Novel set in 1940s TRINIDAD
Talking Location with author Idabel Allen – Tennessee Delta
18th May 2017
#TalkingLocationWith…. author Idabel Allen – Tennessee Delta
Rooted is set in Northwest Tennessee’s Delta cotton-country: the remote land of my father’s childhood, with its muddy, turtle-filled waterways, fried catfish, and down-home people who look after their own. As a child, it seemed the outside world had little influence on this pocket of land, where folks live as their folks had: working the land, trusting the Lord, oblivious of what was to come as we all are.
To drive the Great River Road through the Tennessee Delta today is not unlike driving through the area during the 1970s as Slade Mortimer had in my novel, Rooted. Running from the New York City punk scene, fueled on pills and whiskey, it seemed he might have crash-landed on the moon – so desolate and never-ending are the flat fields that stretch ever westward to the banks of the great, churning river:
A devourer of fishermen and barge workers and drunken teens, the Mississippi River commands the respect of those who live along its driftwood scattered, foam drenched shores. Locals are drawn to its water to fish, and to the endless dirt roads and gravel topped levees that twine along the waterway. To return to the Mississippi is to return to the mother’s milk for nourishment and fortification. Standing barefooted atop a warm sandbar, beneath a blazing blue sky with the fierce Tennessee sun bronzing your skin and the wide, rolling river before you, you get a sense of the immortal. The land and sky and water have always been just as you have.
The towns of Ridgely and Tiptonville lie at the foot of a range of bluffs that overlook the river. On the bluffs, cattle farms. On the bottoms, crops: cotton, corn, soybean. In the fall, the river bottoms are a sea of white, blooming cotton, soft and welcoming for as far as the eye can see.
Bordered by Missouri to the west across the Mississippi River, and by Kentucky to the north, Northwest Tennessee is home to Reelfoot Lake, the only large, natural lake in Tennessee. Noted for its bald cypress trees and crappie fishing, the lake is a favorite wintering ground for bald eagles. Tens of thousands of eagle watchers from across the country flock to the lake for the annual Reelfoot Lake Eagle Festival and eagle tours.
The United States Geological Survey would have you believe Reelfoot Lake was formed when the region subsided during the 1811–12 New Madrid earthquakes. The earthquakes resulted in several major changes in the landforms over a widespread area, with shocks felt as far away as Quebec, Canada.
But this is Chickasaw land and the bearer of an Indian legend that says Reelfoot Lake was named Kolopin, meaning Reelfoot, for a Chickasaw prince who was born with a deformed foot and walked with a rolling motion. When he became chief, Reelfoot determined to marry a Choctaw princess, but her father would not permit it. The Great Spirit warned Reelfoot that if he attempted to kidnap the maiden, his village and his people would be destroyed. Reelfoot disobeyed the Spirit and stole the princess away to Chickasaw territory.
In the middle of the wedding ceremony, the Great Spirit stamped his foot in anger, causing the earth to quake, and the Father of the Waters raised the Mississippi River over its banks, flooding Reelfoot’s homeland. The water flowed into the imprint left by the Spirit’s foot, forming a lake beneath which Reelfoot, his bride, and his people lie buried.
As children, we read this legend on the backs of menus every time we journeyed north from Memphis to family reunions held at one of the many fine restaurants along the lake. Catfish, fried chicken, country ham, homemade onions rings, hush puppies, stewed apples, green beans, white beans, French fries and the best rolls in the world were on the menu then and now. It was an anguishing affair: starving the two and half hour drive north and then bellyaching all the way home from over-eating. But the time in-between was pure heaven.
As children, we knew how special the land of my father’s childhood was, with its relatives and legends and food. From our speeding Buick, we watched the endless stretching fields dotted with sharecropper shacks, the same type of structure my father had been born in. Knowing it was from that dirt we had sprung and could never completely escape, and never wanting to.
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