Sylvia Nickels’ Eight Miles Of Muddy Road

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Memoirs of the kind Sylvia has written aren’t the stuff of great literature, nor are they meant to be. But such memoirs do serve a pair of significant and valuable literary purposes:

• If a historian were to write a piece on, for instance, sharecropping in the U.S.’s southeast, he or she would not be very likely to dig to the deep level of detail Sylvia has depicted in her fine book. In Eight Miles of Muddy Road, she writes of her family’s many moves, their never owning a home, the many schools the Maner children attended, their food, what they ate and what the food was served on. She writes poignantly of Maner children dying, the family unable to provide adequate medical care.
These are the details underlying the broader sweep of Southern poverty, the resilience of the people who lived it, further implying the base causes of the Great Depression of the 1920s and 30s.
The Maner family’s story provides a case in point regarding this era of U.S. history and of rural Georgia and Alabama. Were historians to write falsely of such times, such memoirs would soon set things right. And because such memoirs continue to be written, historians dare not trifle with the broader truths of American history.

• That such memoirs depict uniquely personal experiences of the broader scope of Southern history means no one will be able to relate completely to stories such as Sylvia’s. But those of us who read this memoir and who have grown up in or around such circumstances will be able to recognize threads of Sylvia’s story common to our own. Such writing, then, allows us to transcend the harshness our own families might have lived and to grasp the broader strengths of the human condition.

How has Sylvia accomplished this? She writes here, as with most memoirs of this kind, in a voice very nearly that of a Southern elder relating oral history to children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews. It’s a casual, conversational voice that wanders in and out of tales, repeats itself occasionally for emphasis, and views her history from the distance of both age and elapsed time. This is the stuff of lore, of family and cultural wisdom, now reduced to the page instead of being told under a cooling oak tree or before a winter fire.

Still, she manages to turn a fine phrase here and there, phrases elevated above mere conversation. For instance, while speaking of the South’s ever-present cotton plants in our turn-of-the-century Southland, she writes:

“They drooped with open, needle-tipped bolls…filled with marshmallow-white fluff…Crimson spots on the snowy cotton sometimes marked where the boll tips had pricked our fingers.”

Other gems:”

…memories, like persimmons, grow sweeter with the frost of years.”

and,

while relating something she’d done and wasn’t proud of, she wrote, “It had lain like a rock on my conscience for so long…”

My favorite vignette? An episode in which Sylvia had received a pretty pink dress for Easter. She was so proud on the dress that she didn’t wait until Easter to wear it in public. She wore it to school the next day, only to discover it had been a cast-off of one of the school’s well-off girls. As the girls made fun and snickered, Sylvia replied: “Frannie! Missy just told me that this was your dress. Thank you so much for giving it to me. I promise to take good care of it.”
This, then, is the best of the poor Southern story in a nutshell. Instead of succumbing to hate and shame, Sylvia found a way to show pride in her new dress and to forge a connection with the girl who had previously owned it.

What could she have done differently in this memoir? I would’ve loved to have read scenes and dialogue more sharply drawn, more detailed depictions of place, especially of Mamaw and Papaw’s home, to which the Maners continually returned. Having depicted these aspects in sharper focus would’ve afforded the reader a more vivid view of Sylvia’s early life experience.

Titles are always problematic for me, and while hers implies much about the poor Southern experience, I would’ve also toyed with words near the end of her “Clay Pigs Can’t Squeal” chapter, possibly considering Wandering In The Wilderness as an alternative.

There’s much more in Sylvia’s deceptively simple story that I haven’t alluded to. It would be well worth the time spent with this brief read to find pieces of your own story in hers.

Bob Mustin

2 Responses to “Sylvia Nickels’ Eight Miles Of Muddy Road”

  1. Sylvia Says:

    Thanks so much for the great review, Bob.

  2. Adda Leah Davis Says:

    I agree wholeheartedly with Mr. Mustin’s assessment of Sylvia’s work. I was struck by her poetic descriptions of places and instances. Knowing Sylvia personally gave added poignancy for me; I knew it was written from the heart. I think a heart can sense things that the mind cannot perceive. I too, wish the tale could have been longer and I would certainly like to know more about a little girl who could turn embarrassment into a learning experience.
    Thanks Sylvia for letting us all see a way of life that we were not aware of before now.

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