Southern Accents

A retired UA professor chronicles his early life in Depression-era Mississippi

Jimmye Hillman, father of Tucson bard Brenda Hillman, is an agricultural economist by training, and a former department head at the University of Arizona. Before he went West to establish himself, he spent his childhood on a subsistence farm—in other words, a noncommercial enterprise—in the Deep South.

At age 88, he has written his first nonfiction book, a literary memoir about growing up in Greene County, Miss., during the Great Depression. Overall, it's a book that eloquently, and with much good humor, captures the often-gritty, sometimes-brutal realities of his early hardscrabble existence. If not for a few "filler" moments, Hogs, Mules and Yellow Dogs would stand as a Southern-lit classic.

The foreword by former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Hass (Brenda Hillman's husband) does a good job of whetting the reader's appetite by hinting at what's to come—namely, the epic man-vs.-pig battles and the wagon-and-a-mule terrain of southeastern Mississippi. Indeed, Hillman's first essay, "The Suddy Sow," expertly delineates both fauna and flora, as Hillman and his father lay a trap for a 200-pound boar. This chapter, originally published in The Iowa Review, does two things really well: First, it confirms that parents in poverty-ravaged Dixie were more hands-on and less safety-obsessed than today's worrywarts:

By the age of thirteen, I knew the anatomy of a hog like a practiced surgeon. I was adept at farm butchery. Disjointing legs and the head from a hog torso had become second nature. With my eyes closed, I could carve around cartilage without severing ligaments or crosscutting a muscle.

Second, "Sow" confirms Hillman's knack for point-of-view writing as he enters the head space of the hog in question, the creature mulling its impending demise:

Now, here comes the master, axe in one hand, his butcher's knife to draw my blood. His expression aglow, and his countenance strange—you might surmise that he thinks he is doing me a favor.

I won't give away the ending except to say that mercy can be an odd and fickle gesture.

Greene County wasn't all outdoor bloodshed. Despite the lack of central air conditioning, time was also spent indoors, even if the advent of the phonograph and radio changed how that time was spent, especially in Hillman's grandpa's house, where Gene Austin songs—"My Blue Heaven," for example—are in long supply. Hillman's gothic touch is felt in those scenes where the family record player's limitations are recalled, to a degree that may offend vinyl-collecting geeks.

Radio profoundly impacts Hillman's family and friends, creating diversions from chores, and resulting in Saturday-evening visitors competing for signals and shows. Still, Hillman acknowledges radio's hypnotic allure: "In fact, I began cozying up to the console." Just imagine what, if anything, would've been accomplished on a subsistence farm with something as a time-sucking as the Internet just a mouse-click away. Here, readers will certainly cozy up to the heat of Hillman's writing.

At this point, things get cutesy, with the chapter "Greene County Dictionary," featuring terms and figures of speech from Hillman's clan intended, I believe, to celebrate and document the linguistic energy of that long-ago region. The only problem is half of these are not that interesting, and are familiar to a reader like me, from the comparatively cosmopolitan environment of Tampa, Fla. Also flat is the chapter "What We Ate Back Then," which could've benefited from more philosophical reflection on the slaughter (subsistence-level and commercial) of animals; gastro-adventurers, however, will admire this piece. My favorite sentence? "My youngest brother and I liked to compete for the role of chicken executioner."

The best essays are bunched toward the back. "Sex on the Farm" is a delightful read, full of dark humor and disturbing remembrances of children imitating the amorous behavior of beasts. "Yellow Dog Politics" is an absolutely amazing chronicle of the bitter infighting and corrupt tactics that occur even in a district where only 23 people cast ballots. And "Old Washington Baptist" is the best account of the post-death rituals of the early 20th-century South I've ever encountered.

Hogs, Mules, and Yellow Dogs is fascinating for another reason: It tells the story—piecemeal, anyway—of a young man from the South who managed to escape a limited and enclosed world that he nonetheless misses dearly. As Hillman writes of his hamlet in the epilogue, "It was mine, and for all its temporal and later-to-be-discovered imperfections, it remains mine, and my recollections bind me to it."

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