She was light-skinned among a family of black-skinned people. Surely that oddity alone made her, if not special, then surely set apart. Special but not different. This is a multi generational odyssey set in the Mississippi Delta region, beginning in 1898 and ending about 100 years later.
Allene is special, and not only because of her light complexion in a family of dark-skinned folk. Her father, Carl, is a preacher, and her mother, Nashville, is a doer of good deeds. It is one such deed that leads to a strange tragedy and a stranger friendship. While visiting a young girl who has recently miscarried, Nashville is accosted by two white teenaged boys. Her rescuer is entirely unexpected: a white boy (Nashville’s people would have called him “trash”) named Mike Poe. Their encounter leads to the conception of Allene, whose long life will take many twists and turns but always, in some way, be connected to her real father.
Author Rose Mary Stiffin (Reflections, Groovin’ on the Half Shell) has stitched together the saga of Allene
and her parents, children, and grandchildren. In a brief foreword, Stiffin makes it clear that she does not wish her depiction of conditions one hundred years ago to mirror contemporary “vernacular, behavior or culture.” Her novel, though, has the power of rich language and accent underscoring the differences in the times--but the same human thread connecting past (some of it charming, some of it violent) and present (some of it romantic, some of it seamy). Through the lives of Nashville, Allene, and their descendants, we will be learning while being entertained.
In Allene’s life and that of her children, the reader will meet with subtle biases that people of all colors carry while crossing or not crossing that invisible color line. The compassion and sensitivity of Mike Poe is highlighted, especially notable when seen against the violent tenor of the oppressive times that he and Allene live through.
Stiffin takes the reader through the tunnel of black history and especially Southern black history. She explores such real truths as the sit-ins, being able to but choosing not to pass as white (Jared, an organizer of the sit-ins). She even explores same-sex adoption and, if the characters were real
(and they read as real), the two men, JC and Paul, would now be a married couple who adopted the two abused siblings.
In the modern era, Wayne, Allene’s grandson, a chemist (like the book’s author) and a “dyed in the wool Southerner,” bemusedly laments that he is expected to be “an encyclopedia of black experience” for his white acquaintances. These vignettes, seemingly minor threads interwoven into a complex family story, give the reader (of whatever race) glimpses into subtle racial, social, and cultural biases at every level. Up to and including the final scene when Allene reveals the long-hidden truth about her past, the reader will be continually confronted with the breadth and flexibility of the book’s characters.
To teach while entertaining is a rare skill, and Sitiffin has it. Walk in Bethel won Honorable Mention in the Amsterdam International Book Festival and seems destined for further recognition. Like other “big” books rooted in Southern culture, it couldn’t have been conceived outside the milieu, but through the author’s eyes we see characters and situations that are bigger than the region.