Graceland, At Last

Graceland at Last coverGraceland, At Last: Notes on Hope and Heartache From the American South
Margaret Renkl
Milkweed Editions (September 8, 2021), 296 pages
Kindle edition $10.69, Amazon hardcover $13.99

I’m always interested in finding well-written essays, and since Graceland, At Last won the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay, I decided I needed to add it to my reading list. I was not disappointed. The book consists of essays that Margaret Renkl originally published as a columnist in The New York Times. One can recognize the New York Times style: men’s last names are preceded by “Mr.” and women’s by “Ms.”

Renkl writes widely about life in the South. The range of topics is made clear by the titles of the various sections of the book: Flora & Fauna, Politics and Religion, Social Justice, Environment, Family & Community, and Arts & Culture.

Putting the Flora & Fauna section first was a wise move. Those essays drew me into the book. Renkl writes beautifully about the natural world both in her native Alabama and in her adopted Tennessee. By the time I got to the Politics & Religion and the Social Justice sections I was hooked, even though the reading was less pleasant. The essays in the book were published between 2018 and 2021, so well after the inauguration of that blustering man with the orange hair. Renkl has much the same opinion of him that I do, and she doesn’t mince words. Nor is she reticent to state her opinion of laws in the South that make life more difficult for the poor and minorities. She is not, however, strictly negative. She writes about attending Jimmy Carter’s Sunday School class in Plains Georgia and his constructive outlook for addressing our social issues. She recounts how people have worked together to solve community problems.

Renkl’s writing can be clear and lucid.

quoteI grieve what is happening to the natural world, and I understand perfectly well that my own efforts to help are far from enough. But when I watch a bluebird introducing his mate to the nest box I’ve installed for them, it’s impossible to give up. When the tiny hummingbirds make it back from far across the Gulf of Mexico, it’s impossible to give up.

Renkl is outspoken in her feminist views. She writes about a female college soccer star who kicked off the second half of a men’s college football game because the team was so depleted by COVID. She recalls insisting on trying out for her college’s football team shortly after Title IX went into effect, not because she wanted to be on the team, but because she was beginning her career as a writer and she wanted to test how the law was being followed at her college.

If you appreciate the art of the essay Graceland, At Last will be well worth your time.

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