“South Toward Home”

A book by author Alice Joyner Irby

  • DougInNC book report
  • “More than a Review”
  • First book report in nearly a year!

Full book title: South Toward Home:
– Tales from an Unlikely Journey

I’ve much to say about this book:
->DescriptIVE, reflectIVE, informatIVE, illustratIVE, defensIVE at times though without invectIVE. SubstantIVE without trying to be persuasIVE or argumentatIVE.

Those are aspects “I’VE” appreciated about this work.

“South Toward Home” is an interesting and well-composed memoir from the life of North Carolinian Alice Irby, born in the town of Weldon. The reader is welcomed into an enjoyable tour through these pages by this early passage: “People in that eastern corner of the state know what the dirt feels like under their feet. They know what the Roanoke River yields other than turbulence. They know the meaning of loyalty, the depths of sorrow, and the transcendent power of faith.” (p. 4)

You’ll find this review/report using book quotes, because Alice the writer tells her story so marvelously that I shall not likely improve upon her well-chosen words by using only my own.

Lest one think this is simply a small-town story, much of the author’s life was spent north of Carolina, working in New Jersey as well as Washington, D.C. The events of those times are chronicled; here is a brief sample:

  • New Jersey, 1972, Rutgers University: “… the first female vice president of a major American university. … Student protests on my first day on the job put me on the firing line.” (p. 159)
  • Washington, D.C. in the late-1970s: “… everyone seemed busier than before, but not with a sense of purpose and excitement that had driven me in 1964.” (p. 217-218.)

One could pick and choose to read portions of the book as they are conveniently grouped into sections with chapters contained to a topic. But I could not let any pass me by, even discussion of a card game I have never played. The chapter opening hooked me: “The really serious game – the one that pits friend against friend weekly for life; … is Bridge, the seducer of young and old alike.” (p. 101) This chapter, titled ‘The Great Game,’ was marvelously written. But the peak of dissertation was to come later.

It is a pleasure to read a work where the writer is not at work to lay blame. I relished this relief from much of today’s writing in magazines, newspapers, books, and online that is slanted to indict. The world had serious troubles in the author’s years, but she had the attitude of an opportunist, not a victim:

  • “The world was turning my way …” (p. 151)
  • “I absorbed life’s arrows and ran its marathons as I tried to overcome my misjudgments and stumbles.” (p. 210)
  • “I came of age in a man’s world — or so they told me after I had made my way. All the while, I thought it was My World!” (p. 485)

The historical context of this life is represented. For examples, there were the 1950s: “… anxiety daily during the early years of the Cold War. … Brown v. Board … Korea …” (p. 161), and the 1960s: “… civil rights legislation, war, this time in Vietnam; the assassination of a president in 1963, a leading civil-rights leader in 1968, and a presidential candidate … Kent State …” (p. 161) Plus this particularly poignant perspective:

  • “By the time I was sixteen, I had lived through the Great Depression, during which able-bodied men knocked on our back door offering to sharpen knives in exchange for a meal — and WWII, when young men from my hometown did not return from the skies over Europe or D-Day and its aftermath.” (p. 137)

Other decades are crisply depicted as well, appealing to this reader/blogger because I have my own game of describing each decade since the 1960s in just six words or fewer. (Click on the highlighted text to open a new tab to my ‘Decades’ page.) I enjoyed reading Alice’s descriptions.

I credit this book as coming from a sharp mind. There are moments of spontaneous joy in the language used, sometimes with a Southern flair, sometimes quaint, many times riveting. Here are a few gems (emphasis is mine):

  • “Dark was our curfew, but we often stayed outside until it was dark night.” (p. 49)
  • “For its long, soulful cadence, its call to lands beyond, its promise of adventure, and its haunting line to the past, the train whistle is like no other sound: mournful, seductive, exciting.” (p. 75)
  • [of her daughter’s desire for a horse] “When I thought about it, the monthly costs were probably about equal — a brother or a horse, at least until the college years.” (p. 244)
  • [on travel to Israel and Palestine] “The history of these ancient civilizations speaks to us today: imagine how many tribes, armies, and kings have traveled across these hills or sailed into the port.” (p. 376)

Earlier I mentioned the chapter on the game of Bridge, how well that was written, and how I considered skipping past until it drew me in. The same was true ‘in spades’ (so to speak) when I reached an entire section with stories and references to music. I flipped a few pages, but the trap of the book’s best writing set upon me and I could not leave this section unread. I captured appealing ‘notes’ from the writer’s language of music:

  • [upon hearing a favorite song] “… transcending tones that brought back to me both tears and vivid images stored safely away for years, …” (p. 321)
  • [to describe ornithology, the study of birds] “… life among a symphony of song in the midst of a rainbow of colors.” (p. 328)
  • [homage to her piano] “The Knabe [piano brand] is not just a big part of me. It strums the strings of my heart. It stores in its keys and cabinet many secrets, events, and emotions … ” (p. 357)

For older readers, memories will be rekindled by this book. For younger, there is this message of hope and optimism: “Can the twenty-first century be another Great American Century? It depends, I believe, on what its own generations make of it. It depends on you and others like you. … well positioned, with varied resources and enormous affluence …” (p. 162)

I encourage anyone to read “South Toward Home: Tales from an Unlikely Journey.” You’ll finish with respect and gratitude for Alice Irby’s stories. She is from Weldon. The work is well done.

4 thoughts on ““South Toward Home””

    1. Thank you for visiting and for your comment. Memoirs are not usually at the top of my reading list, but “I’ve” met this author here in North Carolina and wanted to read what she had to say. It was a splendid book with stories to which I could relate. It is also fodder for much to discuss when this pandemic is over and I might have a chance to meet with Alice Irby in person.

      Liked by 1 person

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