3 out of 4 stars
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Sketches of a Small Town…circa 1940 by Clifton K. Meador is a memoir about growing up in Greenville, Alabama. Now living in Nashville, Mr. Meador travels back to his hometown to attend the funeral of one of his oldest friends. This causes him to reminisce about his childhood in the 1930’s and 40’s. He takes a fond yet honest look back at a place where everyone knew your name and pretty much everything else about you.
The story is more of a series of vignettes about specific friends and townspeople, customs, and ordinary events. These memories form a scrapbook of sorts that, taken as a whole, gives a vivid picture of small-town Southern life. Sundays are for church, dress clothes worn all day, and fried chicken. Teenage sex is almost non-existent, as the fear of eternal damnation is an even stronger deterrent than the possibility of an unwanted pregnancy.
Each chapter focuses on a person, event, or custom. For example, one section explains how each Greenville family is defined by three things – what gas station they go to (there are three in town), religious affiliation (Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian), and which men’s club the father belongs to (Lions, Kiwanis, Rotary). I found the gas station aspect especially intriguing, considering nowadays people are not usually loyal to a particular gas station; instead, they tend to choose based on price or a more convenient location.
The author’s casual, conversational writing style made me feel like he was speaking directly to me. The imagery is clear of a town where organized religion is deeply rooted, segregation is a given, and eccentric people seem to be the norm. However, the pace is slow and there is not much propelling the story forward. While many of the individual accounts are interesting, the book could be a little more cohesive. The author would be talking about a particular person, and then the next chapter would abruptly switch to a completely different topic (usually another person). I would have liked a bit more emphasis on the social mores or, at least, a smoother flow between chapters.
The subject of Southern racism is discussed from Mr. Meador’s perspective as a young white boy. Although blacks and whites live on different sides of town, the author initially becomes close with Billy, the son of his family’s black cook Mamie. After the neighbors start gossiping about the playmates, his mother speaks to Mamie and the boys’ friendship abruptly ends. There is also a perceptive account of the author’s encounter with a wealthy black woman while installing venetian blinds at her home.
I noticed only two errors in this otherwise well-written book. One page includes an incorrect line break followed by the next line being incorrectly indented. Also, there should not be a space after the hyphen in the word socio-economic.
I rate this book 3 out of 4 stars. It is a heartwarming memoir that makes you realize how much, and sometimes how little, times have changed in small towns in the Deep South. I would recommend this story to readers who enjoy memoirs, particularly ones that focus on a specific place and historical period.
Sketches of a Small Town ...circa 1940
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