Tasting the Flavour of the Delta Mud | Review of “Music of the Swamp” by Lewis Nordan (1991) Algonquin Books

Nordan_MusicOfTheSwamp_jkt_rgb_web_HRI received a copy of this book via a promotion on Librarything.com

Childhood is suppose to be this special magical time for us but in many cases it is not. When we need heroes we are provided with fools. When we need shelter to grow up in, we are given rotting walls instead. And when we need friends to play with, we are sickly playmates who are dealing with worse situations than we are. That is the reality that Lewis Nordan documented in his book Music of the Swamp.

Music of the Swamp – page 3

The instant Sugar Mecklin opened his eyes on that Sunday morning, he believed that this was a special day and that something new and completely different from anything he had ever known before was about to jump out at him from somewhere unexpected, a willow shade, a beehive, a bird’s nest, the bream beds in Roebuck Lake, a watermelon patch, the bray of the iceman’s mule, the cry of herons in the swamp, he did not know from where, but wherever it came from he believed it would be transforming, it would open up worlds to him that before today had been closed. In fact, worlds seemed to be opening to him.

Nordan descriptions around the life of Sugar Mecklin are vivid. We can sense what Sugar is feeling and seeing quickly with the words he crafted around his protagonist’s life. And the story can be both funny and heartbreaking within reading a few paragraphs.

A Hank of Hair, A Piece of BonePage 67

I watched my father and mother dance in the dim light of the dance floor, the only two dancers that night, and I fell in love with both of them, their despair and their fear and also their strange destructive love for each other and for some music I was growing old enough to hear, that I heard every day in the memory of the woman in her private grave. My father was Fred Astaire, he was so graceful, and my mother  – though before this night I had seen her only as a creature in a frayed bathrobe standing in the unholy light of my father’s drinking – she was an angel on the dance floor. The simple cotton dress that she wore was flowing silk – or was it red velvet?  – and her sensible shoes were pointed-toed leather slippers with a silk boot. I understood, seeing them, why they continued in their mutual misery. Who can say it was not true love, no matter how terrible?

There is a clear impression of a melancholy frame of mind here. Nordan explores the state of mind of a sensitive boy who sees the sadness in his world and knows there is nothing he can do about it. It is a well-written collection of vignettes of a boy’s life growing up in the Delta.

The Cellar of Runt Conroy –  Page 103-104

It was a good night for me to spend the night away from home. A steady rain had begun to fall and the clouds were dark and as low as the cottonwood trees in the bare grassless yard. Roy Dale and I sat alone in his room and played cards with a greasy deck of Bicycles and listened to the rain in the trees and on the roof and heard it puddle up in the yard. Life in the Conroy family went on and rarely touched the two of us. Supper was never mentioned, and my stomach gnawed on its own emptiness. It felt good to be hungry and to expect no food to relieve the hunger. It was easy to pay the small price of a night’s hunger for the sweet isolation that Roy Dale and I were allowed to share. It frightened me to enjoy these moments with a white-trash child who, until now, I had believed was put upon earth only for my manipulation.

This edition of the book also includes a section where Nordan talks about his childhood and his fiction. It is interesting to read his thoughts about the connection (he passed in 2012) as he tried to come to terms with both items.

The Invention of Sugar – An Essay about Life in Fiction – and Vice Versa – Page 205

And yet I began by saying that these fictions are so much a part of me that I scarcely know which are true and which are not. many times I have claimed that my stories were autobiographical in detail when most assuredly they were not. I wasn’t lying. I thought these things happened to me. I thought I jumped on a freight train and rode many miles. I thought I fished for chickens. I thought I was given a funny sex education lecture. But to imagine that written down stories are somehow history as well is not so surprising, I think. It’s easy enough to believe that an author lives with characters for a while and then takes them on in the way an actor takes on a role he or she is playing. There is nothing so amazing about this.

Lewis Nordan crafted a gritty reality of childhood in Music of the Swamp. It is a stunning read and one that is hard to forget. I will be reading more of his work for sure.

Link to Algonquin Books page for Music of the Swamp

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