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Tom Chaney R737: Resurrection Man

Tom Chaney, Of Writers and Their Books. R736, A review of Sharyn McCrumb's Resurrection Man , first appeared in the Hart County News-Herald on 19 November 2006
The next earlier Tom Chaney Of Writers and Their Books column, Tom Chaney: No. R736. Thinking about Christmas

By Tom Chaney

The Resurrection Man

"He listened to the old people's stories, of how the trickster rabbit smiled and smiled his way out of danger, and how the fox never saw the trap for the smile, and he reckoned he could do that. He could smile like honey on a johnny cake. Serenity was his shield."

Thus Sharyn McCrumb describes the slave Grandison Harris in her novella, The Resurrection Man (one of three novellas in Transgressions, edited by Ed McBain, published by Forge, November 2006).

Harris divides his life by "the train ride," referring to his first trip by train from Charleston, South Carolina, to Augusta, Georgia. He is purchased in Charleston by Dr. George Newton, dean of the medical college in Augusta, to serve as porter and factotum for the school.

Besides his duties as a porter he is expected to become the "resurrectionist" for the "supplies" for the medical students. These "supplies" take the form of recently dead bodies from the black cemetery in Augusta. "Three days buried and no more, the doctor told him. After that, there's no point in bringing the corpse back up; it's too far gone to teach us anything. Look for a newly-dug grave."

Grandison becomes proficient at his job. His free, half-caste landlady sees to it that he learns to read. Gradually he sits in on the medical classes becoming a proficient assistant to the doctors during the Civil War.

After the war Harris is made a judge by the reconstruction government in South Carolina. Realizing that he is seen as merely a trained monkey by the Yankee administration and held in great disfavor by the black community, he returns to his former profession as the resurrection man in Augusta.

Long ago he had come to terms with the dean's philosophy, "We must mutilate the dead in order not to mutilate the living."

Armed with a lantern, a shovel, a horse and cart, and a pass, Gradison continues his nightly resurrections -- including at one time a slave thought to be dead from a beating. When Gradison raised him up he lived and headed west. Dead once -- alive again might be a bit much both for the dead man and Gradison. The revelation of his body snatching would have disrupted the progress of Georgia medical education.

Sharyn McCrumb has long been a favorite teller of tales from the southern mountains. "My books are like Appalachian quilts," she says, "I take brightly colored scraps of legends, ballads, fragments of rural life, and local tragedy, and I piece them together into a complex whole that tells not only story, but also a deeper truth about the culture of the mountain South."

A long-time interest in songs and legends led to her ballad series of novels. Titles such as MacPherson's Lament, The Rosewood Casket, She Walks these Hills, If I'd Killed Him When I Met Him blend song and legend.

In addition to the ballad novels, McCrumb has written a series of comic and satirical novels and short stories in addition to the novella The Resurrection Man.

"I find that the more I write, the more fascinated I become with the idea of the land as an intricate element in the lives of the mountain people, and of the past as prologue to any contemporary narrative. This connection to the land is personal as well as thematic."

Like Gradison Harris in The Resurrection Man, her stories are peopled with folks she has known by family story and legend.

"[He] smiles on the dark street, remembering a young minister who had once tried to persuade him to attend a funeral. 'Come now, Mr. Harris,' the earnest preacher had said, 'There is nothing to fear in a cemetery. Surely those bodies are simply the discarded husks of our departed spirits. Surely the dead are no longer there.' "

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73/111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney
The Bookstore

This story was posted on 2011-11-20 12:51:34
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