Monday, March 18, 2013

Okatibbee Creek by Lori Crane


Review by Cori Van Housen

In the bloodiest years of our nation’s history, a young mother was left alone to endure the ravages of the Civil War and a typhoid epidemic that threatened the lives of everyone left behind. Okatibbee Creek is based on the true story of Mary Ann Rodgers, who survived the collapse of the Confederate dollar, food shortages, and the deaths of countless family members to war and disease. As she searched for a way to feed her children and her orphaned nieces and nephews, Sherman’s Union army marched through Mississippi on their way to destroy Meridian, and Mary Ann found the distant war literally on her doorstep. Help arrived just in the nick of time in the form of an unexpected champion, and Mary Ann emerged on the other side a heroic woman with an amazing story. Okatibbee Creek is a novel of historical fiction that brings the Deep South vividly to life and will have you cheering and crying through a real-life story of loss, love and survival.


During the course of a genealogical search into her roots, Lori Crane visited the grave of her third great grandmother, Mary Ann Rodgers.  After becoming acquainted with, and fascinated by, this forebear, Crane gathered data and assembled the facts of her life.  Then she put flesh on the bones, breathed imagination into it, and wove it into a novel, the result of which is Okatibbee Creek.  Told almost exclusively through Mary Ann Rodgers, the story opens in Mary’s sixth year.  It follows her through years of growing up, courtship, and motherhood, largely against the backdrop of a south torn by conflict and privation during the Civil War.

In the pre-war days, one can’t help but be astonished by the amount of babies born, the size of the families, and the complex interrelation of families.  Children grow, marry, and reproduce at an astounding rate.  Households are established, businesses formed, and small fortunes built, until war breaks out and men rush to the defense of the south.  Casualties mount as the conflict begins in earnest.  Disease claimed more in the ranks than battle, and those who remained at home were not immune to its ravages.  Anyone acquainted with history knows the losses were appalling, and Crane puts it in unique perspective.  Through the eyes of Mary, we get a glimpse of how it was for one woman, her family, extended family, and her community. 
      
Okatibbee Creek is about perseverance in the face of hardship and heartbreaking loss.  There is limited historical detail, for the weight of the text inclines towards revealing Mary’s heart.  Crane writes of Mary’s grief over several lost dear ones: “I can’t remember one moment to the next.  I don’t know how, but each moment just comes and goes and I am still alive.”  The account reads much like a diary, a page-turner of a diary.  Crane’s language is simple, yet profound.  One Christmas Eve, as families light candles for the dearly departed at a church service, Mary makes the poignant observation, “The room is brighter than a wheat field on a sunny day.”  It is such juxtaposing of the tragic with the hopeful that makes this novel shine. 
    
Lori Crane is sensitive and respectful of the subjects at hand.  She does not dwell on the more difficult aspects of slavery, which to some may seem a convenience, but it must be said that this is clearly not the aim of the book.  The slave stories, besides, are based on original accounts of the era.  She also refrains from delving into the more intimate details of Mary’s personal life, an omission one might expect from a proper southern lady of the time.  Her theme, as stated through Mary, is that we must honor the memories of our loved ones, and give witnesses to each other’s lives.  And in Okatibbee creek, this is exactly what Lori Crane has done--given faithful witness to these long-since passed on family members.  One likes to think Mary Ann Rodgers herself would be proud.