Another North Carolina book caught my eye last year (I love the cover art!) but I just got around to reading it.
The Sittin' Up by Sheila P. Moses (Putnam, 2014).
The premise for The Sittin' Up is an interesting one. The year is 1940, and former slave, Mr. Bro. Wiley has died. Stanbury "Bean" Jones is 12 years old, finally old enough to attend his first "sittin' up," an area tradition with similarities to an "Irish wake" or Judaism's "sitting shiva." There is not a lot of action in The Sittin' Up - something I've seen it knocked for in other reviews. I, however, loved the opportunity to take my time and get to know the rich personalities of the Low Meadows community, where they treat death with sorrow, remembrance, practicality, and humor.
Mr. Bro. Wiley lived with Bean and his parents, Stanbury and Magnolia Jones, and was revered by the everyone in the closely-knit African American community. Bean's father, a stutterer, is generally accepted as a leader of the community and is a foreman on the tobacco farm where many of the Low Country men work for the white, wealthy, Mr. Thomas. Bean's mother is Magnolia, a kind, commonsense woman with a baby on the way.
Other characters include Miss Florenza (the bootlegging sinner who dares wear red to a sittin' up) and Miss Lottie Pearl (Pole's busybody mother and Magnolia's best friend),
"Yes, Lord. Please help us," Miss Florenza said. Miss Lottie Pearl rolled her eyes at Miss Florenza. Poor Miss Florenza can't even talk to Jesus without Miss Lottie Pearl putting her two cents in.
Bean's best friend is Pole (they go together like a bean to a pole), and there's the preacher (who is more concerned with fancy clothes, cars, and women, than his parishioners),
"I thought we were in a Depression," Pole whispered to me.There's also Uncle Goat the liar,
"We are." I whispered back.
"Look like to me Reverend Hornbuckle should have been thinking about how the folk at Sandy Branch Baptist Church are gonna eat come winter instead of buying a new car," Pole said. Wasn't sure if the preacher heard my sassy friend, but she didn't seem to care. She got a whole of Miss Lottie Pearl in her as sho' as Mr. Bro. Wiley was dead in the house.
Ma swears Uncle Goat is the biggest liar in Northampton County. Papa said that ain't so. He said Uncle Goat is the biggest liar in the state of North Carolina. That's how he got the nickname Goat. Ma says he eats the truth up faster than a goat eats grass.
Even Mule Bennett has a personality,
"I will never forget Mr. Bro. Wiley," I thought as we headed to town. Mule Bennett must have felt the same way. He was slowing down and barely lifted his head. Papa kept saying, "Get-get, get up, mule, get up." But Mule Bennett took his own sweet time.Mr. Bro. Wiley,the reader gets to know through the remembrances of the living.
Yes, this is a story about segregation and how a great catastrophe serves as a catalyst for change, but that is the backdrop for a story that is mostly about people - wonderfully flawed people - people who sometimes do the wrong thing, but choose the right one when it matters - people who know the value of dignity and community - people who find sorrow and joy and humor in the small occurrences of daily life - people - just plain people - just like us.
I may have nothing in common with North Carolina sharecroppers of 1940, but these people "spoke" to me, nonetheless. If you enjoy historical fiction with a character-driven plot, you'll love The Sittin' Up.
- You can listen to an audio excerpt of The Sittin' Up here.
- Read a short "interview" with Sheila Moses here.