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Guest Review: Confederate Streets by Erin E. Tocknell

Today’s guest review of Confederate Streets by Erin E. Tocknell comes from a new-to-me blogger, Sara from Wordy Evidence of the Fact.  She was one of the first to respond for my call for guest posts this month, and I’m thrilled to host her and her review.  I hope you enjoy it and visit Sara’s blog soon.

 

Title: Confederate Streets

Author: Erin E. Tocknell

Publisher: Benu Press

Publication Date: 2011

Full disclosure: This book was written by a good friend of mine.  See more below.

We had just started clearing the Thanksgiving dishes when my friend Erin called.  I thought she was just calling to wish us a Happy Thanksgiving or some other friendly formality.  Instead, I hear this: “I’m getting published.  My book won and is going to be published.” You can easily imagine the general jubilance and squealing and hopping that took place.  My family thought I had gone around the bend.  But all of you writers with maybe-someday hopes for publication out there understand just how momentous a first book is.  It is a watershed achievement, and I am proud of my friend.  Now that I’ve had the chance to read it, I can confidently say I am also proud of her book, Confederate Streets.

The competition she entered is held annually by Benu Press.  Benu Press is an independent publisher that focuses on issues of social justice and equity.  They see their work as a means of activism, and those of us who recognize the inherent power of words understand just what a mighty tool for change this work can be.  The award Erin won is called The Social Justice and Equity Award in Creative Non-Fiction. As a genre, Creative Nonfiction is most certainly undervalued.  It is different from autobiography, distinct from memoir, and not exactly journalism.  Perhaps it combines elements of all three; done well, it can produce some highly enjoyable and informative work.

Confederate Streets is a collection of interconnected pieces, each exploring Nashville, its history, Tocknell’s family, her past, and the issues of race and class that have so shaped all of these elements.  Tocknell skillfully relates various life experiences without coming across as self-absorbed; she imparts the knowledge gleaned from her research with a seemingly effortless touch, informing and inspiring at the same time; she asks hard questions of herself and of the reader and expects a thoughtful answer; and perhaps most importantly, she entertains.

One of my favorite chapters comes late in the book and is called “Leave the Driving to Us.” In this piece, Tocknell manages to overlap narratives about her tour of UVA (and other colleges) as a prospective student, her travels on a Greyhound bus, and the magnet school system / busing system in her hometown, Nashville, TN.  The highlight of the chapter comes during her brief stay in Norfolk, VA and involves a breakfast with her Uncle David at the Cozy Home Diner.  The details she provides are spot on, and what happens there can only be described as life-changing.  I don’t mean life-changing in the way a death or a birth or even a career change can be; I refer to those still, small moments when you realize that everything you once knew has shifted slightly on its axis.  It is a gift – one she was given, certainly, and one she has now given to each of her readers.  Here are her concluding thoughts on the subject:

    Though I didn’t realize it until later, the Cozy Home Diner also revealed that a great deal of my trip was a sham. I had bounced, blithely and eagerly, between a world full of choices and a world full of limitations.  My bus mates, the men and women in the cafe, the tired faces in the stations and towns along the way – most of them couldn’t decide whether or not they’d like to wear J. Crew and go to a school with a crew team or Honor Code, because that was not an option for them.  I had reveled in the simplicity of bus travel, never considering that was I saw as simple was, for others, either a dead end or an immensely complex web to navigate. (120)

Though it would be easy to dismiss Tocknell as just another privileged White kid coming to terms with her Whiteness, the complexity of her situation should not be ignored.  There was no reason for her to not consider college as the logical next step; there was no reason for her to have considered the Greyhound bus anything but a convenient and inexpensive mode of transportation; she had done nothing wrong.  Yet, an encounter, or the absence of one, in a diner changed her ability to see things so clearly.  It muddied her waters as happens to each of us when we realize that doing “nothing wrong” might also equate simply to doing nothing.  By writing this book, Tocknell has made sure she has done something to speak up about the issues of race and inequity that still exist.  She believes in the power of story to change lives, and she offers us stories that will go on changing lives through her telling of them.

Lest you think I am merely a friend blinded by loyalty, I must offer a word of critique – which Erin has already heard from me.  I believe the final chapter unbalances the collection. “Rowing Through the Ruins” is a gorgeous, award-winning essay on rowing and place and architecture and selfhood; however, it does not provide adequate closure to the lessons and history (personal and regional) she has worked to intertwine so beautifully throughout the rest of the book.

***If you want to read this fascinating book, you can get it as a kindle edition from amazon.com or from the publisher.  If you want to know more about Erin Tocknell and her work, you can read this interview with her on my blog.  And if you’d like enter to win a signed copy of this book, go to the interview, leave a comment, and cross your fingers.  I’ll choose a winner on Friday.***

Thanks, Sara, for providing a review for the Indie & Small Press Celebration! You’ll see more from Sara later in the month.