I was born in Newton, Mississippi, north of Soso, west of Chunky. When I was growing up, my grandfather talked about "the war" as though it had happened yesterday. He often took me to the Mount Zion Cemetery where there is a marker which honors two boys in our family. Myth has it that when their father went off to war and they were supposed to stay behind, these two brothers aged fifteen and sixteen, joined the calvary and left home. "Yankees killed them at the Battle of Murphree's Borough in Tennessee," my grandfather used to tell me. I thought about those two boys so often that I felt that they were my brothers and that they had died in my lifetime. Years later, my father moved us away from Mississippi, up North to Chicago. Whenever we came back to Newton to visit my grandfather, he called us Yankees. He made us feel miserable -- for leaving or for returning, I was never sure which.
My grandfather talked so much about his family, that his wife, my grandmother, barely got a word in about her side of the family -- some of whom were called the Russells. When my grandmother died a few years ago, a relative gave me a manuscript she found in a shoe box while cleaning out a closet. Apparently, my grandmother's great uncle, Frank Russell talked out his life to someone before he died, and that someone wrote it all down. The manuscript, called The Life and Times of Frank Russell, turned out to be a wonderful, rough sketch of Frank Russell's life in Smith County, Mississippi during the 1850's and 1860's.
The part about Frank's life that interested me the most, however, was what he did not talk about. When all the "menfolk" went off to war, he was left home with all the women and children. The real Frank did not talk about that time, and I could not stop thinking about how that might make a young boy feel -- to be left behind during a war of such high stakes -- and that is how I came to shape Shanks.
The real Frank Russell really did make his own shoes, really did go sparking (though not with Irene Beall), really did pull fodder, and when the real Frank's real father came home from the war, they did have to go begging for food at a neighbor's house where they wept real tears. As the real Frank Russell said, "those were devastating times."
Both the real and fictional Frank Russell were indeed lucky. They survived the war years, and they managed to pull themselves and their families together to move forward into the future.
My father often talked about how rough Smith County was. After the war, Confederate soldiers brought home their guns, and for the first time most every family was armed.
I wrote this story for my son James, who at four is already impatient about becoming a man and growing strong.
I also wrote this story for my father. Like many southerners, my father loves the story-telling, the food, the history, and all the natural beauty of his home state, Mississippi. And like many southerners, my father also knows about all of the south's past and all that it is has lost and will perhaps never regain.
I still listen to stories about General Sherman's raids through Mississippi, how women hid the family silver, and what people ate during those years of hard times. But I especially like to hear the stories about the great migration North -- the negro migration, what tricks they used to keep the dogs away, the songs they sang to signal their leave-taking, the secret routes they took to freedom. Buck got to Chicago where my father took us. I don't know that Buck would ever call himself a Yankee, but I think, like my father, for better or for worse, he will always have Mississippi in his heart.
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