Monday, April 25, 2011

Baghdad , Ga.: Where the past is never far away

Originally printed September 27, 2010.

It's become commonplace to describe Mary Helen Stefaniak's "The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia" as one part Flannery O'Connor, two parts "To Kill a Mockingbird" and three parts "The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night" (better known as "The Arabian Nights.")

After all, any story set in the Depression-era South and told from the perspective of a young girl ready to challenge the racial order can't help but evoke Harper Lee's classic tale. Add to that a Georgian setting with multiple references to cities such as Toomsboro and O'Connor's hometown of Milledgeville -- not to mention a few O'Connor-esque family names like Turpin -- and Stefaniak's characters come across as not-so-distant cousins to the people who populate "Revelation," "A Good Man is Hard to Find" and "Wise Blood."

But Stefaniak stresses that her characters -- although related to O'Connor's -- come from a very different side of the family. Her Georgia is a more secular and optimistic place than the "Jesus-haunted South" of O'Connor's overtly religious tales. And by deciding to add "The Arabian Nights" so prominently into the mix, Stefaniak gave herself the chance to tell a wider historical back-story.

In Stefaniak's novel, it's 1938 and life in Threestep, Ga., is never going to be the same again after Grace Spivey -- a WPA-funded elementary teacher -- arrives on the scene. Not only does she refuse to abide by the community's strict racial rules -- to the point of tutoring black high school students in the white elementary -- but Miss Spivey also introduces her students to the exotic allure of Iraq. She regales them with tales from "Arabian Nights" and discusses the incongruity of having a relatively new country carved out of an ancient land.

Transforming Threestep's annual spring festival into a "Baghdad Bazaar," Spivey turns the town into the "Baghdad, Georgia" of the title. But the results of her efforts prove to be as dangerous as they are enlightening.

Because Stefaniak tells the story primarily through the voice of 11-year-old Gladys Cailiff, readers find themselves on fairly familiar territory for the most of the book. Whether Gladys is describing her wide-eyed workshop of Miss Spivey, the movie-star good looks of her brother, Force, or the brilliance of her neighbor, Theo Boykin (a black teenager who even the racists recognize as the smartest person in town), she comes across as a compelling and authentic guide to her changing world.

But the novel's pace changes dramatically about two-thirds of the way through. In the midst of one particularly chaotic night, Gladys's older sister May -- who plays the role of the storyteller Scheherazade in the town's staging of scenes from "Arabian Nights" -- takes over the narrative directly and begins to weave her own series of stories.

Suddenly this novel about the late 1930s strives to explain the longer historical connections between America and the Muslim/Arab world. And suddenly this all-American tale in the tradition of "To Kill a Mockingbird" highlights how easily those connections can be drawn when they involve the descendants of African Muslims who were brought to the United States as slaves.

Gladys eventually resumes her narration and quickly explains what happens to the characters over the next 72 years. But Stefaniak has created a novel in which the past never seems far away -- even as her characters begin to use e-mail and websites to make sure that their story keeps being told.

Contact Press-Citizen Opinion Editor Jeff Charis-Carlson at 319-887-5435.

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