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WOMENFOLKS: Growing Up Down South by Shirley Abbott (Ticknor & Fields: $10.95).

July 14, 1991|Charles Solomon

A native of Hot Springs, Ark., Abbott combines personal reminiscences with a study of traditional women's roles in the southern United States in a book that is both scholarly and intensely personal. Curious to know more about her female ancestors, she traced her family back to impoverished Scotch-Irish peasants who came to America in the mid-18th Century: They established meager farms in the wilderness, where the women labored from dawn to dusk. The grim lives of these dirt-poor women stood in striking contrast to the image of the Southern belle, a sweetly fragile fiction who was half benevolent goddess, half porcelain statue. Abbott remarks that if Harriet Beecher Stowe had given Simon Legree a proper Southern wife, "Uncle Tom's Cabin" would have turned out very differently: "Mrs. Legree would have cleaned up the mess and made some curtains. She would have read the Bible before every meal, and if Legree had tried to beat anybody to death, she would have joshed him out of the notion." Recalling the hours her mother and aunts spent weeding the family cemetery plot and discussing "kinfolks," Abbott discovers that her extended family forms a network that can imprison--or empower.

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