Koehler Books, 2017
“What better theater for grand, cathartic gestures of national atonement than the South, where guilt is as indigenous as Scarlett O’Hara and pecan pie?” Diane McWhorter implores in her New York Times article, What Southern Guilt? Southern guilt and absolution have walked side-by-side for centuries. McWhorter asserts that “sin is but the handmaiden to expiation.” In other words, an individual cannot commit wrongs and not expect karmic justice to unfold. Yet Southerners have a special way of evading the absolution they crave while wallowing indulgently in their own personal guilt.
J.C. Sasser’s debut novel, Gradle Bird examines the personal guilt Southerners experience through a cast of captivating characters as spellbinding as the sweltering Georgia summer they inhabit. Through the cast of characters, readers explore how to make peace with their guilt in their own individual ways. A sixteen year-old-girl named Gradle discovers how shame from the past can halt one from enjoying the present. Her own list of slights shows the broad range of a sin’s severity and the ripples of repercussion.
Gradle lives with her grandfather Leonard in a rundown motel frequented by truckers and prostitutes. Though the setting stinks of hardened regret from the rough-edged guests, Gradle’s slights remain innocent, minor, and easily corrected by comparison. Stealing a piece of candy from a store makes her feel “like shit.” Here Sasser entices her readers with a gentle invitation to dance with their own shortcomings. But as Gradle and Leonard move to a condemned house in desperate need of repair, the reader also finds a past filled with ghosts and relationships in need of the same attention. Gradle’s own shortcomings soon intensify as do their repercussions.
After moving to the house, Gradle runs into Sonny Lee, a boy whom Leonard sizes up as a “badass” with a mean streak. She also meets evangelical but misguided hobo named Ceif. Her involvement with this duo leads to the eventual death of the mysterious Delvis’ dog. The dog’s death serves as a catalyst for ill intent when Gradle, Sonny Lee, and Ceif throw firecrackers into Delvis’ yard, trespassing as well as disturbing the man’s already shaky peace. Delvis accidentally shoots his dog in an attempt to ward off the trespassers, resulting in the dog’s death. Gradle feels responsible for the dog’s death, and writes a letter to Delvis in an attempt to create peace for both herself and the victim of her own wiles. Thus, Sasser turns up the heat on the literary stove. What began as an innocuous candy theft darkens into more damaging broken laws. Trespassing and damage to property would be a good reason for court summons.
But Gradle doesn’t have to go to court, as Delvis’ sanity is questionable. Like Harper Lee’s Boo Radley, he is the crazy man next door. The interaction he receives consists of mayhem brought on by ne’er-do-wells like Sonny Joe. Not only does Delvis not report the crime, but the community likely would not take his complaints seriously. A feverish dream inspires Gradle to write an apology letter to Delvis. It notes in full the damage she and her cohorts caused. Even after meeting each other in person, the two often correspond through letters. Delvis has a specific way of addressing Gradle—each ‘i’ is dotted with an eye. Perhaps it is Sasser’s clever way of showing her readers that in spite of receiving absolution, the world still watches them. The audience should continue to take note of their own actions to see if their habits have changed.
In particular, those that consider themselves religious should examine this theme of the novel closely. It’s easy for those within the Southern masses to continue to take comfort in the Bible Belt traditions of praying for forgiveness. Don’t forget that true repentance comes at a hefty price. Simple prayer provides comfort for the transgressor. However, one must also make amends with the victim—even if the wrong is so permanent that it can never be fully corrected.
As each character battles with their own demons, Sasser continues to challenge readers to look within themselves. Leonard dances with the ghost of a former lover, bound to a sense of grief and loss that he never released. Sonny Joe’s bad behavior causes death directly related to his own ill will. Gradle seeks redemption for her own existence by attempting to appear as much like Veela, her own mother and Leonard’s daughter, as possible. Her misadventures demonstrate how she searches for agency beyond the far-reaching ripples of the experiences of others and her own actions. Confrontation with the past and reckoning with her own faults are a requirement for this agency.
“If everybody is guilty, no one is guilty,” asserts McWhorter. This is what the Bible Belt must learn of their own personal transgressions. While Southerners seek refuge through church, real redemption lies within themselves. Personal confrontation of one’s transgressions without the veneer of God or Jesus leads to true absolution. As the South continues to use the Bible to excuse itself of its own indiscretions, many forget that shame, guilt, and regret are demons that can’t simply remained contained in a house of worship. We must speak to those demons as they arise, memorize their names, and create our own salvation by forgiving each other and ourselves. The strongest lesson the reader can take both from the novel itself and the Bible: “If I then, the Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, ye also ought to wash one another’s feet.” We, as Southerners, must learn to serve one another.