Tag Archives: poverty

The Monday Book: RANDOM FAMILY by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc

This is not a happy family book, so you may want to wait until Spring to read it. I ordered it after following its appearance on my friend Nichole’s TEN BOOKS THAT INFLUENCED ME list. We shared a love for eight of the ten, one was A Prayer for Owen Meany (and Nichole is the reason our staff cat has that name; it’s the only Owen that will ever grace our shelves) and one was Random Family. I love ethnographic studies, so I ordered it.

Densely packed, this is the summation of 11 years of work with people floating through – or perhaps drowning in – the justice system. I’m not sure the term “social justice” appears often, but the whole book is an indictment of the idea that poverty is the fault of the poor. And it’s a really ringing indictment. Roaches falling by the dozens into carefully chosen food, men coming up fire escapes into the windows of “free” housing provided a woman with four daughters, the inner workings of a prison hierarchy for education and a future–it’s going to set you back a bit.

Jack liked the book because, as a prison visitor, he’s seen much of what the men go through trying to form outside attachments and secure stability. LeBlanc didn’t use the words “search for security, love, maybe some significance” very often, either, but the whole book is one mad shuffle between family members looking for those things, mostly in that order.

Coco and Jessica, the main female characters, are clearly drawn as real, lovely, flawed, and stuck. One of the questions in the book group guide at the end of this book reminds readers that LeBlanc was in the community for eleven years, part and parcel to all that is described, yet she doesn’t appear as a character.

That’s one of the book’s quirks; LeBlanc has made nothing up, it’s all from interviews and observation. Yet she is invisible, and the book is not so much narrated by an invisible person as scatter pelleted by some unseen weapon. Sentence after sentence, some of them barely hooked together, scene after scene, description after description, and although the whole thing circles a spiral of recurring events, it doesn’t sound the same. LeBlanc writes like a machine gun.

Not everyone will like this book. It’s less narrative arc or journalism than ethnographic description. It doesn’t ask “why,” just tells “how.” I’d like to say it’s haunting, but in all honesty, as someone so far removed from what LeBlanc describes, the word might be daunting. How can anyone make economic inequality going this far wrong, better?

LeBlanc did an interview ten years after the book’s 2003 publication; you can find it here.

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Filed under Big Stone Gap, blue funks, book reviews, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, publishing, reading, Sarah Nelson, Uncategorized, Wendy Welch, writing, YA fiction

Don’t Look a Gift Potato in the Eye

I was gardening out front of the shop when one of our favorite customers pulled up. IMG_4190

“H’lo, dear!” Ms. X waved a hank of fuzzy cloth. “I was yard sale-ing and found this jacket and said, ‘This looks like Wendy.'”

Hence the favorite thing. Not only does she do nice stuff like this all the time, she’s always right. I liked the pretty jacket instantly. Cost her 50 cents, which she did not want back.

Ms. X is one of many people around here who takes life by the horns that tried to gore her, and headbutts it. She and her son, both chronically ill, have no insurance; he has a crappy job. They live carefully in a house that labels them legally homeless, frugal to a fault with secondhand sales, day old baked goods, and the daily, considered creativity of what’s for supper. They don’t fish or garden for fun. But they have fun fishing and gardening.

“They’s sweet potatoes in Appalachia,” Ms. X winked as she departed, a couple of value paperbacks under one arm.

That’s not some mysterious Southern code. About every six months, in a little town two miles over, some person or persons unknown dumps produce under an abandoned gas station’s awning. Word of mouth goes out, and those as want it, go get it. Often it’s sweet potatoes, sometimes bananas. (When that happens, banana bread becomes currency and Huddle House runs a month-long “banana breakfast biscuit” special.) Rumor says once “the dump” was Hershey bars.

quick get in!I’d never availed myself of “the dump” before but my friend Elissa’s dogs LOVE sweet potato treats. Knowing she was busy helping another friend run a yard sale, in a fit of mischievous humor I grabbed a tea cozy, the back scratcher we use to turn off the kitchen light, and a role of tp. Racing to the sale field, I leaped from my car and shouted to Elissa, “QUICK, GET IN! I’LL EXPLAIN AS WE DRIVE!”

I probably should have remembered that Elissa is a news photographer. While everyone else stared, dumbfounded, with a swift flick of the wrist she held up her cell phone and snapped. And now I’m a meme on the Internet.

At the dump we got two bags for Elissa’s rescue dachshunds–who will waddle through this week in plump yam repleteness–and a bag each for friends we knew were busy. I asked Elissa, born and raised here, about the dump’s origins and she said rumor suggested some wealthy individual who’d made good elsewhere did it for his hometown. No one knows who, or why. And no one really questions. Why look a gift potato in the eye?

I imagine sweet Ms. X and her son sitting down to buttered baked yams, she saying, “…and for breakfast tomorrow there’ll be fresh sweet potato muffins.” On the counter sits a steaming potato casserole she’ll be taking to the church social.

Go by, mad world.

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Filed under animal rescue, Big Stone Gap, folklore and ethnography, humor, Life reflections, small town USA, Uncategorized, VA