Essay, Research Paper: Bailey White


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Adventures on the Way Back Home, and Quite a Year for Plums, author Bailey White
offers readers an inviting refuge from our increasingly fast-paced society.
Using humor, White transports the reader to the rural South, where the setting,
the way of life, and the characters the reader meets contrast strikingly with
life in the typical Northern city. Bailey White’s South has a warm and
hospitable atmosphere, a pleasant alternative to cold, bustling, Northern
metropolitan centers. As a cousin of the Whites puts it when she calls from
Philadelphia to announce she’ll be visiting overnight, “‘I’ve heard so
much about Southern hospitality. Now I will be able to experience it for
myself’” (Mama, 48). The language in Bailey White’s writings also
delights, especially her characters’ manner of speaking, which contains many
curious Southern expressions. My friends certainly would not say
“persnickety” (Sleeping, 125), “doodlebugs” (Sleeping, 9), “junkets”
(Mama, 60), describe a club as a “tough juke joint” (Mama, 3), or say,
“‘She sho’ ain’t gon’ ride no ferry here’” (Mama, 62)! Located in
South Georgia, in the backwoods, White’s characters are allowed to do what
they please without judgment from neighboring yuppies glaring down from their
balconies. The village “ a place where they are kind to one another and
indulgent of eccentricities” (Publishers Weekly, 30 March 1998). The result is
“endearing true stories about rural South Georgia” (Publishers Weekly, 1
March 1993) on subjects as quirky as bathtubs and Porsches on porches, backyard
camping, and road-kill suppers. After remodeling their bathroom Bailey and Mama
find that their bathtub won't fit in it anymore. Instead of installing a shower,
they leave the bathtub on the porch. Bailey explains that “with the
midsummer's afternoon breeze blowing through the high pine woods and the
fragrance of the lilies, it's a lovely spot for a leisurely bath” (Mama, 25).
Joining the bathtub on the porch is a 1958 Model 356 Speedster in original
condition, because the driver refused to “‘just park it out behind the
garden with those two tractors and that thing that might have been a
lawnmower’” (Mama, 21). When inspired, Mama can (and does) go camping in the
wilderness. Bailey, however, doesn't have to worry about her aging mother alone
on a trip: their backyard is wilderness enough for camping. “At night I could
see a tiny glow from her fire. And just at dawn, if I went out to the edge of
the pasture and listened very carefully I could barely hear her singing ‘Meet
Me in St. Louis’” (Mama, 38). Mama, whether camping or not, can get
fast-food for dinner, Southern-style: road kill. White and Mama have “feasted
not only doves, turkeys, and quail, but robins, squirrels, and, only once, a
possum,” but Bailey draws the line at snakes, even when her mom protests
“‘But it was still wiggling when I got there...Let's try it just this once.
I have a white sauce with dill and mustard’” (Mama, 39). Despite the gourmet
sauce, Bailey refuses to eat any animal her mom brings in without
documentation--the model and tag number of the car that struck it--to assure her
of a recent kill. While chronicling small-town culture, White manages to make me
laugh out loud, which is quite a feat for an author. The comical scenes from the
small town of Thomasville will not only produce laughter, but a longing to move
to such a quaint village. Instead of going into the Instant Care Facility, a
modern walk-in medical clinic, one can, as Mama did, take advice from
“‘surgeons, I'd say, from the amount of blood and brains on those white
coats,’” who were actually butchers on their cigarette break (Mama, 23). The
provincial aspects of life in Thomasville are evident in Plums, in the extent of
interest and pride community members exhibit when Roger appears in a photograph
in the April edition of the Agrisearch magazine. At the Pastime Restaurant the
waitresses tape up Roger's picture next to the ‘In Case of Choking’ poster,
Meade makes a mat for his picture out of construction paper left from her
schoolteaching days, Hilma transposes Roger’s image onto two color photos for
an artistic effect, Eula puts the magazine photo on her refrigerator, and others
prop it up on their windowsills (Plums, 4). The detail in Bailey White’s
stories come from her own experiences living in Thomasville, especially in her
first two books, Mama and Sleeping, which are both autobiographical. “In my
own town I know the story of every missing body part: an ear in an auto
accident, a middle finger in a miscalculation at a table saw, a thumb in a freak
accident involving a white horse and a Chrysler coupe” (Sleeping, 5). Since
White’s books are set in the rural South, nature is a part of everyday life.
(What a contrast to everyday life in our Northern city, which typically finds us
driving down treeless, paved streets, dashing from home to work to the
supermarket!) The primary concerns of the characters in White’s writings are
not bills and work, but include plants and domestic animals. “[White’s]
vignettes illuminate...the immense satisfaction that can be derived from an
appreciation of nature” (Publishers Weekly, 17 April 1995). In Plums nearly
all of the characters’ jobs relate to nature. Roger is a plant pathologist;
Tom and Gawain are foresters; Lewis is an ornithologist; and Della paints native
birds (ix). The rest of the characters frequently garden, all own Peterson Field
Guide’s (160), and are vehemently opposed to environmentally unfriendly
techniques like slash-and-burning (158-9). Southerners are known for their slow
speech, their Southern drawl (especially slow compared to fast-talking New
Yorkers). In White’s books the way of life is also slowed-down, with little
pressure and plenty of time to pursue activities important to the characters.
Critics notice the slow pace, saying, “nothing much happens [in Plums]”
(Publishers Weekly, 30 March 1998), “the characters don’t do a lot [in
Plums]” (Friedman), and “Sleeping at the Starlite Motel celebrates the
value...of lives that proceed at their own pace” (Fichtner). Doing “nothing
much” is the life the characters have chosen, though; they like the slower
pace. Mama loves to “sit in her reclining chair all day, reading the UFO
newsletter, listening to the radio, and drawing conclusions” (Mama, 41).
Bailey loves to garden; she put five years into creating a wildflower meadow, a
time-consuming process because, as the “more responsible plant
catalogues...admitted, ‘we have not been able to develop a mixture suitable
for Zone 9’” (Mama, 160-5). Bailey, “in the thrall of that good old rural
community spirit,” also has the time to make a “noble gesture,” becoming a
volunteer fireman (Mama, 177). Besides indulging their own interests and whims,
White’s characters take the time to care for others. Mama campaigned for
Vernon Bryan, working “harder and harder” as election time grew closer:
“She drove her old pickup truck into town every day to man campaign
headquarters, and she spent hours studying voter registration lists and calling
on the phone to urge people to vote. She volunteered for everything” (Mama,
139-140). Mama also taught Luther, whose jam caused Bailey to rush over to the
sink and wash her mouth out, the fundamentals of cooking, beginning with “Jams
and Jellies,” moving on to “Pickles and Preserves,” then to “Biscuits
and Pastry,” and finally “Sauces, Marinades, Shellfish, and Game.... Soufflйs....
Desserts” (Mama, 151-155). Bailey took time to listen to old Mrs. Bierce with
the wandering eye, and to visit Mrs. Helgert, tolerating her frequent
interjections of “Hot? Honey! That was a hot night” (Sleeping, 38-41). Meade
and Hilma looked after Roger’s house when his childhood horse Squeaky died.
“‘He must be relieved of all the little household chores--laundry, the
preparation of meals, housecleaning tasks. He should come home at night to a
bright clean home, a supper warm on the back of the stove, and his bed turned
down,’” said Meade, outlining her elaborate plan to take care of Roger
(Plums, 148). The activities the characters choose in their free time
demonstrate the importance of relationships. In Plums, “a charming story of
human relations” (Haddock), “White’s 14 or so characters are introduced
and identified as they would be in any small town in the South: by their family
relationships to others in the rural Georgia community” (Publishers Weekly, 30
March 1998), thus showing the weight of family. In Sleeping, after Great Aunt El
disappears twice and complains of elephants and ghosts, Bailey and Mama become
concerned about her and decide it’s “time to get someone to look after
her” (47). Reminding Bailey that “‘Blood is thicker than water,’” Mama
succeeds in bringing El’s nephew Ralph down to stay with her (49). Unlike our
male-dominated society, strong women dominate White’s world. The women are
independent, with no need for marriage. They handle everything themselves, even
if it means crawling under the house in “high-topped boots laced up tight, a
turtleneck shirt, and a ski mask” (to protect oneself from spiders, of course)
to move the telephone jack (Mama, 34). All of the characters in White’s books
are unmarried, which appears to be all right with the women, but the
not-so-strong men express a longing to be married. As Dean Routhe repeatedly
said, “Men need wives” (Plums, 211). Ever since Ethel left Roger “the
women in town have worried about Roger.... Hilma and Meade discuss him at their
weekly readings. Eula frets over his welfare--not to mention his appetite”
(Haddock). Within one year after Ethel left Roger, Ethel has two men lusting
after her while another woman has left Roger. The characters in White’s books,
peculiar but delightful, working-class but educated, and understanding and
accepting of themselves and each other, present a refreshing contrast to the
conforming, pretentious sophisticates who inhabit our Northern cities. At the
head of the long list of quirky characters is Mama, who attracts ornithologists
(Mama, 12), who then use Bailey’s 102 degree feverish body to incubate wild
turkey eggs. Other memorable characters include the obsessed typographer who
feels personally called to save vanishing typefaces, Louise, who thinks letters
and string will entice creatures from outer space, the hippie fruit tree man
with the jujube trees, and homeless Elmer who can only talk to horses. Modern
society is in the Information Age, in which technology demands more and more of
us. The average workweek is 49 hours, and many so-called successful lawyers,
doctors, and businessmen frequently work ten, twenty, or even thirty hours more.
Even to reach the hiring stage takes a competitive drive and long hours
studying. It is not surprising, then, when Bailey says, “Over the generations
my family has metastasized from that hill to lower spots all over the county.
Once members of the leisure class, we are now farmers, carpenters, teachers, and
mechanics” (Mama, 54). Bailey’s Aunt Eleanor recalls, after a minor plumbing
disaster of her own, how great-uncle Melville “ ‘Shot right through the
ceiling medallion...and landed in the tomato aspic’” (Sleeping, 9). Bailey
admits, “There’s no denying that our family fortune frittered away, the big
house sold. We are probably not up to a second-floor plumbing disaster involving
chandeliers and crown moldings” (Sleeping, 10), which is what Aunt Eleanor
says shows style, class, and breeding. Although not up to showy plumbing
disasters, White’s characters are educated. Hilma and Meade have a 50-year
ritual of reading together every Thursday of every May (Plums, 17). On summer
picnics Lucy would read Pride and Prejudice aloud. Mama reads The Naked Lunch
and decides she’s “...tired. I’m tired of breathing the essence of a sheep
fold; I’m tired of teaching babies to knit; I’m tired of being set upon by
crazed Christians one minute and unbridled libertines the next” (Mama, 38).
“Two of the characters [in Plums] are retired schoolteachers to whom the
classics of literature are daily companions; in fact, most of the characters, no
matter how humble, quote lines from famous poetry or prose and are knowledgeable
about plants, flowers, birds and animals” (Publishers Weekly, 30 March 1998).
White’s characters are also neither pretentious nor materialistic. When Aunt
Eleanor is sulking over the modest plumbing disaster Bailey buys her a $60 watch
and a linen skirt, and tells her that nowadays people judge not by plumbing
calamities but by clothes, cars, and vacations (Sleeping, 10). Aunt Eleanor,
however, is not impressed: “‘I guess I’m just old-fashioned’”
(Sleeping, 10). When Meade and Hilma call on a new family, the women brags about
her eagle statues--“‘exact replicas of a certain castle in England...they
were not cheap’” (Plums, 156). Later Meade brings up a house she
particularly liked, explaining, “No pretension there” (Plums, 159). The key
to White’s stories is her characters' wisdom: understanding that timeworn
truths are worth paying heed to. When prissy Aunt Eleanor comes over for dinner,
she praises the bird. “‘The quail are delicious...I haven’t found a single
piece of shot. How do you manage it?’ ‘Intersection of 93 and Baggs Road,’
recites Mama. ‘Green late model pickup, Florida tag. Have another one. And
some rice, El’” (Mama, 40). White’s stories “offer us snatches of humor
in the largest sense, written with an...often self-mocking compassion” (Trachtman).
White opens up for her readers a different world, one without many of the
annoying traits of modern society: dull, gray scenery, traffic, impersonal
contact, alarms, cell phones, male-dominance, uniformity, pretension, conflict,
materialism, censorship, isolation, and superficial relationships. She reminds
us of a life that, in most places, has ceased to exist and invites us to return
to its comforts in the pages of her books.
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