Once I was aboard a riverboat called the American Queen on which I had spent several days cruising along what I consider to be the majestic Mississippi River. I boarded in New Orleans and, along with the other passengers, crawled toward St. Louis.
It was my blessed fortune to be hired by the riverboat company to entertain its passengers with Southern storytelling. For two scant hours of telling stories, I both had been paid and given the privilege of 10 days on the river I love best. The riverboat made various stops along the way such as Vicksburg where we toured the battlefields and Natchez where we shopped the antique stores. A stop in the Mississippi Delta town of Greenville had been touted as a “literary tour.”
Perhaps you don’t know the contributions that this once prominent cotton town has made to the history of words, both those that are important and those that are immortal. The Percys hail from there, both William Alexander Percy and his nephew, Walker. So, too, does the legendary newspaper man Hodding Carter, once publisher of the Delta-Democrat in Greenville, whose well-written, hard-hitting editorials garnered for him the prestigious Pulitzer. Though this has nothing to do with literature, it’s interesting to note that Jim Henson, creator of the Muppets, grew up in Greenville. Apparently, its legendary black, alluvial-rich soil fertilizes creativity as well as cotton.
On the day we docked in Greenville, the Delta-Democrat had put out a special edition with headline type normally reserved for assassinations and war. Huge letters proclaimed: SHELBY FOOTE DIES. The noted Civil War historian and author was also a Greenville native and resident. We climbed on the tour bus and I sat in the front next to driver and tour guide. The plan was to take us to the library to view memorabilia, a couple of museums, a book store and point out landmarks along the way.
There was really only one writer from Greenville who had my keen interest. I slid forward in my seat and said eagerly to the guide, “Do we go by where Julia Reed grew up?”
She shook her head. “No, her parents asked that we not do that.”
“Darn.” I frowned. “I love her.”
You don’t know Julia Reed? Well, you should. If you like Southern writers, particularly those skilled in the culture and history of the Delta and New Orleans, and if you are especially fond of someone who weaves a good story out of anything from ham biscuits to Botox to presidential elections, Miss Julia is the writer for you. She is a Southern storyteller in the finest Greenville, Mississippi, fashion.
I found her first in the pages of Vogue then followed her to Newsweek. In both periodicals, she personalized otherwise cold stories and managed to seductively draw in the reader. I wrote her a letter of admiration. Okay, call it a fan letter for I am exactly that — an unabashed fan of Julia Reed’s. I enclosed a copy of my first book on Southern women, noting that she represents the South, its women and its storytellers so darn well.
Like any well-bred, well-trained Southern woman, she responded with a copy of her book, Queen of The Turtle Derby, and a lovely, entertaining hand-written letter. Of course, my admiration grew boundlessly.
Though I had given her last book, The House on First Street, as gifts, my own copy had remained, unread, on the book shelf. When, at last, I picked it up to read, I was reminded why I enjoy her work so much. It is a love story of a woman (Julia) who falls for a historic home in New Orleans and, along with her husband, sets out to restore it. Then Katrina hits the city. It is superb storytelling.
If you don’t know Miss Julia, you should meet her through her writing. I think y’all will get along beautifully.
Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of What Southern Women Know (That Every Woman Should). Visit www.rondarich.com to sign up for her weekly newsletter.