Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Southern Reading Challenge: Hee Haw!

I read four books for Maggie's Southern Reading Challenge, which ended last week:

Truman Capote's The Grass Harp

Flannery O'Connor's Everything That Rises Must Converge

Gin Phillips' The Well and the Mine (that cover photo is one taken by Eudora Welty)

and Hillary Jordan's Mudbound

and they were all enjoyable and well worth reading, particularly the O'Connor.

I'd just finished the Capote when Maggie announced the State of the Mule contest based in part on the dead mule alert I'd issued about Capote's Other Voices, Other Rooms during last summer's challenge . As you might imagine, I was internally braying with happiness--I mean, who in their right mind wouldn't want to hone in on the physical condition of all fictional mules they might encounter? (Oh, bite your tongue if you're going to be that way.)

Trouble was, mules were nonexistent in The Grass Harp and scarce in the O'Connor and the Phillips. O'Connor mentions a mule a couple of times: in "Greenleaf," Mrs. May reflects that she's put up with with "having shiftless people's hogs root up her oats, their mules wallow on her lawn, their scrub bulls breed her cows" and in "Judgement Day" Tanner dreams of going back home by train in a coffin and having his friends meet him there with a "borrowed mule and cart." State of the mule: pretty good.

Mules were just scarce in the Phillips as well, but their well being took a dramatic decline. Albert, a miner in Depression-era Alabama, says, "Started as a boy sorting the coal from the slate for the tipple. I knew my way around the pit mules by the time I quit grammar school for good--poor blind creatures that must've thought they were born and raised in hell. We didn't use them no more once the electric cars came around, with the chains hauling the cars up to the top." Earlier, Albert says that a black co-worker who'd served time in prison for vagrancy had been "treated worse than a pit mule" during those six years. State of the mule: hellish while alive, now presumed dead.

Then I read Mudbound. And let me tell you, Hillary Jordan has read her Faulkner. There are quite a few times that As I Lay Dying was brought to mind, but mule death is what we're dealing with here: Jordan knows dead mules are a steadfast requirement.

Oh, she teases us at first, gives us a dead horse, live plow mules. But when she decides it's time to kill one off, she makes that mule's death be an act of God:

Hap, you better humble down now, you been taking the blessings I've given you for granted. You been walking around thinking you better than some folks cause you ain't working on halves like they is. You been forgetting Who's in charge and who ain't. So here's what I'm gone do: I'm gone send a storm so big it rips the roof off the shed where you keep that mule you so proud of. Then I'm gone send hail big as walnuts down on that mule, making that mule crazy, making it break its leg trying to bust out of there. Then, just so you know for sure it's Me you dealing with, the next morning after you put that mule down and buried it and you up on the ladder trying to nail the roof back onto the shed I'm gone let that weak top rung, the one you ain't got around to fixing yet, I'm gone let it rot all the way through so you fall off and break your own leg, and I'm gone send Florence and Lilly May to a birthing and the twins out to the far end of the field so you laying here half the day. That'll give you time to think real hard on what I been trying to tell you.

State of the mule: Collateral damage.

And speaking of collateral damage, the worst mule carnage encountered this summer didn't take place in Southern literature, but in the harbor on the quai at Smyrna:

The Greeks were nice chaps too. When they evacuated they had all their baggage animals they couldn't take off with them so they just broke their forelegs and dumped them into the shallow water. All those mules with their forelegs broken pushed over into the shallow water. It was all a pleasant business. My word yes a most pleasant business.

Nice image, Ernest Hemingway.

Further mule alerts as warranted. You don't have to thank me.


  1. AND your devoted readers are asking if you have gone mad! :D

    I didn't get to play at my own game, but I read two books with mules that faired okay. The Blue Star by Tom Earley and the original, dirty-south writer Harry Crews's biography. Both were carted around by mules with Earley's character riding a white one.

    Thanks for playing and thanks for pointing this phenomenon out to southern readers. I think it was a fun distraction.

  2. I love it! I participated in Maggie's challenge this year, and Other Voices, Other Rooms was one of my reads. I was so excited when I got to the part about the mule -- although it was a disturbing image.


"I don't believe in ghosts, but I see them all the time."

Sherman Alexie cancels book tour for memoir about his mother.