention both of them. You can’t have one without the other. The Mahdi (“Guided One”) is always the enemy of the Antichrist (Masih ad-Dajjal, “false Messiah”).
  2. The Mahdi is not the Twelfth Imam. One of the two Joels (Rosenberg, the fiction writer) pretends that the Mahdi is identical with the “hidden imam” that most Shia Muslims believe is the legitimate successor of Muhammad. To be fair, the other Joel (Richardson) seems to know the difference and has not made this claim (as far as I know). Anyway, only about 10 percent of Muslims believe in the existence of this Twelfth Imam.
  3. The Mahdi is a servant of Jesus. Neither of the Joels is willing to reveal that Muslim belief about the end times is a lot like Christian belief about the end times. According to the hadiths, Jesus will return to earth to defeat the false Messiah. The Mahdi, acting as Jesus’ lieutenant, will begin the wars, but Jesus will end them.
  4. Not all Muslims believe in the Mahdi. The Joels portray Islamic belief as monolithic. Muslims are supposed to be something like robots, all obeying the same instructions. Yet the “end times” beliefs in Islam are based on traditions that not all Muslims accept as valid. Neither the Mahdi, the False Messiah, nor the Twelfth Imam are mentioned in the Quran, which is the only text accepted as sacred by all Muslims.

In other words, these beliefs about the end of the world are comparable to Christian disagreements about the Second Coming of Christ and the timing of the Rapture, or whether there will be a Rapture at all. None of these disagreements are considered grounds for excluding a person from the faith — at least not by sane Christians.

Likewise, Muslims do not have to accept any particular belief about the end times in order to be acknowledged as Muslims. Virtually all Muslims do believe in Judgment Day, as do virtually all Christians. Muslim traditions about Judgment Day state that Jesus will descend from heaven and bring justice and peace to the world. Sound familiar?

The principal difference between the Christian and Muslim traditions is — not surprisingly — that Muslims believe Jesus will establish Islam as the universal religion, while Christians believe it will be Christianity. It would be surprising if either religion agreed with the other on this point.

Without honor

Both of the Joels are best-selling authors whose fans regard them as modern-day prophets. I believe they have attained their success dishonestly, by deliberately distorting what they know about Islam.

Both men are subtle. Rosenberg, for instance, sets up fictional Muslim characters who behave in wicked, hateful ways — but he would never say we should hate Muslims. Richardson proclaims his love for Muslims while denouncing their religion.

Both men have political agendas that seem to wrestle with their Christianity for prominence. Rosenberg, for example, begins with the principle that Israel can do no wrong. Israel’s large nuclear arsenal is a force for peace, while Iran’s hypothetical weapons program is an implicit threat to Israel’s survival — indeed, to the whole world. Gosh, who could blame the Israelis for launching air strikes against Iran?

Richardson, meanwhile, proclaims that he does not — repeat, not — believe that President Obama is the Antichrist, as some have said. It’s just that Obama’s career is a perfect example of the kind of techniques that God told him the Antichrist will use to rise to power.

“Over half of the American people fell for it this time,” Richardson warned in 2009. “When the soon coming imposter messiah arrives, will we be any wiser?”*6

No sign of a political agenda there. Just pure Christianity.

Their methods vary, but the objective is the same for both Joels. Brethren, fellow Americans — you should choose what to believe about Muslims, not according to what’s true, but according to what makes Islam appear mad, bad, and dangerous.

It’s what Jesus wants from you. Just ask his prophets, Joel and Joel.

Further reading

Notes

1 ;”Joel Richardson on Islamic prophecy, end times,” YouTube, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EaDTShXtYek. Sid Roth goes further, describing Richardson as “hand-picked by God.”
2 ;This quirk is probably not apparent to many of Richardson’s followers. Many people in the youth-centric U.S. assume that Islam is older than Christianity.
3 ;Although finding the Bible in NASCAR is another story. See: Hugh Pyper, The NASCAR Bible, SBL Forum Archive, SBL Publications.
4 ;Joel Richardson, The Islamic Antichrist, pp. 11-12 (q. in Who is Joel Richardson, Beck’s End Times Prophet?, Media Matters (Feb 17, 2011).
5 ;Again, see “Joel Richardson on Islamic prophecy, end times,” YouTube, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EaDTShXtYek.
6 ;Joel Richardson What Obama and the Antichrist have in common, WorldNet Daily, Aug. 5, 2009. Richardson dredges up obscure hadiths to portray the Islamic Antichrist as a socialist. (“Good heavens! Just like Obama!”) Among the “techniques” the Antichrist is supposed to share with Obama is “a shallow appeal to class envy.” I guess that detail is somewhere in Revelation, right after the verse about the Antichrist taxing the capital gains of the people of God.

The American wakeup call

My cousin is a talented lawyer in the ATL. He came to visit this weekend with his wife and two small children. One of the many things we talked about was housing. My cousin and his wife are renters.

This is almost something that an American feels obliged to apologize for. Home ownership is a rite of passage, a sign of having arrived in the great middle class. A home is an investment, a piece of the pie, a necessary condition of living the American Dream.1

It almost seems disloyal to the nation to disdain home ownership. So what is wrong with my prosperous, Republican-leaning cousins?

Well, nothing at all, in my view. But until this weekend I had imagined my view was way out on the margin of the ineffectual Green-tinted left. My idea of the good life was too infected with European claptrap to appreciate red-blooded American love of the grassy homestead.

Of course, said homestead now stands in the suburbs, linked to the wider world by live wires, pipes, cables, and paved surfaces. Bills and junk paper accumulates in the mailbox, and a mortgage or two looms like the shadow of death.

But the Dream persists. Beats paying rent, man! You’re building equity! (Repeat as needed.)

I’ve gained some extra historical perspective on this business, courtesy of the BackStory radio podcast.2 The program for May 18, Home Bittersweet Home, delves into the history of home ownership in America, from homesteading on the prairie to widespread belief, in the late 20th century, that a certain house at Amityville, New Jersey, could not be owned because it was haunted by demons.

One of the trends discussed in the show is the cresting of the wave of McMansion building in American suburbs. The bloating of American homes is a historical phenomenon. Therefore it is subject to change. One aspect of the trend seems likely to continue: As space for receiving guests and displaying social status has shrunk, private space, for such things as bedrooms, bathrooms, and the newly minted “man cave,” has grown in relative size.



1 “It’s called the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.” — George Carlin (1937-2008)

2 Its full name: BackStory with the American History Guys, a program of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. The titular “history guys” are Peter Onuf (18th century), Ed Ayers (19th century), and Brian Balogh (20th century). There’s a new program each week, and the website encourages listener comments, questions, and ideas for future shows.

Review: Bastard out of Carolina (a novel)

I just reviewed this novel for LibraryThing. Five stars.

I am in awe of this book. It was given to me but sat on my shelf for years, through at least one house move, until I decided this month that I might as well give it away. That’s when I opened it and glanced at the first lines.

Now that I’ve finished the book, I am personally grateful to Dorothy Allison for putting in the gigantic labor that it takes to make a story this good — especially one that draws on so much dangerous material from the author’s own life.

Where shall I begin? This is a story about people stuck at the bottom rung of the Greenville, South Carolina class system — surplus people living with shame, confusion, and bottled-up rage, which they often direct against themselves and each other. Ruth Anne “Bone” Boatwright is born to a 14-year-old mother, Anney, and both daughter and mother grow up fast. Bone sometimes leans on, sometimes strains against the bonds of family. Through her eyes, all the cousins, aunts, uncles, and surrogate fathers are so many unique, wonderful and terrible human beings. Their desire and pain cannot be waved away just because they are “white trash” (a term people still use without even a touch of irony).

Yet the book doesn’t just invert the usual standard of blame and praise; least of all does it preach. Even the people who grin with pleasure over the humiliation of Bone’s people are not allowed to become mere types themselves. Allison invites us to glimpse the souls even of minor characters who seem silly and self-deluding. There’s even a spark of desperate yearning within the vicious Daddy Glen, and we gain searing insight into the way a family instinctively forms a screening hedge around a man who preys on a girl. We also see why Bone cultivates burning hatred and numb meanness as sources of strength and self-protection. But she isn’t allowed to get away with it, not completely, not as long as her demoralized mother, crazy aunts, and drunken uncles keep trying to show their love.

Bastard out of Carolina spells out the closely guarded, unspoken wisdom of a brilliant child outcast, forced too early into adulthood, where she must struggle for a life worth living. I think the book is an amazing, almost miraculous achievement. Allison writes about the physical pain and burning emotions of an exploited child with the knowledge of one who has felt these things herself. She also has the discipline of a great writer, so her passion never gets the best of her plain, fine English. There is no lecturing in this book, and only one or two places where I thought things could possibly be improved on. Aspiring novelists should study this book as a model. There is always enough there to be fully convincing, and never too much.

Still, this is not a book for everyone. Some readers will be disgusted by the frank descriptions of masturbation and sexual fantasy as guilty adolescent pleasures. Even though this is a short novel, some readers will chafe at the time it takes to get to know Bone’s extended family as distinct human beings. A few readers, I expect, will just refuse to admit the upsetting Boatwrights into their imaginations. Instead, they’ll make them wait on the front porch while they summon the thought police to pack them off to allegorical jail. (Those trashy people! How dare they live lives that can’t be summed up with an Aesop moral! Don’t they know they are fictional characters?)

I think everyone who finishes the book will have difficulty forgetting it. Consider yourself warned.

I’m still giving away my copy, as promised. But I expect I’ll have to borrow another one someday for a second reading.