Jordan County ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp
Shelby Foote was an American writer and historian who lived from 1916 to 2005. He is best known for his monumental, three-volume The Civil War: A Narrative, but he also wrote works of fiction, including Jordan County, called a novel but really a collection of novellas, short stories and sketches, all set in or around the fictional town of Bristol, Mississippi.
The collection begins with “Rain Down Home,” a story about a disturbed World War II veteran returning to his hometown after the war. He just got off the train; it’s early morning and rain is falling. He seems all right when he goes into a café and orders breakfast but before the story ends he is unexpectedly moved to violence.
Since “Ride Out” is fifty pages long, it’s more a novella than a short story. It’s about a young, disadvantaged black man named Duff Conway. He has no father and a decent mother who loves him but is barely able to provide for him. At an early age, he discovers a talent and a love for music, which he apparently inherited from his wayward father. He teaches himself to play rustic instruments and begins hanging out at night spots where jazz is played. He ends up in reform school and when he finally gets out and goes home, he pursues his music earnestly. He has some early success playing the cornet professionally, but he gets mixed up with the “wrong” kind of woman and jealously murders a rival for her affections. He is sentenced to be executed in the electric chair, but here irony intervenes. He has contracted tuberculosis from breathing “bad air” for years in nightclubs where he has played and would be dead soon anyway, even without being executed.
“Child by Fever” is a novella or short novel (150 pages) comprising half the length of Jordan County. It is the story of one Hector Sturgis, child of a wealthy family. He is dominated by his grandmother and, when she dies during an epidemic of yellow fever, his mother (who almost dies in the epidemic but doesn’t) becomes the dominating force in his life (it’s a matriarchal family). He is lonely and isolated from the rest of the world and looks for love in all the wrong places. He marries an unsuitable woman named Ella and, after the initial sexual attraction grows thin, he realizes what a mistake he has made. Ella dies tragically while committing adultery with another man (the man dies too), and Hector lapses into insanity. He stays isolated in his room all the time, imagining that his dead wife Ella has returned to him.
“Pillar of Fire” is the story of one Isaac Jameson, a soldier who fought with Andrew Jackson in the War of 1812 and who is still alive, a very old man, when the Civil War is fought. His life story is the story of much of the history of the South. When Union soldiers burn his lifelong home over his head, he has no other choice but to stand by and watch.
Jordan County is not the best of Southern writing, but if you’ve read all the Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner and Carson McCullers you can lay your hands on, don’t count it out. It’s engaging and thoughtful writing (if second-tier) that’s worth your time and effort, if you, like me, are a compulsive reader of anything that’s good.
Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp