Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia by Mary Helen Stefaniak

The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia
by Mary Helen Stefaniak

My fifth grade teacher operated differently from the others. She was twenty-seven at the time, and not yet jaded by the decades passed like many of her co-workers. Ten and eleven-year-old kids did not have to be condescended to, and they could be trusted to handle bigger and more creative projects, all while making an effort to better understand the world around them. She wasn't strict, and the room did not dissolve into chaos. We were allowed to have our own opinions. We made our own hardcover books, we wrote poems and bound them into an edition for the school library, and for research projects, we could pick our own topics (mine included zebrafish and Australia).

One day, I was home sick, and my police officer father came home on his lunch break. He told me there had been an incident at my school. The account I have of what happened is cobbled together from what he told me, what my friends said, and the reaction of my teacher: A boy in my grade had borrowed a BB gun from his friend, and he decided to return it to his friend that day during morning recess. This was 1993 and Montana, so the pre-Columbine, hunting-culture ignorance of a child is more understandable. However, at the same time the boy decided to bring out the BB gun, my teacher happened to be looking out the window. From her vantage point, it was difficult to tell whether or not the gun was real. Not wanting to take any chances, she immediately called the police.

The school principal's reaction was to yell at my teacher for not reporting it to the office first. She ended up crying in front of our class, made to feel horrible for doing the right thing. Yes, the gun was not real. No, the kids did not have any malicious intent. But how was she to know? What might have happened in those minutes it took her to alert the office?

The boy was suspended from school for a few weeks. The principal held an assembly, which I did attend, to discuss with fourth and fifth graders why guns at school were a bad idea. It turned into our class protesting the treatment of our teacher, and also a support session for the boy's sister, who was a fourth grader at the time. It was an interesting hour — essentially we were saying to our principal, "We understand your point about weapons at school, but do not demonize the people involved."

Our teacher gave us a semi-embarrassed "Thank you" once we were back in the classroom, and we moved on with the rest of our day. Later that year, we were thrilled when she told us she would be teaching creative writing to sixth graders, so many of us would have her again in middle school. Out of everyone who taught me over the years, she remains one of my favorites.

The magic of a teacher who comes at the right time in a child's life cannot be underestimated, and Mary Helen Stefaniak's The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia takes that magic and combines it with the 1938 rural South. She weaves together the perspective of an eleven-year-old girl and the adventure from The Thousand Nights and a Night, and in a brief time, a teacher changes the town in a remarkable way.

On the surface, it sounds like a tale that's been done to death. Ah yes, the Flawed-but-Inspiring Figurehead, here to teach these naïve kids about the ways of the world. Won't you show us the error of our ways, enlightened one?

… It's not really like that. Not exactly.

Narrated from Gladys Cailiff's eleven-year-old point of view, Miss Spivey arrives in Threestep, Georgia wearing hiking boots underneath her dress. Unsatisfied with the previous curriculum in the one-room schoolhouse (high school-aged students attend elsewhere), she decides to give the children a more well-rounded, worldly education based on her knowledge acquired in private schools and travels abroad. Gladys finds her fascinating, as do many of the kids, but of course there are more conservative students who balk at her abandoning "the way things are done."

She put us to work at once making invitations for the folks at home on pieces of orange paper cut out to look like pumpkins. With varying degrees of speed and skill, we copied from the blackboard the place and time of the party (from dusk till midnight, which was thrilling right there), as well as words like candy apples and haunts (as in "House of Haunts"), which everybody but Miss Spivey pronounced "haints." She strolled back and forth amongst our desks, offering encouragement and additional suggestions for spelling and punctuation.

Most of us had already written the date on our pumpkin-shaped invitations when Mavis piped up to say, "You can't have no party on October thirty-first, Miss Spivey. It's the last Monday of the month."

Miss Spivey replied, in a particularly pleasant voice, "October thirty-first also happens to be Halloween, Mavis."

"Then I reckon you can't have no party on Halloween," Mavis said.

"Yes, you can!" Ralphord cried. He'd already drawn a pirate costume on the back of his invitation.

"Well, I sure wouldn't," Mavis said, "if I was y'all." She looked around the room significantly.

By now everybody's heart was sinking, except for Mavis's. She was thoroughly enjoying herself, I could tell. She just loved the fact that all the rest of us had been too excited, with the turban and the pumpkin-shaped invitations and all, to notice that October 31 was the last Monday of the month.

In Threestep, Georgia, the last Monday of the month was Klan night.

It would be goddamn ridiculous to have a novel set when/where this one is and not mention the presence of the Klan. Their existence is an unfortunate and undeniable truth, though in Threestep, most people treat them with weariness. No one wants to invite their anger, but at the same time, they are certainly not admired. When Gladys asks her father a question about them, she describes his reaction as "look[ing] like I was asking him something he hadn't given thought to in a long while. He also looked like he would have preferred to keep it that way."

When Miss Spivey makes it clear that she does not intend to treat local black students any differently than the white ones, despite them attending different schools, those in the know hold their breath. And with the success of the Halloween party (though changed to a different date), she has even more progressive plans for the town's spring festival. All year, they work on what will be called the Baghdad Bazaar. Everything leads up to this night and its unknown outcome.

Heavily involved, though mostly in secret, in the designs of the Baghdad Bazaar is Theo Boykin, a talented inventor who finds learning from the dated colored high school’s textbooks inferior. He, along with his brother and mother, are the Cailiff's neighbors, and Miss Spivey takes an interest in his artistic skills and college ambition. His creative and engineering abilities weave nicely into the Thousand Nights narrative, and Stefaniak makes clear that some people are born as legend.

While Georgia is an interesting book, it's not without fault. We know everything about some characters, and little about others. What happens after everything comes to a climax is neither a downhill wrap-up, nor a Thelma and Louise-style cliff jump. Without spoiling anything, we instead start on a different story timeline altogether, before we're jarringly taken back to the original. It's not that the separate timeline is bad or completely unrelated — No, it serves a purpose — but something about the way it is executed didn't sit right with me. Starting over with expository information three-quarters of the way through the book made me glaze over a little, and I wondered when we would snap back to what had just happened. I wish I could be more specific, but the last part of the book was somewhat disappointing, despite the revelations it held. I know that it is entirely unhelpful to say, "Well, I don't know what would fix it, but I wish it were fixed," however true.

Still, Georgia has plenty of merit, and I am not sorry I read it. Though tempered through the eyes of a child, it provides a worthy portrait of the pre-WWII South, mostly unburdened by cliché. A remarkable teacher is a remarkable teacher in any era, and those that are good at their jobs can change the way anyone looks at life. I just wish Miss Spivey's story had been more satisfying.


Full disclosure: W.W. Norton sent this book to me for review purposes. I thank them for the gesture and will continue to be fair with my reviews.

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read III, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. In order to make up for last year’s 51 books, I’m aiming for 53. The challenge ends December 31, 2011.

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