The Shoe Burnin' to Premiere at the Louisiana Book Festival
A literary project by Shari Smith, based on an annual Thanksgiving tradition in Fairhope, Alabama, presents 24 stories about much more than just shoes.
“Before they had seen their names on the cover of books, a group of writers were gathered in the Alabama woods in the old shack of a rather sorry host,” says Shari Smith about the origins of what’s become known as The Shoe Burnin’. This host was also too lazy to go outside in the cold for firewood, so instead pulled out a giant box of shoes out and began to throw them in the fire. “Writers being writers, they began to make up stories about the shoes before they burned them,” continues Smith.
What was once just literary lore out in the woods has now become a tradition in Waterhole Branch, outside of Fairhope, Alabama. Every Saturday after Thanksgiving, a bonfire is built and folks are invited to bring a pair of shoes, along with a story, and throw them into the fire as a sort of cleansing.
A conversation that Smith had with Louisiana Center for the Book Director Jim Davis led to the idea to put some of the shoe burning stories into a book. “The Shoe Burnin’: Stories of Southern Soul” will premiere on November 2 during the Louisiana Book Festival. A shoe or a pair of shoes can be found in each of the 24 stories in the book, but of course the stories are about a lot more than shoes. Bev Marshall’s piece is about a young bride seeing her husband off to the Vietnam war, and Jim Wilson writes about hunting quail with his father. Smith’s favorite is Nashville songwriter Chuck Cannon’s memoir about finding one of his little baby shoes in a drawer. “Finding it took him back throughout his life of triumph and loss,” she says.
For Alabama poet Jennifer Horne, who met Smith at a gathering for Southern writers in Fairhope and served as editor of “Working the Dirt: An Anthology of Southern Poets,” writing a story for the book turned out to be an easy assignment. Horne says her two dogs are always bringing home stray shoes and one day brought her a boot with writing scribbled all over it. ” I put the boot on my desk and wrote a fictional story in which I tried to imagine where the boot might have come from,” she says.
Horne admits she got attached to that boot but in keeping with tradition, threw it into the fire at a past shoe burning. “It was a symbolic moment,” she says. “Art is what’s left when a person is dead, and when everybody in a story is gone, the story’s what’s left.”
As Southern projects have a tendency to do, Smith’s shoe burning continued to grow and musical and performance components were added. A companion CD that comes with the book includes excerpts from the stories paired with a song and then Smith wrote a show that sort of brings the whole thing to life.
“I would swear that the Southern literary gods were lookin’ out for me, helping me along,” she says. “I went to Tennessee Williams’ grave one time, years back, and read to him while pouring sips of bourbon into the ground. I think, maybe, he was paying me back for that, even though I believe he was a gin man.”
“The Shoe Burnin’” show on November 2 from noon-1 p.m. in the Capital Park Museum auditorium in Baton Rouge will feature Smith, Chuck Cannon, Cliff Cody, Chris Clifton, Joe Formichella, Lari White, Michael Reno Harrell, Suzanne Hudson and Chuck Jones and include readings from the book and songs from the CD. (Horne will also be present at the festival and appearing here.) Meet some of “The Shoe Burnin'” authors and find out more in the video below: