'Graceland, At Last' Juxtaposes The Good And The Bad In The American South
Born and raised in rural Alabama, a resident of Nashville, Tennessee for almost 35 years, Margaret Renkl loves the South. She revels in its glorious art and music, its rich ecology and stunning natural beauty.
More than anything, perhaps, she appreciates Southerners who work for cultural change, because right alongside all the positives exists the South's "brutal history" of white supremacy and its terrible legacies of discrimination still alive today. Renkl's sense of joyful belonging to the South, a region too often dismissed on both coasts in crude stereotypes and bad jokes, co-exists with her intense desire for Southerners who face prejudice or poverty finally to be embraced and supported.
In Graceland, At Last: Notes On Hope And Heartache From The American South, op-ed columns written by Renkl between 2016 and 2020 are grouped into six categories that reflect these diverse perspectives: flora and fauna; politics and religion; social justice; environment; family and community; and arts and culture. The result is Renkl at her most tender and most fierce.
Despite her use of a unifying geographic term, Renkl is quick in the introduction to take up the pluralities in the South: "The Deep South is as different from the Mid-South and the Upper South as the Mid-South and the Upper South are from each other." Unsurprisingly, Tennessee — and Nashville in particular — is over-represented in this collection, and that's one of its strengths. Renkl's gift, just as it was in her first book Late Migrations, is to make fascinating for others what is closest to her heart.
Animals and plants begin the book, including the mole in Renkl's yard, welcomed as a friend to her yard's ecology, and the endangered Tennessee coneflower now making a comeback. The place termed by biologist E.O. Wilson "arguably the biologically richest place" in the country, the Mobile-Tensaw Delta in Alabama, fed by nine rivers, is here, as are the sheep deployed around Nashville who contentedly eat up invasive plants like kudzu and English Ivy, and fertilize the soil as they go.
From this lulling start focused on nature, it's slightly jarring to fall headlong into thoughts about opioid addiction, voting rights, gun rights, and the failings of Southern Republicans. Oh, make no mistake, these pieces centered on politics and religion only endeared the book to me, but that response won't be universal.
Most of the essays in the book, previously published, were written during Trump's presidency, and Renkl, who describes herself as a Christian, rails at that administration's persecution of immigrants and others — "Watching Christians put him in the White House has completely broken my heart." Yet again, she is most effective when she stays local. "It's a mistake to tune out what's happening in statehouses," she writes, mostly meaning statehouses where Republican majorities act in regressive ways. She adds, in relation to a bill that favors arming schoolteachers, "It's never a good bet to look for sane behavior from the Tennessee General Assembly."
Any initial sense of emotional whiplash faded as as I proceeded across the six sections and realized that the book is largely organized around one concept, that of fair and loving treatment for all — regardless of race, class, sex, gender or species.
In the Social Justice section, Renkl describes what happened in Nashville in July 2019 when ICE officials confronted a man and his 12-year-old son, seated inside their van in their home driveway. ICE has no authority to enter one's home or vehicle; neighbors protected the vulnerable pair by bring them food, water, and fuel to keep the vehicle's air conditioning running. When — four long hours later — ICE departed, the neighbors, just to be sure, formed a human chain around the man and boy as they moved towards the house.
Here the fair-and-loving angle is obvious. But let's look at examples in the remaining three sections. Under the Environment heading is an essay about the effect of Nashville's explosive growth and the associated reduction in tree cover. Trees help fight global warming because they remove carbon from the air even as they cool the air; they also boost feelings of well-being. But poorer areas disproportionately lack trees. Renkl describes the Nashville Tree Foundation's sapling giveaway, focused on "intersection of low canopy and low income" in order to redress that imbalance.
Among the topics in the Family and Community cluster of essays is Nashville's razing of fine moderate family homes in order to erect "monstrous new houses" that make the city unlivable for many of its very own workers. "No matter how much you love your neighbors, something important is lost when a community becomes a place where only the well-off can afford to live."
Finally, grouped under Arts and Culture can be found one of Graceland, At Last's most powerful pieces, devoted to music, war trauma, and healing. A nonprofit organization called Songwriting With: Soldiers pairs accomplished songwriters with people "who have returned from war physically, emotionally, or spiritually wounded." Singer-songwriter Mary Gauthier co-composed a song with veteran Marine Jennifer Marino that tells how in combat, soldiers tend to "suck it up and shut it" down. And then comes that kick in the gut, that evocation of trauma: "But what saves you in the battle/ Can kill you at home/ A soldier, soldiering on."
Renkl describes in one essay how she interviewed the great civil rights leader John Lewis in the Nashville Public Library, with tears streaming down her face. What rises in me after reading her essays is Lewis' famous urging to get in good trouble to make the world fairer and better. Many people in the South are doing just that — and through her beautiful writing, Renkl is among them.
Barbara J. King is a biological anthropologist emerita at William & Mary. Her seventh book, Animals' Best Friends: Putting Compassion to Work for Animals in Captivity and in the Wild, was published in March. Find her on Twitter @bjkingape
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.