Books & Film Notes – Week 4
Spring 2015 Books & Film Class
Topic – From Kate Chopin to Swamp People
Held Wednesdays through February 11 at UL Lafayette
Instructor: Dr. Mary Ann Wilson
Notes will be updated each Friday through February 13; comment to join in the discussion.
In the second-to-last class of this session we move on to a book that has become a classic in the genre of Southern women’s fiction. I first read Little Altars Everywhere by Rebecca Wells in an English class at Louisiana State University back in 1999. I immediately fell in love with the book and its raucous cast of characters.
I also found Wells’ own story — or at least the one that was told to me at the time — fascinating. Although she later denied that the book was anything other than a a piece of fiction, it’s clear the author is working through some of the traumas of her own childhood. Word was that Wells had hit a little close to home with her story and, as a result, been disowned by her family.
In Little Altars, the Walker clan live in Thornton, Louisiana, in the central part of the state. There’s no doubt this is a fictionalized version of Alexandria, Wells’ hometown. While many readers are more familiar with her second book Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, it’s this book that first introduces the Ya-Yas and their outrageous antics. People from Alexandria could tell you exactly who these women were and point them out on the street. Real-life Buggy worked at the bookstore and had Catholic statues in her yard and former mayor John K. Snyder really did try to raise catfish in the town pool, so it’s understandable that Wells’ family and locals would be upset by her airing their dirty laundry in print. (Think Pat Conroy and The Prince of Tides.)
These tales fascinated me because in writing classes you’re always told to “write what you know.” Well, Wells did that and seems to have lived to regret it. In fact, her books since Little Altars, including Ya-Yas in Bloom and The Crowning Glory of Calla Lily Ponder, have been much lighter, portraying her mother and the Ya-Yas (known as the Hee-Hees in Alexandria) in a more positive light and seeming to try and make up for her brutal honesty in the first book.
She talks about her interest in mother-daughter relationships and going to the beauty salon with her mother as a child in this video:
And here’s the trailer for “Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood” from 2002:
While some readers were shocked to learn that Little Altars existed after reading Divine Secrets and forming their own clubs of women, it’s this book that rings true to so many people who grew up in Louisiana in the ’50s and ’60s. It was brought up in our class discussion that many children of that era were raised by alcoholic parents as Wells depicts through her characters of Vivi and Big Shep. The influence of religion Wells writes so comically yet accurately about is still a part of Louisiana life today, and her subtext of race relations, while romanticized to some degree, was also experienced by many.
Dr. Wilson points out that this is a “post traumatic narrative.” Oldest daughter Siddalee has a poignant quote about being a “veteran of a war that doesn’t have a name.” Wells survived her childhood and lived to tell the tale, although she moved across the country and made a new home in Seattle to be able to do it.
Mixed in with her heartbreaking tale of alcoholism, abuse and violence are scenes of an idyllic childhood, a larger than life mother and bonds between siblings that won’t be easily broken. We had much discussion about whether Vivi subverts the Southern belle image or reinforces it. Is she a modern-day Scarlett O’Hara or a woman who shouldn’t have been allowed to have children, as Sheriff Modine tells her?
Mama leans back on the steps and says: I adore every single one of yall! I adore Spring Creek! This is how I was meant to live! No responsibility! I hate responsibility! And she laughs and leans her face back in the sun and says, Yall don’t forget to put on your Coppertone! And Lulu, put that zinc oxide on your nose!” – Skinny-Dipping, Baylor, 1963
Vivi and the Ya-Yas are immature, catty and neglectful of their children, but they’re also loads of fun and the life of the party. Vivi thinks she was meant for larger things and can’t quite come to terms with four children in five years and a husband who runs to the duck camp every time things get real. In turn, her husband Big Shep wasn’t prepared for this kind of life either and has just as many societal restraints put on him as a man that Vivi does as a woman. When he finally expresses some emotion toward the end of the book, he can’t stop the tears.
Wells gives us an explantation for the title at the beginning of the book when Sidda says the “whole world looks like little altars everywhere” as she’s swinging high from the pecan tree and can see everything below lit from within. All of the characters in this book could be said to be on their own altar being sacrificed. They’ve all sacrificed parts of themselves over the years, both literally and figuratively.
Self sacrifice and the practice of offering things up is a big part of the Catholic religion. Wells does a wonderful job of showing what it’s like to grow up Catholic with thoughts of Purgatory, the Virgin Mary, saints and sinners running through your head day in and day out.
So I’ve started going to Confession every day. There is nothing in the world like that light, pure feeling the second you step out of the confessional. It’s such a relief to know that if you croak over right then and there, you’ll go straight to Heaven. But the pure feeling wears off quicker and quicker every time. Sometimes I have to turn right around and go straight back into the confessional and confess the sins I committed in my mind in just two minutes!” – Beatitudes, Siddalee, 1963
To tie Little Altars into the other works we’ve been reading this session, it’s easy to make a connection between Rebecca Wells and Kate Chopin. In her essay Searching for Womanhood, Dr. Wilson discovers that the two authors — born 100 years apart — share a February 8 birthday along with female characters who experience an “awakening.” She points out that both writers also went to Catholic schools and learned to revere the Virgin Mary, a figure that plays prominently in Little Altars. She further ties the two together and examines Wells’ divine saga in Louisiana in a forthcoming chapter in Louisiana Women, Volume 2, to be published by University of Georgia Press.
Lyle Saxon’s Children of Strangers is set in the Cane River region not far from Wells’ hometown of Alexandria. I saw connections in the ways different races are depicted between the two novels. At the end of Children of Strangers, it’s the black class of people who are happy, content and rejoicing despite the hand they’ve been dealt. In Little Altars, Willetta has a powerful line in which she says about the Walker home “That place ain’t nothin but a big air-condition house of sadness.” Even though the spacious, air-conditioned brick house is larger and more comfortable than her own, Willetta would choose her happy life with Chaney and their two children over the dysfunction of the Walkers.
Chaney and Willetta act as a sort of surrogate family for the Walker children, stepping in as parents when Vivi and Shep fail and showing them the love their parents aren’t able to always give. “I got to keep my gaze on them chilren till the day I die,” says Willetta. “Too many things can happen in the blink of an eye, and that’s why I count my blessings every single day.”
I’ll leave things there until next week when we continue our discussion of Little Altars Everywhere and take a look at how South Louisiana is depicted on television and in film. If you’re not ready to stop reading (I know I’m not), here are a few related works to tide you over until the next class:
Ya-Yas in Bloom by Rebecca Wells
The Crowning Glory of Calla Lily Ponder by Rebecca Wells
Best of LSU Fiction (includes Rebecca Wells’ chapter from Little Altars “E-Z Boy War”)
Can’t Quit You, Baby by Ellen Douglas
The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy
The Awakening by Kate Chopin
The Women by Claire Boothe Luce
Next Week: Little Altars Everywhere continued & clips from “Swamp People,” “True Detective” and “True Blood”