Book review

Small-town Southern women come to life

CorrespondentJanuary 18, 2009 

My grandmother, a very wise woman, had two very valuable pieces of advice:

1. Every woman should have her own money.

2. Every woman should be able to support herself.

I recall, too, how she treasured (and practiced) her right to vote, reveling in the joy that her husband never knew for whom she voted, something that galled him to no end.

These memories make me certain that my grandmother would enjoyed Dawn Shamp's first novel, "On Account of Conspicuous Women," as much as I did. Set in Roxboro, North Carolina during the 1920s, the novel vividly portrays small town Southern life, while portraying women who are larger than the world they know.

The novel is also a corrective to everyone (including me) who has associated the suffrage movement with sophisticated women in sophisticated places like New York and Chicago or New England academic towns those dull uptight ladies in old black and white photos that make us think "butter wouldn't melt in their mouths."

In "Conspicuous Women" Shamp brings the fight down home the women's suffragette movement as it played out in our own front yard. That said, this is not a novel about social justice. While touching on the struggle for women's and civil rights, reaching from Washington, DC to voter registration for blacks and women in the hinterlands, politics is a secondary element in this novel.

So is plot, for that matter. Things happen, but there is no central narrative driving this work that triumphs through its depiction of character and place.

Shamp's got small town Southern white women down to their hair roots. She is funny! If you don't laugh out loud at least a dozen times, you need to get your funny bone back in tune.

Shamp's even got the names right. The four main characters are Guerine, Bertie Ina, Miss Lulaura and Doodle. (Doesn't every Southern family have a Doodle? And wouldn't you hate to be the one stuck with that byname?)

The novel follows these four interesting women whose acts touch and shimmer in an outward circle that, bringingb their lives and world to life. It proves the old adage that if you want to "know" an era, don't read history but fiction.

Shamp must have read not only all the newspapers from Roxoboro and North Carolina from that period, but also all the women's magazines too. Her women dress smart in suits, pumps, hats and gloves. They get their hair bobbed (scandalous! scandalous!), at the barber shop, drive Model T Fords called "flivvers" and take no guff from anybody.

Take Bertie, for instance. She's the town's sole telephone operator, plugged into everybody's lives. She's a working girl but to a point. "If there's one thing I will never be is heroic for the telephone company. Not like that silly woman in Tennessee. Talk about foggy in the upper story. Wouldn't leave the switchboard till she called up everybody to warn them about a flood. They all got out, and that birdwit drowned. Come a flood here, my fat rear will be the first one in the boat!" Bertie feels her calling is "to see women gain full equality with men." She's sassy and spunky, says "she hasn't met a man yet who wasn't apt to get emotional over a silly game of horseshoes. What made him more fit to vote than her?"

The scene where Ina Fitzhugh, the new teacher, is "welcomed" to the community is one of the funniest (and truest) exchanges of Southern rituals captured in prose, Shamp shows the three questions anybody who's not from here gets upon first meeting. Where you from? Who's your daddy? and What church you go to? Along with the commercials and local lore. "There's no finer place than Roxboro Methodist," said Mrs. Wheeler, the neighbor who just happened to drop in. "Why last year we all got together and made a memory quilt and raffled it off."

"That was so their preacher could buy a new automobile to drive all of two blocks," her Baptist competition joined in, followed by, "And don't forget, what was left over, he used for sending flowers to the infirm." They get their comeuppance when Miss Fitzhugh turns out to be a Unitarian.

Shamp has an infallible ear for dialogue and she never once gives in to stereotypes. Her characters live and breathe. They're my family and friends and I take great delight in knowing them.

The men in "Conspicuous Women" stand unconspicuously in the background but they may surprise the reader. Especially Bertie's dear old dad, who turns out not to be so dear after all. (He was shot being mistaken for a wild turkey. But what could you expect of a man who loved to dress up in feathers?) And of course there's a romance or two plaited skillfully in.

If I started a "You Gotta Read This" bookclub, Dawn Shamp's Conspicuous Women would be among those at the top of my list.

Ruth Moose is a fiction writer who teaches English at UNC-Chapel Hill.

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