Title: Tupelo Honey
Author: Lis Anna-Langston
Genre: Young Adult
WINNER of 10 BOOK AWARDS including the 2020 Independent Press Award & the 2020 NYC Big Book Award!! A loveable, engaging, original voice, Tupelo brightens this accomplished tale of dysfunction in a family where "nothing had ever been right." ~Publishers Weekly
From the delicious title (the spunky 11-year-old narrator was named after Elvis' birthplace) to every last unconventional character and careful detail, Tupelo Honey is a delight. Set in rural Mississippi, with a cast of colorful southerners, it stars one pretty dysfunctional family at the center of which is Tupelo Honey. Author Lis Anna-Langston gets into the head of her title girl completely, taking readers on a ride of a sort of haunted but beautiful mess. To paraphrase Tolstoy, it's the unhappy families that are unique -- and by definition, often more interesting. Tupelo Honey does not have an easy life, on the surface. Her mother is a drug addict, and mental illness lingers in her grandmother Marmalade's house like a hot humid August cloud. Yet Anna-Langston still fills it with gems. It's certainly not a dull life, one full of heartbreaks big and small, but this tough sweet girl pulls it off with aplomb. It's a treat from start to end. Langston has written rich, vivid characters, and painted a vibrant mosaic of a year in one young southern girl's life. It's a hard book to put down, and one you won't want to end. I envy its future readers. ~Teresa DiFalco (c)2016 Parents' Choice
In my family, as far back as I can tell, there was no such thing as communication, only secrets. Big, nasty secrets that hid in the closet with the bogeyman, some old Confederate money, and a layer of dust. All of the real players in the drama are dead now, or at least the ones who could tell us what everyone was trying so hard to get away from. Even so, in moments of contemplation I realize that sometimes people are crushed to dust under the burden of their lives and my family was no exception.
When my uncle Thursgood started boiling frogs alive in big soup pots on the kitchen stove everyone turned a blind eye. When he pulled the tail off of a rabbit while it was alive he later retold the story as something funny. It wasn’t. The problems didn’t stop there. Something in my family’s blood told them they were bad. Misfits woven together with a sanity of the sheerest design. As I grew older I began to realize by natural deduction that something was wrong or, in fact, that nothing had ever been right.
There would be no warm, fuzzy evenings around a dinner table for me because by the time I entered this world Grand Daddy was dying. Death waited patiently for him on the second floor of our big, turn-of-the-century house. A hospital bed and morphine drip had been installed so he could pass his final days in the comfort of a room wallpapered with hundreds of blue ships sailing to god knows where. He died with his clothes still in the plastic, tucked in drawers.
This elusive grandfather figure fascinated me, as did the fact that we lived side by side a dead man as if he were coming home any minute to hang up his coat and rest after his long journey into death.
Later, I would say living that close to death was too much for a family like mine. It was the crack in the teapot, the leak in the dam, and finally the straw that broke the camel’s back. The cancer that killed him ate away at something inside of my family until it mutated and grew into a victim, a paranoid schizophrenic, and a psychotic. A man I never knew had been the thread that wove these misfits together, and when he was gone, those seams ripped under the pressure.
But not right away. Before Grand Daddy drove that Buick up to the Pearly Gates my mom was busy trying to find herself . . . or so she claimed, by running off to Love Valley to be free and smoke dope with a bunch of other granola-eating hippies. Free love. Yeah, right. Free sex.
The only thing she found was her way back home, to a chorus of “I told you so,” dragging her teenage boyfriend from Georgia as if she’d hooked him on a weekend fishing trip. They were white middle-class kids who thought their revolution was unique. “Revolution, my ass,” Marmalade said. “They don’t want to start a revolution. They just want to be able to smoke dope out on the front porch without anyone telling them not to.” Marmalade is my granny. That's her nickname and it's got something to do with when she was a baby she snuck a jar of orange marmalade and ate the whole thing, hiding out under the back porch.
As I was becoming a glimmer in someone’s eyes my parents ran wildly through the tail end of the 1960’s. Or at least they imagined themselves running wildly. They were the product of a semi-revolution, shucking it up with bullshit talks about feeling on a new dimension in Love Valley where they met. It was probably the first and last time the word “love” would ever be used in association with anything they did. But back in 1969, there they were, two high school dropouts hell-bent on freedom, chained to the mother of conformity, toting that hippie bible that reads just like anything else—we like you if you’re just like us.
No one talks about my conception. My great point of origin. I have never met my father. So, from thus I was conceived . . . Tupelo Honey, 7 pounds, 3 ounces, on a hot summer night. I don’t think I was really social in those days, even though it was the beginning of disco and all. Not many expectations were placed on me just yet. My mother moved us out of the house and in with her new junkie/hippie boyfriend, who I’m sure said the nicest things when he wasn’t high. Then we moved again and then, again. Grand Daddy’s illness surfaced. It killed him quick and from what I can tell, things began to change.
The family history hit an all-time high of hush-hush. He was in that room dying of lung cancer, wasting away, where he ate less, begging for morphine. He said his mother came to see him every night, the same mother that had been dead for over forty years. He talked about how she brought him angel’s wings and tiny drops that she put on his tongue, making his words spin. With a smile, he recalled how she spoon-fed him hot broth while they talked about his childhood. He forgot the extreme poverty that sucked up his early years, sending him to work barefoot in factories in northern Alabama when he was only nine years old. Blood came up every time he coughed, choking him, and he didn’t mention that ramshackle of a house where he grew up without running water or electricity—just a front porch, a fireplace, pallets made of straw and old blankets they dug from the trash. His fingers were bones. He talked openly to the angel of mercy standing in the doorway.
When he started talking about how light his body felt, Marmalade called a preacher and he came, praying, touching, forgiving, and Grand Daddy thought he was the plumber finally coming to fix the drain in the kitchen.
Grand Daddy just stared deliriously at the ceiling, repeating, “It’s a good thing you’ve come. It was working fine and then one day it just stopped. It just stopped . . . ”
He hallucinated, saw his death, called out, failing, fading, fighting, and ultimately losing, because I don’t think he ever really thought he was going to win. He died in the middle of the night without a word to anyone.
A few years later I learned how to talk and thus deduce certain things from my environment. The first clue something was wrong with my family was that Preston wasn’t allowed to play at Marmalade’s house when I stayed over on weekends. The second was that in my own home my mother and her new boyfriend Nash decided that financially it would be better if they were dealing drugs.
It was around this time that my crazy uncle Thursgood left Marmalade’s house one night and reappeared the next morning, wet, with human scratch marks all over him, caked with dried blood, and torn clothes, claiming to remember nothing from the night before except that he’d heard voices. When the news of a murder unfolded on the radio my family met it with the same tight-lipped resistance they used to greet everything else. I was too young to really understand the consequences of murder, but I always wondered who those voices were, and why they always told him to kill people.
I couldn’t recall a single moment when I had ever felt any affection for Uncle Thursgood, where I curled up in his lap and felt safe or reached up to hold his hand before crossing the street. I would later learn that you don’t cross the street with psychotics—you cross the street to get away from them.
Psycho Uncle Thursgood hung out with the brothers back when Barry White was being played on the radio and Marmalade still let us use the 8-track player. The brothers thought he was a big fat ass from what I could tell but they were nice to him for the same reason everyone was nice to him, which was that you didn’t have to spend more than five seconds with him to figure out he was a few marbles short of a game. And he had weed. When you’re certifiably crazy, you have to possess something that lures people in, and for Uncle Thursgood weed was his only hope.
My Uncle Randall lived downstairs and wasn’t so bad. He didn’t like Thursgood. Randall was a good paranoid schizophrenic. He refused to take baths because he said it made his skin rot off, and, if someone finally laid down the law, he would plop down in that big claw-footed tub, sitting perfectly still, staring straight ahead until Marmalade sent me to tell him to get out. He lumbered out like a big old bear muttering about how baths put him into a neurotic delirium.
I loved Randall the way other little kids loved cartoon characters. Even at the age of eleven, I knew you weren’t supposed to admit to liking Spam. Not Randall. He thudded into the kitchen wearing big boxer shorts from the Dollar General Store and ate an entire can, sitting alone at the kitchen table, lost in his own mind instead of the morning paper. He drank soda pop like someone said there was going to be a shortage. He consumed about a bazillion cans of Campbell’s soup, and when we later tried to change brands on him he politely told us that the other manufacturers put poison in their soup, and while we may be fooled, he wasn’t. If you pushed the issue with him, he would also, very politely but with a tone that suggested he meant it, tell you to go to hell. But Randall was different from the rest, and if I laughed long enough and hard enough then eventually he’d laugh with me.
Aside from the fact that occasionally he’d slice his arm open with a kitchen knife, or that he thought the people who lived next door were shooting his brain with an x-ray gun that gave him terrible headaches, or that periodically he’d refuse to pee in the toilet for reasons that escape me now, he lived in his own world . . . and what a world it was. As far as I knew, he was the only 40-year-old virgin high on Thorazine in the whole neighborhood. And he was great. He liked to go to the zoo and eat candy bars and fried chicken and take rides in the car every Sunday.
So, aside from the fact that he was a little weird, Randall proved to be about as harmless as Bambi. The rest of my family should have been so lucky.
But I’m getting ahead of myself . . .
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When you read more than a hundred books per year, it's exciting to find one that surprises you. "Tupelo Honey" by Lis Anna Langston is one of those, sneaking up quietly to bust expectations and leaves you thinking about the story long after closing the book. ~ Chanticleer Book Reviews
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Lis Anna-Langston was raised along the winding current of the Mississippi River on a steady diet of dog-eared books. She attended a Creative and Performing Arts School from middle school until graduation and went on to study Literature at Webster University. Her two novels, Gobbledy and Tupelo Honey have won the Parents’ Choice Gold, Moonbeam Book Award, Independent Press Award, Benjamin Franklin Book Award and NYC Big Book Awards. Twice nominated for the Pushcart award and Finalist in the Brighthorse Book Prize, William Faulkner Fiction Contest and Thomas Wolfe Fiction Award, her work has been published in The Literary Review, Emerson Review, The Merrimack Review, Emrys Journal, The MacGuffin, Sand Hill Review and dozens of other literary journals.
She draws badly, sings loudly, loves ketchup, starry skies & stories with happy aliens.