April 2, 2011 9:49:00 PM
Lynne Bryant makes her home in Colorado now, but it''s the author''s deeply-entrenched Mississippi roots that inspired her first novel, "Catfish Alley," just released by Penguin/NAL Accent. What better time than Columbus'' Spring Pilgrimage to return to where it all began and introduce her characters to her hometown?
Bryant, who grew up in New Hope and went on to study nursing at Mississippi University for Women, the University of Mississippi and attain her PhD from the University of Colorado, will attend a book signing Saturday, April 9, at 10 a.m. in the Tennessee Williams Home Welcome Center at 300 Main St.
It was while researching Columbus'' antebellum homes that Bryant ran across a list of sites for the city''s African-American Heritage Tour. Catfish Alley (Fourth Street South, between Main and College Streets) was one of them. That once-bustling gathering place was a hub of activity when the day''s catch was brought up from the river to sell and the aroma of catfish cooking permeated the air.
"I began to wonder about the stories of the men and women who might have lived during those early years of the 20th century," Bryant said. "I started to research places that I''ve grown up around but never really noticed, and I began to ask myself, ''What if a white women and a black woman were thrown together, not necessarily by choice, to examine the history of the African-American community?''"
Bryant set her novel in fictional Clarksville, Mississippi. Ashamed of a secret in her own family roots, Roxanne Reeves clings to the social status of being involved in that town''s tour of antebellum homes. When she''s given the job none of the other white women want -- researching the city''s African-American history -- she feels she can''t say no.
Elderly Grace Clark, a retired black schoolteacher, agrees to be her guide. Through the process, Roxanne revisits a painful past and finds her life opening up in unexpected directions.
"I came to writing later in life, finally allowing myself to unleash a love of storytelling and a lifetime of struggling to understand the complex race relations in Mississippi," Bryant said. "Contemporary stories defined by the context of Southern history continue to intrigue me as I work on my second novel, ''Alligator Lake.''"
During research for "Catfish Alley," Bryant also discovered the photography of the late O.N. Pruitt of Columbus. She also found Columbus native Berkley Hudson''s dissertation study of Pruitt''s work from 1920 to 1960. In addition to taking the expected family portraits -- including those of Bryant and her siblings -- Pruitt also recorded on film the "freak shows, circus acts, dead children, tent revivals and river baptisms" of both blacks and whites. He was unusual for his time.
"The images from Pruitt''s 1930s photography in the same county where I grew up touched something deep inside me and made me want to tell this story," the writer revealed.
Bryant''s stories tackle issues many Southerners can identify with and often struggle to understand.
"''Catfish Alley'' allows me to share a fictional story based loosely on people and events in Columbus. I''m a great believer in the power of storytelling to not only entertain us, but to challenge our thinking and, every now and then, to change our lives," said Bryant. "I''ve been thrilled to discover my voice as a writer and to share my Southern roots through the quiet power of the written word."
The novel will be available at the Welcome Center April 9 during the signing, which is open to the public. Find it, too, through major online book sites, including amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com. Learn more about Bryant at www.lynne-bryant.com.
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.