Janisse Ray: Wild Card Quilt: Taking a Chance on Home

Janisse Ray
Wild Card Quilt: Taking a Chance on Home
Milkweed Editions

When Janisse Ray was 18, she fled the hamlet of Baxley, Georgia and her fundamentalist upbringing "for good"--or so she thought. Wild Card Quilt: Taking a Chance on Home is the story of Ray's unlikely return to Baxley (population: 4,150) and her efforts to rekindle a sense of family and community in the town she once spurned. Comprising some 40 vignettes of rural life in the South, Ray's memoir itself is very much a crazy quilt: Each colorful section stands alone, yet also contributes to a cohesive portrait of "a people in place glued together."

The most effective scenes in Wild Card Quilt are moody, impressionistic pieces that evoke the old South of Faulkner, but with an important difference: With Ray at the helm, you pretty much understand what the hell is going on the first time through. "The Picture-Taker" introduces E.D. McCool, a nonagenarian who has lived in a broken-down bus since Ray was a child, shooting sepia-tone photos outside the Piggly Wiggly for a quarter apiece. "E.D. took a heap of pictures over the years, a share of them belonging to us. If a customer never returned, E.D. kept the photos, boxes and boxes of strangers' faces."

Elsewhere Ray indulges her passion for a life lived close to the land. "A Thousand Lights" and "Cypress Lake" celebrate natural wonders that modern life has not yet displaced. Then there is lament: In "Moody Swamp" the magnificent long-leaf pine forests of Georgia, under constant threat from logging, provide a metaphor:


This is how our history fails: loss of forest, of farms, of elders. That the past slips away does not preoccupy me, but how it passes does. Important, irreplaceable things are being lost.


On occasion, Ray's zeal gets the best of her prose. "Local Economics" descends into a treatise, complete with bullet points and sloganeering. Still, her sincerity is evident throughout. And the issues she raises--the atomization of family and community, the devastation of the natural landscape--are potent enough, resonating far beyond the one-and-only Baxley, Georgia.

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