The Wiregrass: A Novel by Pam Webber takes the reader back to a southern summer in the late 1960s as a group of cousins converge in Crystal Springs, Alabama, for their annual summer-long visit with relatives. They nickname themselves “cussins” because they’re southern and because they’re not above using foul language from time to time. Narrator Nettie states, “Summers in Crystal Springs were what I lived for.” Crystal Springs is a small town with a general store, feed store, community center, fishing holes, and plenty of farmland and trees. It also serves as their kingdom. The town, as explained by Nettie, sits in the middle of the section of the south known as The Wiregrass. It got its name because the grass in that section is spidery and razor-like. Nettie’s mother gives her usual warning: “This is a place where angels and demons dance, so be careful whose toes you’re steppin’ on.”
That warning proves more foreboding than usual as a sinister darkness in the form of really bad men pervade the town. The kids heed the warnings to a certain extent but are more focused on pulling pranks, going fishing, and just being kids. The group ranges in age from six to fifteen, and they all look up to fifteen-year-old leader, J.D. He orchestrates the pranks, and this summer they will scale their pranking down to just rolling lawns with toilet paper (T.P.ing, as they call it). Their T.P.ing is saved for those they figure deserve reckoning. They had given up previous childish pranks like rigging doorbells to continuously ring, and tying full trash cans to car bumpers, but they’re not ready to completely let go.
They spend most of their time with their Aunt Pitty and Uncle Ben. Being southern, Nettie and the cousins address and refer to their aunt as “Ain’t” Pitty. An easy-going, fun-loving spirit, Ain’t Pitty indulges her guests to a certain extent, but they must adhere to rules. She and Uncle Ben constructed a chicken coop out of an old, abandoned school bus, and she takes the kids swamp fishing in waist-deep water. While she gives them a pass on some of their antics, she will give them their own reckoning when they go too far.
While the novel is filled with color, wit, and local flavor, darkness and heartbreak lie beneath the surface. Nettie falls for a local boy named Mitchell, who dreams of becoming a military helicopter pilot. He escapes to a field to watch the coppers flying from U.S. Army Aviation Center, Fort Rucker. It’s no wonder he desires a path that will make him free and take him far away, as he suffers horrific conditions at home. The group of “cussins” knows that Mitchell is suffering, but he can’t and won’t talk about it. So they continue to include him in their activities when he can get away, and he enjoys the joyful respite from his capsized reality.
The characters are vividly portrayed through the realistic dialog and dialect so aptly written. (“Damnation! First the stupid bucket burns the daylights outta me and now I’m playin’ pincushion to these damn sticker vines!”) The older ones, especially Nettie and J.D., mature slowly as the novel proceeds. They want to hold on to the priceless wonder of their childhood, but they are also preparing to face adulthood. Events in the book speed up this leap in maturity.
The Wiregrass: A Novel is colorful, nostalgic, and emotionally stirring. It’s the first novel by Pam Webber, and I hope she continues to write and publish.