Mary Winstead: Back to Mississippi

Mary Winstead
Back to Mississippi

Whom do we claim as kin? And what responsibility do we have for our kin's actions? In Neshoba County, Mississippi, where three civil-rights workers were murdered in 1964, nearly everyone is related to everyone else. This means nearly everyone is granted the protection and honor owed to kin. This fact is, in large part, why it was so difficult to build a case against the suspects, and why charges of murder have never been brought.

Mary Winstead's father is from Neshoba County and, although she grew up in the Linden Hills neighborhood of Minneapolis, her expansive and loving Mississippi family claimed her as their own. Inevitably, when Winstead set out to write a memoir about her father's Neshoba County family, her own story got caught up in those of the murder victims and of the murderers. The Klan organizer and mastermind behind the killings, it turns out, is her father's cousin, preacher Edgar Ray Killen.

Winstead's Mississippi stories are captivating. She first visits as a morose 13-year-old and she's charmed by her Southern relatives' open and expressive love and the controlled chaos of a Southern kitchen that turns out biscuits and crisp chicken fried in vats of lard. Her writing here has just the right mix of familiarity and distance to bring characters like Auntie Lue and Cousin Darla to life.

For contrast, these memories are mixed with descriptions of Winstead's childhood in the white, Catholic enclave of Linden Hills, where her mother kept a house as scrupulously clean as the neighbors' and wore gloves and a hat to shop downtown. Her father enjoys shocking the Minnesota neighbors with accounts of his Southern childhood, told in a reclaimed Mississippi accent. They gasp and tut-tut when he uses words like nigger, but it is still understood that a black family could never move into the neighborhood or send their children to the local parish school.

The Minnesota stories, which represent the bulk of Winstead's life, also make up the greater part of Back to Mississippi. But her Linden Hills childhood and her garrulous, Mississippi-born father fall short of filling a book. Her unremarkable first kiss and first menstruation leave the reader wishing we were in Neshoba County, listening to the voices of Preacher Killen's kin. Though these people open up to their Northern cousin, they're tightlipped about the dark figure that brought them shame. Perhaps it would take a true outsider to bore to the center of her family's stain and its responsibility. Where Winstead brings the fine introspection of an MFA grad to the job, this story may ultimately have been better suited to a tenacious journalist.

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