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Monday, March 14, 2011

Look Away, Dixieland

If you are from the South, James Twitchell is the great-grandson of a greedy carpetbagger.  If you are from the North, he is the great-grandson of an enterprising businessman who was willing to relocate half way across the country in order to seek his fortune.  Defining the aftermath of the Civil War this way, largely based upon whether your section of the country was on the winning or on the losing side, is indicative of the still existing sectional differences in this country.  This difference in point-of-view is felt much more profoundly in the South, of course.  Southerners, after all, are descendents of those who had a very personal war waged against them by Mr. Lincoln’s armies.  Their homes, crops, cities, towns, factories, and universities were purposely destroyed in a way, and too a depth, that Union civilians seldom felt.

Twitchell, whose great-grandfather, Marshall H. Twitchell, moved from Vermont to Louisiana shortly after the war, now lives in Gainesville, Florida.  On the same day that President Barak Obama was inaugurated, he and his wife set out on a slow drive across the Old South, along U.S. Highway 84, in hope of gaining an understanding of how something like what was done to his ancestor could have happened.  What he learned from the people he met along the way opened his eyes in many ways.  Twitchell would learn new details about the assassination attempt on his great-grandfather, in which the man lost both arms, and he would gain insight into why horrors like that one occurred during the Reconstruction period.  Admittedly surprised by the friendliness and openness he encountered throughout the Deep South, Twitchell was forced to reconsider some of his own prejudices and stereotypical ideas about the South.  Look Away, Dixieland is part history lesson, part travelogue, and part memoir. 

At its core are two horrendous massacres that occurred during Southern Reconstruction: one at Colfax, Louisiana (April 1873) in which several dozen blacks were slaughtered, the other at Coushatta, Louisiana (August 1874), in which five whites, including three members of Twitchell’s family, and twenty blacks were killed.  Two years later, when Marshall Twitchell dared return to the parish, he narrowly escaped an attempt on his own life.

Twitchell’s travels along Highway 84 make for interesting reading.  He and his wife are appalled by the amount of trash they observe alongside the highway and by the easily observed poverty of the region, but they are slowly won over by the eagerness of the average Southerner to answer their questions and help make their quest a success.  As Twitchell interacts with the locals, visits their little museums and their big churches, even meeting descendents of those who might have tried to kill his great-grandfather, he begins to understand that he is not as different from these Southerners as he would have liked to believe at the beginning of his drive. 

The one false note that Twitchell strikes comes with almost a full dozen jarringly out-of-place references to Fox News or Sean Hannity.  Almost every time Twitchell references a point about racism or less than honest newspapers and reporters of that long ago time, he feels obligated to use modern day Fox News Channel as an example of what he means.  The references, spread throughout the entire book, more often distracted me than strengthened the point Twitchell wanted to make, weakening the book to a considerable degree.

Rated at: 3.5

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)
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