Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Book Review: Hush, Child, Can't You Hear the Music?

Drawing its title from a haunting story of two fiddlers and the Devil, this collection of stories from rural black families in Georgia in the 1930's and 40's is as entrancing as its cover implies.

Rose Thompson traveled the back country collecting the stories of people she met in her job as a government worker. Her duties included teaching people to make chicken brooders, how to use pressure cookers, and how to grow winter gardens. As people grew comfortable in her presence, she began to hear the stories of the farm women she worked with, and of their men. She recorded the stories in her personal shorthand; fortunately she transcribed them later on. Some of the stories were published by Eliot Wigginton in Foxfire Magazine, but this collection puts them all together and frames them in a specific time and culture.

The arrangement of this book is interesting--it's a long interview with Ms. Thompson interspersed with stories as a natural part of the conversation. She was as skilled a photographer as she was a listener; most of the black-and-white photo illustrations scattered thoughout the book were taken by her, and are of the people from whom she gathered her stories and songs.

Humor, spirituality and clever use of language define the stories and their tellers. For example, in the story of Liddy Purify's Cat, a cat manages to convince a hawk to let him go. And then "that old hawk looked right shamefaced and he dropped the cat and sidled off." In another story, a man is described as moving so fast that "his misbehavior coat stood straight in the wind."

One of my favorites in the collection is Aunt Tucky De Dandy. It's a shapeshifter story, similar to other tales I've heard of women who can shed their skin and travel in the night (as cats in some stories; in others as a witch, evil spirit, "boohag," or fifoulette). But this version includes a unique ending that explains why frogs sing as they do.

Hush, Child was re-published in 1999, and there are copies available online. A quick read, this book is one that I am glad found its way off the library's shelf and into my hands and heart.

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