When I came to Georgia in 1973, as an instructor in the comparative literature department I held notions about the South I’d gotten from literature I’d studied and movies I’d seen. I’d read Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Carson McCullers, and then James Dickey. All of them wrote about characters who were not quite right in the head. The first night I spent in Athens, Georgia, I stayed up until 3:00 AM reading Deliverance. Oh my god, I said to myself, where have I landed?
By the time I retired in 2011, I knew I’d landed well. I had become devoted to UGA and to the state, particularly the mountainous north Georgia. So when the novelist Terry Kay suggested that I write fiction I decided to set my mysteries in a town I invented called Witherston, some twenty miles north of Dahlonega. Dahlonega, in the foothills of the Appalachians, was the site of the 1829 Georgia Gold Rush. And I decided to make all my characters right in the head—funny, unique, perhaps slightly eccentric, but right in the head.
The first mystery I wrote in the Witherston Murder Mystery Series is Downstream, published by Black Opal Books in October of 2014. Its theme is the pharmaceutical pollution of our natural environment.
The second, Fairfield’s Auction, published in February of 2016, addresses the justice, or injustice, of the selling of Cherokee artefacts to the highest bidder. The Cherokee civilization dominated north Georgia and western North Carolina for a thousand years before sixteen thousand Cherokees were force-marched from Georgia to Oklahoma in 1838-39. In my novel what’s left of their culture gets sold at auction. So that’s one of the themes of Fairfield’s Auction. The other theme is the necessity of empathy, empathy for both humans unlike ourselves and non-human animals, such as the chickens that are hauled to poultry plants all over north Georgia.
Fairfield’s Auction is a mystery which an African Grey parrot named Doolittle helps solve. The following passage from the book will give you a clue. (Note: Rhonda is Mayor Rich Rather’s wife.)
Rhonda heard everything as she opened a crate and released five chickens. They flew off the back of the trailer and scurried away. She opened another crate and released another five chickens, one of whom had a broken beak. They too made their escape. She opened a third crate exposed to the wind outside and released one chicken. The other four had frozen to death.
The stench was awful. The air was thick with floating feathers and dust. But Rhonda was committed to her mission. She released thirty more chickens before she started coughing.
Suddenly someone screamed: “What the fuck?”
Rhonda jumped. The voice seemed to come from inside the truck.
“I’m just looking around,” she shouted.
“Watch your mouth,” Rhonda shouted back.
Rhonda heard a dog bark and then her husband yell, “What was that?”
Rhonda stood stock still. After a moment the men resumed their conversation. So she resumed her work. She opened ten more crates before she discovered the cage with the African Grey Parrot.
“Doolittle,” Rhonda exclaimed softly.
“Doolittle is a bad bird,” Doolittle responded softly.
Doolittle’s cage was wedged in a space that four crates must have occupied. Doolittle was surrounded by chickens behind bars. Everyone was behind bars.
The truck was a maximum security prison, Rhonda said to herself as she extracted Doolittle’s cage from the shelf of cages. She climbed down from the platform carrying Doolittle’s cage in her left hand and took Doolittle to meet the men still in dispute in front of the truck.
“Rhonda,” the mayor exclaimed. “What are you doing here?”
“That must be Doolittle,” Deputy Pete Senior said.
“Shut the fuck up!” Doolittle screamed.
“Where did that bird come from?” Dan asked.
“Where did my wife come from?” Mayor Rather asked.
“Chicken prison,” Rhonda said.
“Mr. Soto, I’m now arresting you for burglary and extortion,” Deputy Pete Senior said.
“What about Muddy? Are you going to arrest him?” Dan asked.
Muddy was off chasing the liberated chickens.
“Rich will take care of Muddy for you, Mr. Soto,” Rhonda said. “Muddy will be safe at our house.”
“Jesus, Rhonda. No, no, no. With all the animals you’ve rescued there won’t be room for me in my own bed.”
Rhonda ignored her husband. “Here, Muddy, come to Rhonda.” Muddy came. Rhonda scratched his neck as Pete Senior handcuffed Dan. Then she opened the door of the Lincoln and lifted Muddy, appropriately named, into the back seat.
“For Heaven’s sakes, Rhonda. Now, Pete Senior has to arrest you. You just did the same thing that Mr. Soto did.”
“Like what, Rich? I didn’t kidnap Doolittle.”
“You released Love Me Tender’s chickens. You destroyed property that didn’t belong to you.”
“I didn’t destroy the chickens. I gave them life. Caging them is what destroys them.”
“I’m afraid I have to arrest you, Mrs. Rather. I’m sorry,” Pete Senior said.
“Go ahead,” Rhonda said. “If you’ve been to jail for justice you’re in good company.”
“I know that song,” Pete Senior said.
“So do I,” Dan Soto said from the back of Pete Senior’s Cherokee. He pulled out his harmonica and started playing the tune.
“I’ll drive myself to jail,” Rhonda said. “You can hold my husband if I escape.”
“What? Hey, no you can’t. I’m the mayor.”
A chicken squatted in the snow at his feet and pooped.
Dr. Betty Jean Craige has published books in the fields of Spanish poetry, modern literature, history of ideas, politics, ecology, and art. She is a scholar, a translator, a teacher, and a novelist. http://www.bettyjeancraige.com/