Red-Dirt Jessie by Anna Myers

Inshaallah, we are to go on a long road trip this summer, all the way to Kenctucky, and we are to pass through several states along the way. I decided to squeeze the most I can out of this trip for our homeschool experience, and started to google children’s historical fiction based in these states we’re going to pass through. I found Red-Dirt Jessie and so I searched the library’s catalog for it. Nada. Annoying. So very annoying. So I went to my next source; our local used bookstore, good ole’ Coas. The last time I went, I had found a treasure of historical fiction, titles that I was looking for and more. Coas didn’t disappoint me. I found Red-Dirt Jessie, and more. I left Coas with a tall stack of historical fiction that I now have adorning my side table, coffee table, some steps on the stairs and of course the shelves. I never said I’m orderly when it comes to books, despite my love for them.I love books to pieces, almost literally.

The story is set in Oklahoma during the Depression. Jessie is the narrator, and she began with the story of her little sister’s funeral. Patsy, her younger sister, died of pneumonia. I have to say I forgot that this story was set in Oklahoma until later on in the book, so the dialogues threw me off. The language was full of grammatical mistakes. It was only then that I realized that it was set in Oklahoma, and not being an American, it piqued my curiosity as to how these dialogues should sound in real life. It even got me wondering how authors of historical fiction are able to be in their characters’ heads and talk like they’re supposed to. I would love to write historical fiction, though fiction is not really my niche, but it must really involve a lot of research, as affirmed by Anna Myers in this interview.

Jessie’s father plummets into depression with the death of his youngest child. Jessie has a younger brother, H.J., so her father still has two children left, but his depression is such that he ceases to speak and passes his time rocking on the rocking chair, staring off into space. Many a times, while reading this book, I was reminded of Julaybib, our stillborn son. Reading about Jessie’s father’s depression made me think of hubby’s reaction to Julaybib’s death. He took it harder than I did. For a while, he was in some kind of a denial. It actually surprised me. Upon reflection, I attribute all of it to Allah and the wonderful deen of Islam. Because of Islam and the belief of the hereafter, we were able to accept it and even deem it as a good thing. Death is one of those tests that Allah has mentioned in the Quran. One of the five different kinds of tests that will be doled out to us. It’s not an easy test. That is why belief in the hereafter is a beautiful thing.  Even devout Christians take solace from the belief in the hereafter when afflicted by the test of death. It makes me wonder why Myers never mentioned anything about this in this book. (Though I may be wrong in my recall of mention of heaven, since I pretty much read this book from beginning almost to the end in 45 minutes of waiting for my son’s speech therapy session to end). They go to church, though you could tell that their attitude towards it bordered on mockery, especially from the kids’ point of view. The incident where H.J. suddenly shoots an arm out from below the river, sending the church audience into an outburst of  horror, as some thought it to be satan that had come to destroy the baptism ceremony, gives a hint of this mockery. To their horror, shock, surprise and eventually mirth, the hand turned out to belong to a boy clothed only in his dripping underwear. H.J. had decided to take a dip in the river to cool off while the baptism was going on. A man remarked about how that was the most interesting baptism ceremony he ever attended, while his wife nudged him in the ribs.

Myers has wonderfully interjected humor amidst the gloomy backdrop of the  story. H.J. is the main source of humor, and Jessie, the source of reason and strength. After the baptism incident, H.J. said,

You know what? I got me a plan. Preacher told abuot how Moses got water out of rock by just whopping it with a stick.  Well, there is a slew of rocks down in the south pasture. First thing tomorrow I’m getting me a stick. A great big one. Then I am to go down into that pasture and make us one great big swimming hole.

From the very beginning, the setting has been very grim, with Patsy’s death, Papa’s depression, the Depression, that these humorous scenes became very welcome and appreciated to me as a reader. Jessie’s relationship with her younger brother H.J. is endearing, especially when she resists saying some things for his sake. When she hatched up the plan to save their chickens who are under attack of the wolves, she included her six year old brother. Mama was sick, and Papa was lost in his own depression. So it was up to Jessie to save the chickens, which was about all they have in such hard times. She tied H’j.s shoelaces, and as they approached the chicken house in the dark of the night, she felt guilty about waking H.J. up.

In Papa’s depression, Jessie’s Aunt Maybell, Papa’s sister, sent for the Doc to check on Papa before she left for California to seek better living. Aunt Maybell is the one who mentioned ‘red dirt’ that gives this book’s title. It is this red dirt that Jessie later recalls as she struggles to help her lost Papa resurface and keep the family afloat when things grew worse. Papa is so lost in his grief that when Doc came to check on him, Doc left shaking hiis head and telling Mama that while Papa may well get out of this slump, he may never will. It would probably take a tragedy to snap Papa out of it, and at some point in the book, Aunt Maybell reminds Papa that he still has two children even if one is gone. What she said also foreshadows the climax of the story.

This a story of love, grief, perseverance, and the relationship between a girl and a dog. That dog is Ring, Aunt Maybell’s dog who has gone to the wild side and can be quite dangerous, especially to little girls and boys. Ring is what keeps Jessie moving forward despite the glum condition at home. Ring is her source of strength and perseverance, and you can’t help but admire her tenacity. In her situation, by right, Jessie should have been angry for her Papa’s depression, since he completely ignores his two other children. But she never expresses this anger, and the only anger that came out was when her mother decided to shoot Ring because he was deemed dangerous. In her anger, she said to her Mama,

If you shoot Ring, you might as well shoot Papa too!

I really felt glum myself reading this book, but the touch of humor and love urged me to keep turning the pages to the end. By the time I reached the end, I was glad I stuck through it.

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