Thursday, July 15, 2010
MOONSHINER'S DAUGHTER by Mary Judith Messer - Reviewed by Gary Carden
Moonshiner’s Daughter by Mary Judith Messer
Lake Juneluska: Doing Well Now Publishers
$14.95 (paperback) - 218 pages.
“He that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune; for they are impediments to great enterprises, either of virtue or mischief.”
-Francis Bacon (1561-1626)
Francis Bacon’s famous quote that calls a man’s wife and children “hostages to fortune” has a bitter irony when applied to Terry Lee Long, the brutal, alcoholic father in Mary Judith Messer’s autobiographical Moonshiner’s Daughter. Messer’s artless account of the nightmarish existence endured by her mother, her three sisters , her brother and herself in Haywood County (circa 1940‘s) captures conditions that are so unrelentingly harsh and inhumane, readers may occasionally wish to avert their eyes, feeling that they have inadvertently witnessed the shameful acts described.
Judith Long Messer’s parents are primarily responsible for the negative aspects of her childhood.Terry Long’s “great enterprise” is the making (and consuming) of moonshine ( an occupation he allegedly taught to a young Popcorn Sutton) that renders him a drunken, angry and domineering man. Although he is occasionally capable of gainful employment, such pursuits are brief. Invariably, he reverts to the violent and tyrannical behavior that his family learns to fear. Judith’s mother, mentally unstable due to a head injury (she was struck by a falling tree) makes repeated attempts to take her own life. In addition, while her husband is in prison for stealing (a sack of cornmeal) and moonshining, she frequently reverts to a profligate life style that involves drunkenness, prostitution and theft. She is also a willing participant in the corruption of her own daughters, forcing Judith and the oldest sister, Cheryl, to shop-lift from Waynesville merchants as well as stealing clothes from the homes of neighbors. Finally, in what may be the most shocking revelation in Moonshiner’s Daughter, this deranged woman initiates events that lead to Cheryl’s repeated rapes; subsequently, she even attempts to act as a "procurer" for her own daughters, sending them off on fabricated “coon hunts” with a variety of young men.
However, Messer’s moral indictment is not restricted to just her family. Branded as “white trash” by Haywood County’s teachers, school principals and social service workers, the Long children are constantly taunted and ridiculed. Even when they are the fortunate recipients of assistance (help from sympathetic neighbors, winter coats from the Lions Club and free lunches at school) such gifts turn into badges of shame. The Longs come to dread the jeering and physical abuse of classmates in both the classroom and during the daily school bus ride home. Judith, Cheryl and Joe are frequently subjected to harrowing punishments - the principal’s belt and paddle that leaves the children bruised and bleeding. Add a couple of pedophiles (a janitor at school and a blind businessman in downtown Waynesville), and the abuse inflected on the Long children pushes the boundaries of credibility. Frequently barefoot, hungry and poorly clothed, they grow up with a bitter sense of alienation,inferiority and anxiety.
Although Moonshiner’s Daughter is frequently a chronicle of despair and a daunting indictment, it also describes sudden (and brief) bursts of delight. The author recalls moments when the family seems to radiate contentment and security: a meal of buttered biscuits and gravy, the visit of a colorful relative who comes bearing gifts, a watermelon party and a singular Christmas when a generous Santa appears. Such moments are rare and precious when measured against the shame of not only having head lice, but having the infection announced to her fellow students by the school nurse. The countless brutal beatings administered by both parents and school officials are staggering in both their brutality and frequency.
Due to a series of fortuitous events, Judith and Cheryl Long not only escape the grim conditions imposed by their home life, but eventually, manage to leave Haywood County. Judith acquires employment at the Queen Farm in Maggie Valley, where she experiences a new life (good food, a comfortable room and devoted friends). Cheryl abandons a loveless marriage and catches the bus to New York City. When the Queens return to Virginia, Judith goes with them, and as her life improves, so does her self-image and confidence. When she decides to join Cheryl in New York, it is an act of considerable courage since she is underage and has no skills or work experience.
However, these two women prevail. Working at menial jobs and suffering all of the disadvantages of the “mountain yokel in the big city,” they gradually learn survival skills. They also learn that the evils that lurked in Haywood County ( rapists, crafty, deceitful men, mental and physical )abuse) are also prevalent in the big city (although they are often artfully disguised). Slowly, these two mountain women learn to relish life - Coney Island, Radio City, Broadway musicals, restaurants, parks and zoos. They meet Susan Hayward and James Cagney and attend glamorous social events. As the author notes, all of this is pretty exhilarating for two moonshiner’s daughters!
The conclusion of Moonshiner’s Daughter is a bit disconcerting. After learning to move with confidence through subways and city streets, acquiring friends and establishing close relationships, the Long women return home. Finally, they choose to marry and live in Haywood County. Judith readily acknowledges that her life in the “big apple” left her with scars and painful memories - especially one about the daughter that she left in a Catholic agency for unwed mothers.
What then are we to conclude about this book? In one sense it seems that Judith and Cheryl’s escape brought about a healing in the Long family that might have never been possible otherwise. While in New York, the two sisters visit their relatives in Haywood. At one point, the mother and the youngest sister come for a visit (the mother is upset because she can’t purchase her brand of snuff in NYC). Eventually, Terry Long stops drinking and abusing his wife, and old grievances are forgotten. It is as though the breakup of the family initiated a basis for a healthy reunion.
It is equally true that a childhood as devastating as the one described in Moonshiner’s Daughter leaves permanent scars. The Southern novelist,Harry Crews, who also grew up in crippling poverty in south Georgia stated that children who experience extremely brutal conditions in the South are forever marked by it. Raised without role models and taught immoral practices, children often lose all sense of ethical judgment - the criminal practices continue into adulthood. Such children bear physical and mental scars; the mental ones may create lifelong attitudes, or a kind of moral or ethical ambiguity which makes them incapable of abandoning "asocial acts" as theft, deceit and the ability to manipulate others. Some readers may find evidence of this in Moonshiner’s Daughter.