Monday, December 6, 2010

"The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia"

Mary Helen Stefaniak is the prize-winning author of The Turk and My Mother and Self Storage and Other Stories.

She applied the Page 69 Test to The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia, her new novel, and reported the following:
As it turns out, page 69 [below left, click to enlarge] covers some very important territory in The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia. Miss Spivey (the worldly new schoolteacher) and Miss Templeton (the teacher at the “colored school”) have been meeting weekly in Miss Spivey’s classroom at (white) Threestep School in order to tutor Theo Boykin and Etta George—two very talented black teenagers—in their high school subjects. The idea is to prepare Theo and Etta for college, using up-to-date school books provided by 17-year-old Force Cailiff, who is a student at the military academy in nearby Milledgeville and the brother of our narrator, eleven-year-old Gladys. When they are all “discovered” meeting in the early mornings at Threestep School and ordered by the county superintendent of schools to desist, young Gladys comes up with the idea of moving the integrated tutoring sessions to her sister May’s house in the town of McIntyre (which is in the next county). In a section that begins on the bottom of page 68, the whole group arrives for the first time at May’s house, where May is waiting on the porch to ask, “’Y’all mind if I join in?’” Gladys’s sister May is the 29-year-old mother of five, a woman who never finished high school, and while her husband Ed has his doubts not only about the value of education but about the appropriateness of inviting three black people into his house, he “’says it’s all right’” for May to join the tutoring sessions.

Page 69 not only gives us a glimpse of several important characters, it is our first real serious look at May and the beginning of her friendship with the new teacher who will change May’s outlook on herself and the world. Her husband Ed’s reaction to the arrival of the integrated group is a good example of the way individual relationships (in this case, Ed’s with May) sometimes manage to overcome rules and restrictions in the segregated society of Georgia in 1938. It also shows how Miss Spivey helps people see themselves in new ways. May will end up earning her high school diploma before the novel ends, and both Etta and Theo are destined for their own kind of greatness, although all of their successes will come only at great cost.
Learn more about the book and author at Mary Helen Stefaniak's website and blog.

Visit the complete list of books in the Page 69 Test Series.

--Marshal Zeringue