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Of Mama, Jinkie and play-pretties

'My relatives don't take travel lightly. Hell, a few of them pray before making a long-distance call."

So begins Melissa Delbridge's new memoir "Family Bible." It's the perfect beginning for this funny and at times linguistically floral book. The book is mostly about Delbridge's family and the varied and sometimes difficult paths they travel, and though physically it never gets very far from her Tuscaloosa, Ala., hometown, emotionally it covers some ground.

One of the chief delights of this book is Delbridge's talent for capturing the way Southerners talk. As she says: "I love Tuscaloosa. I also believe it sprung up from the riverbanks for the solitary purpose of making me crazy. Every time I go back, I fall in love with it again. Especially the language. People there give a damn about everything and they like talking about it." And talk about it they do. Particularly, Delbridge's salty-tongued mother, who is one of the stars of the book. Her mother met her handsome father when she made an emergency landing in a cornfield, "flying lessons being the rage among young women in the years just after Amelia's flight." Things, well, took off from there, but the flight got a little bumpy. Many women found Delbridge's father attractive and he didn't mind that at all apparently. He was prone to go off on weeklong "hunting trips" and one such occasion becomes the trigger for much sorrow (and some joy) that enters Delbridge's adolescence. In one paragraph, her world changes. "Sugar, get up and get dressed and pack your school clothes and don't you dare forget those new red shoes. ... Nobody at the River Bend Hunting Club's seen hide nor hair of your daddy this week and I've had it up to here with his gallivanting around! We'll come back for your play-pretties next week."

That Mama thinks of the red shoes in the middle of a midnight skedaddle is so Mama and so this book. Delbridge remembers well, and those things she cannot remember lovingly, she remembers carefully with a steady gaze and telling details. Like the red shoes. And I haven't heard the phrase "play-pretties" since my grandmother died. For that alone, I'm glad I read this book.

There are tough times ahead, but Delbridge writes about them with humor and some hard-won insight. Some of her best lessons come to her via her nervy best friend in high school, Jinkie. And she pulls no punches in telling her stories of adventures and misadventures with her friend who is apt to steal rum from her alcoholic father and sneak it to school in a partially rinsed out perfume bottle. When a teacher catches Delbridge and Jinkie having a morning smoke in the girls' bathroom before school, Delbridge learns about toughness in the face of authority, even if it is at her own expense. "The teacher grabbed my wrist, and Jinkie took one more puff, exhaled thoughtfully, then pointed at her with her Chesterfield. 'Woman,' she threatened, eyes narrowed, 'if you don't get your hands off her and back out of this bathroom this minute, I'll call your husband before lunchtime and tell him about you and her daddy.'"

Apparently, Jinkie is right on the money and Delbridge isn't even sore at her friend for using her father as a blunt instrument.

Delbridge, an archivist in the Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library at Duke University, is mostly concerned with story and language but on occasion she'll also drop in a nugget of wisdom. She has watched well and thought it over. Of Jinkie she says: "By the time we started high school, I knew I had erred in ever thinking Jinkie strong, but I did not care. Anything could hurt her and did, only she wouldn't let on, and I loved her all the more for this. What she was was fearless, and fearless passes for strong if you don't look too close."

"Family Bible" seems to me both fearless and strong. If you're a Southerner you'll smile with recognition on every page. If you're not, this book is a great place to get an education. Either way, you'll have a good time.

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