Let me start by admitting that I don’t usually read books about the American South. I find them tedious and often, as dry as a sad packet of army-issued crackers. I’m not a big fan of authobiographical-ish tales of young men fumbling through their youth, either (get out of here, The Great Gatsby and The Catcher in the Rye, scat!). So, when I started reading Tupelo by Alec Clayton, I was less than thrilled to realize I was in for both.
But like a good friend and a fellow, local writer (one who doesn’t want to avoid eye contact with an author I see at least once a month and very much enjoy chatting with), I decided to read the first quarter of Tupelo before passing judgement on it or tossing it back on the bookshelf. Plus, Clayton is a damn good author and storyteller, so his book, Tupelo, deserves a fair shake, right?
The answer is yes. And I’ll fast forward a few days and a lot of cups of coffee here to a moment when I realized I was thoroughly enjoying Tupelo, despite my early misgivings. And no, it didn’t take the first quarter of the book to get me there, either. It simply took the realization that this story, the story of a young man and his family navigating through an evolving cultural landscape, is told with a hell of a lot more honesty than usual. Oh, and the overall quality of his storytelling was on point, too.
Set in a small Mississippi town struggling to adjust to change during the mid-twentieth century, Tupelo could have been a book about a young, white and male protagonist making all the right moves during his youth and eventually, bridging the cultural and political gap between whites and African American’s during the Civil Rights Movement. It could have been a hero’s journey full of moments where the protagonist did exactly the right thing at exactly the right time and played a pivotal role in changing the world around him. But it isn’t. It’s much more honest than that.
Clayton provides a truer picture of what it was like to grow up in the confusing and racially and politically charged times of the 1950’s and 60’s. His protagonist doesn’t make all the right moves, he isn’t always at the center of the action, and he doesn’t try to cover up the unpopular or insensitive views of the people in his life. Instead, Tupelo offers readers a realistic look at a family and community who aren’t only concerned with the civil rights movement, but are entrenched in their own ups and downs, budding and failing relationships and struggles to survive. It’s about the change, and lack thereof, that a young man, his family and his community are all facing in the midst of an evolving cultural landscape.
And to be perfectly honest, I think Clayton’s focus on representing his youth honestly and without unnecessary fanfare would have been lost on readers if Clayton wasn’t such a strong storyteller. Tupelo is full of sidebar adventures and peripheral characters that eventually circle back to the main plot-line, but the digressions don’t feel unnecessary because Clayton does an excellent job weaving them into the fabric of his larger story. Tupelo’s characters have a healthy dose of positive and negative personality traits, too, which keeps readers invested in the story even when it’s taken a detour. And true to his promise, Clayton ties up any loose ends before readers reach the end of their literary journey.
I was pleasantly surprised to realize how much I was enjoying Tupelo as I turned the last few pages of the book, despite being very sure I’d dislike it in the beginning. And for all you readers out there who’re like me, who might be thinking Tupelo isn’t your cup of tea because of its genre or content, I say give it a go. The honest narrative and strength of storytelling alone will be more than enough to to get you hooked, trust me. Tupelo is a good book, by a great storyteller. Don’t pass it up.