The New York Times
Safe from the Neighborsby Steve Yarbrough
In a small town in the Mississippi Delta, Luke May teaches local history to students too young to remember the turmoil of the civil rights era. Luke himself was just a child in 1962 when James Meredith’s enrollment at Ole Miss provoked a bloody new battle in the old Civil War. But when a long-lost friend suddenly returns to town, bringing with her a reminder
In a small town in the Mississippi Delta, Luke May teaches local history to students too young to remember the turmoil of the civil rights era. Luke himself was just a child in 1962 when James Meredith’s enrollment at Ole Miss provoked a bloody new battle in the old Civil War. But when a long-lost friend suddenly returns to town, bringing with her a reminder of the act of searing violence that ended her childhood, Luke begins to realize that his connection to the past runs deeper than he ever could have imagined. An intricate novel of family secrets, extramarital affairs, and political upheaval, Safe from the Neighbors is a magnificent achievement.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
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“Steve Yarbrough’s Safe from the Neighbors will take your breath away. Ambitious, funny, sad, smart, and beautifully crafted, it’s everything a novel should be.” —Richard Russo
“Yarbrough, who has been likened to Faulkner for his attention to Mississippi . . . nimbly illustrates what the past can tell us about the present.” —The New York Times Book Review
“Dark irony fills the pages of Safe from the Neighbors. . . . Luke faces his own emotional conflicts . . . adding intrigue and entanglement to a social history that, quite frankly, sears all on its own.” —The Seattle Times
“Very few writers understand the complex history and maddening social order of the Mississippi Delta. For Steve Yarbrough, though, it’s home turf. He is wickedly observant, funny, cynical, evocative, and he possesses a gift that cannot be taught: he can tell a story.” —John Grisham
“Steve Yarbrough is a masterful storyteller—one of our finest—and Safe from the Neighbors is a masterpiece. . . . This is a spellbinding, powerful novel.” —Jill McCorkle
“Yarbrough’s lines can stop you in your tracks.” —The Florida Times-Union
“One of Yarbrough’s talents is his cinematic ability to paint the Delta South—its people and places—without any of the predictable stereotypes. His writing style is so natural and straightforward and bristly with suspense that you hardly notice his abundant insights into the complicated history of the region.” —Oxford American
“Safe From the Neighbors . . . is over far too quickly. . . . Exceptionally well-told.” —The Free Lance-Star (Fredericksburg, VA)
“Emphasizes how the past is never really dead and how little we truly know about the people and neighbors with whom we grow up. . . . Excellent.” —The Decatur Daily
“Safe from the Neighbors is a novel of unusual richness and depth, one that’s as wise about the small shocks within a marriage as it is about the troubled history of Mississippi. Steve Yarbrough is a formidably talented novelist, shuttling between the past and present with a grace that feels effortless.” —Tom Perrotta
“This crisply written story, set against the dramatic backdrop of the Deep South, deals with racial angst and moral complexities in prose that is both intimate and authentic.” —The Tucson Citizen
“Skillfully blends the present and past, the public and private. . . . Readable and quietly affecting.” —Memphis Magazine
“Yarbrough creates believable characters; all of them have flaws and strengths. . . . Safe From the Neighbors is a thoughtful novel that examines the intersection of the past and present.” —Sacramento Book Review
“Steve Yarbrough is a writer of many gifts, but what makes Safe from the Neighbors such a magnificent achievement is its moral complexity. . . . Safe from the Neighbors does what only the best novels can do; after reading it, we can never see the world, or ourselves, in quite the same way.” —Ron Rash
“Following in the footsteps of William Faulkner, Robert Penn Warren, Flannery O’Connor, and others, Steve Yarbrough . . . writes about the American South with gusto, finesse, and a compelling sense of irony. . . . [A] novel of great depth and complexity.” —Santa Barbara News-Press
“Safe From The Neighbors is a tense, spellbinding narrative of marital betrayal written against a background of Deep South racial angst. The prose is beautifully meditative and authentic. Steve Yarbrough writes about Mississippi, about history and loss, with the eye and heart of the native son he is.” —Tim Gautreaux
“Masterful. . . . Will stick with the reader long after the book is finished.” —BookPage
“Steve Yarbrough sets a novel against a freeze-frame of our recent past—James Meredith and the integration of Ole Miss—and somehow makes his story and those sorrowful events come out even ‘truer’ than what actually occurred.” —Paul Hendrickson
“Yarbrough ignites southern history. . . . Will give you chills.” —The Madison County Herald (Mississippi)
“Safe from the Neighbors reads like a mystery, plot driven and racing us to its conclusion. Yet the novel contains the sensibility and psychological acuity we often associate with Russian giants such as Tolstoy and Chekhov.” —Narrative magazine
“Yarbrough’s characters speak with the same laconic beauty Cormac McCarthy’s hard-used Westerners display. . . . Safe from the Neighbors is an enjoyable and satisfying book to read no matter if you are from Indianola, Miss., or Indianapolis, Ind.” —The Advocate (Baton Rouge, Louisiana).
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Read an Excerpt
“Just look what happens to poets,” I used to tell my honors class on the first day of school. “Half the time they go mad. And you know why I think that happens? Too much truth distilled to its essence, all surrounding evidence ignored or discarded. And I’m not faulting them for that. They’re just doing what poets are supposed to, and they’ve left us some beautiful works of literature, some of which have lasted for hundreds of years.
“When you pursue truth the way a historian does, though, you’ll find that it seldom travels without escort. There are all kinds of accompanying data. And causation, in particular, is usually a complicated matter. Let me give you an example of what I mean.
“In 1944, the day after the Allies landed in Normandy, a woman who lived down in Belzoni gave birth prematurely to quintuplets, and all of them died within the hour. The Jackson and Memphis papers had already reported the invasion, and this poor woman had reason to believe her husband was there. Like women all over Mississippi—all over America—she was terrified, scared to death her guy might’ve died on a beach thousands of miles from home. Now what effect do you think her fears could’ve had on her pregnancy?”
A hand or two always went up. “Maybe it got her so scared it threw her into labor.”
“It certainly could have. Things like that do happen. And so since there would’ve been no reason for her husband to storm those beaches if the Nazis hadn’t been entrenched there, you might consider accusing Adolf Hitler of having helped cause the deaths of those babies, along with all those other deaths he helped cause, millions upon millions of deaths in hundreds of battles or in concentration camps spread across Europe.
“But you might look for other ‘causes’ as well. For instance, when I was a student up at Ole Miss, where I learned about these dead babies while working on an oral history project, I discovered this lady’s father had lost his job in 1931 and stayed unemployed until 1942. The whole time she was growing up, she didn’t have enough to eat, so by the time she got married she’d been malnourished for years, just like a lot of other Americans at that time, including my mother and father and quite a few of your grandparents. We’re talking about the Great Depression, and who usually gets blamed for responding inadequately to that?”
Another hand in the air. “Herbert Hoover?”
“That’s right. We won’t worry about whether that’s fair or not. We’ll just add his name next to Hitler’s.” I usually started to move around the room at this point, walking over to the window to look out at the athletic fields where the Loring High football and baseball teams held their practices. With my back to the students, I’d say, “Of course, it turns out this woman had smoked all the way through her pregnancy and, according to some, drank hard liquor, too. It was illegal in Mississippi back then, but you could get booze from bootleggers, and more than a few people thought she did, though they weren’t sure how, given that she was poor and broke. These days, knowing a lot more about the effects of smoking and drinking on fetuses in utero, we might want to add her own name to the list of folks ‘responsible’ for this. We might put her mom’s name up there, too, because when she found out her daughter was pregnant, she told this troubled young woman to get out of the house, that she and her husband couldn’t feed any more mouths.”
I’d always turn around and face them before making the next statement. “Depending on whether or not you subscribe to a religious worldview—and I know most of you do—you might even want to add God’s name to the list we began with Adolf Hitler. Because the temperature in the Delta on June seventh, 1944, was a hundred and four degrees, and nobody had air conditioners then. Women’s bodies are already under plenty of stress during pregnancy, and immediately prior to delivery, this particular young woman displayed the symptoms of heatstroke.”
The last suggestion never failed to make them uncomfortable: twenty-five bodies changed position, shifting in their seats, shuffling their feet. Nobody cared if you laid a few more deaths on Hitler’s doorstep, and as for the young woman herself, well, she should have known better than to smoke and drink. But most of the kids in my classroom, black and white alike, had been washed in the blood just like I had, and while the blood had long ago washed off me, they were still covered with it.
“You know what you could do, though?” I’d say, stepping over to the board and picking up a piece of chalk that I started bouncing off the palm of my hand. “You could do what a good historian does. Note all the available facts, create as full a picture as possible, then conclude that on the day after D-Day, between two and three in the afternoon, five babies born to a nineteen-year-old woman named Mary Ethel Benson—whose husband, Charlie, was in France, where he’d win the Medal of Honor—died in Belzoni, Mississippi.”
From the looks on their faces, you could see I’d sold them my argument, just as I’d sold it to myself.
In 1860 there were 7.24 slaves for every free person (all of these being white) in Loring County. And even though a lot of African Americans left the Delta in the 1920s and again in the years after the Second World War, the racial balance has remained remarkably stable. In 2006, the county was 70 percent black, while the town of Loring itself was 68 percent.
You could see this history reflected in the faces, bodies, apparel and accoutrements of the students arrayed in the bleachers for the opening assembly of the fall semester. About 70 percent were black, most of them dressed in standard-issue Wal-Mart clothes. The white kids, on the other hand, wore designer jeans, with the girls favoring what my twin daugh- ters, both at Ole Miss now, had taught me were called “cap-sleeve T-shirts,” “double-layer tanks” and “peasant skirts.” They ?carried brand-new JanSport backpacks, and the majority had driven their own cars to school, whereas their black classmates either walked or rode the bus. You could tell that many of the black kids, and a few of the white ones as well, had starch-heavy diets, though our free-lunch program tried to serve healthier fare. Except for a few athletes, who tended to flock together regardless of color, the races didn’t mix much at assemblies. The white kids clustered high up in the bleachers, reversing the order that prevailed in movie theaters when I was a boy.
Our principal, Ramsey Coleman, walked to the lectern, directly under the basket at the far end of the court. He’s a likable guy who took a lot of flak a few years ago for looking like Johnnie Cochran, folks asking if he’d found any bloody gloves lately. Like me, he’d recently turned fifty and had grown up in Loring.
While he welcomed everybody back and enumerated the exciting developments that had taken place since the spring semester—“we bought six new HP laptops for the computer lab, got new uniforms for the football team, replaced all the windowpanes y’all shot out and filled the holes in the walls with bulletproof plaster”—I found myself wondering what it would be like coming to school knowing I wouldn’t see either of my daughters in the hallway between classes or eat lunch with them and their boyfriends (when they had any) like I had almost every school day for the last four years. A lot of things had just changed, and though Jennifer and I had known it was coming, I don’t think we really understood how we’d feel when we drove off and left them up at Oxford. Each of us cried coming home, but while you might imagine their absence would draw us closer, if anything it seemed to push us farther apart. At first that surprised me, but after a few days it was starting to make sense. Up until a certain point, we’d done things together as a family, but then the girls got older, life got busier and we drifted into a kind of unspoken agreement that I’d do some things with them—teaching them to drive, listening to them complain about my colleagues or taking them fishing, back when they still enjoyed that—while she’d do others, like helping them buy clothes, showing them how to cook and reading their English papers. We couldn’t share each other’s loss because for a long time now we hadn’t shared each other’s pleasure.
“Two teachers left us over the summer,” Ramsey was say- ing. “Don’t act triumphant, though. Y’all didn’t scare ’em to death—they just got better-paying jobs.” Most of the kids laughed. Ramsey was fond of saying that only 2 percent of the students were really troublemakers, but since he first made that statement the phrase Two Percent Club had begun showing up on walls and in toilet stalls. Last year, somebody had spray-painted it on one of the buses after busting out all the windows, misspelling Percent as Procent.
“Mr. Pratt,” Ramsey went on, “finished his doctorate and got hired to teach zoology up at Delta State.”
Somebody hollered, “He never were nothin’ but a old giraffe.”
Ramsey jotted a note on his legal pad. Once assembly ended, whoever had made the remark would be hauled into the office. Ramsey laughed a lot and told jokes, but there were better people around to have mad at you.
“Fortunately, we’ve secured the services of Mr. Marcus Billings, a graduate of this very school whom Dr. Pratt personally recommended. Stand up, Mr. Billings.”
Mark Billings stood and waved. He’d been my student seven or eight years earlier, and I distinctly remembered having called on him to answer the question of how many U.S. senators each state has. Looking stricken, he finally ventured, “Ten?” Ramsey had told me he’d hire him despite, as he put it, “certain deficits” in his Delta State transcript. Mark’s main qualification seemed to be his willingness to accept the job.
The other vacancy had occurred the previous week, when we were up moving the girls into their dorm at Ole Miss. Our French teacher learned that her husband, an executive at one of the ConAgra catfish plants, was being promoted to the company’s Omaha headquarters, and Ramsey left a panicked message on my cell phone, wondering if I had any suggestions. But before I could call him back, I received another one saying he’d found the solution.
Which, as it turned out, was “Mrs. Maggie Sorrentino,” a trim, dark-haired woman in her early fifties. She wore a pair of white slacks and a purple silk blouse, gold bracelets on each of her wrists and a thick gold necklace. Earlier, pulling into the teachers’ parking lot, I’d noticed a recent-model Mercedes, one of those sporty jobs that probably cost more than my house. It had North Carolina license plates, so I figured a rich relative must have paid one of my colleagues a visit and let whoever it was drive the car to work.
From the Hardcover edition.
Meet the Author
Born in Indianola, Mississippi, Steve Yarbrough is the author of four previous novels and three collections of stories. A PEN/Faulkner finalist, he has received the Mississippi Authors Award, the California Book Award, the Richard Wright Award, and an award from the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters. He now teaches at Emerson College and lives with his wife in Stoneham, Massachusetts.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
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If you want to know what it's like to have lived in the MS Delta, Yarbrough give a wonderful and true example in this book. The landscape, the farming, and -- most of all -- the way of life of these complicated characters all scream from the pages as you ignore all else to turn these pages. Woven from fact and fiction, you find yourself hopelessly involved in their story.
Steve Yarbrough's Safe from the Neighbors may be my favorite of his novels thus far, though Visible Spirits is right there with it--and, well, I guess Oxygen Man too . . . Okay, never mind. They're all good. In Safe from the Neighbors, his latest, Yarbrough intertwines the personal histories of the inhabitants of his fictional Loring, Mississippi with one of the major historical events of the time, the admission of James Meredith to the University of Mississippi. Yarbrough loves the ordinary folks of Loring, that's clear in every word he writes--but he is also keenly aware of their shortcomings, the most grievous among them being a deeply ingrained racism. He knows that these people he loves would have almost uniformly been opposed to allowing blacks to attend Ole Miss. In his stories of Loring, he doesn't for a moment attempt to forgive or any way expiate the sins of ordinary Southerners--but he does ask his readers to look into the complex workings of the ordinary human heart and to understand what it might have been like to be there, to be caught up in the sweep of history, to make choices that will define you forever. He asks us to understand how the personal and the political are always inextricably bound together--and so to better understand why his characters behave as they do. He doesn't ask us to forgive them, the ones that make bad choices, or even to applaud the ones that make good choices (this is especially the case in Safe from the Neighbors), he only allows us to live with them for a time, to see their lives as part of a complex weave of culture and individual nature. Yarbrough doesn't judge his characters so much as show them to us, and those of us who are looking closely, I think, may very well see ourselves in them, both the good and the bad, the ugly and the beautiful. For me, this is his most masterful accomplishment as a writer--to show us the lives of these deeply flawed people and yet to somehow render--for me at least, for this reader--an overriding beauty and wonder.
In Loring, Mississippi Luke May teaches history at the local high school. His marriage is on the rocks as he and his wife college Freshman English Professor and poet Jennifer share no interests especially since their daughters now attends the U of Mississippi. Maggie Sorrentino comes home to Loring to teach French. She left town after her father killed her mother in what was officially ruled self defense. The killing occurred the night before James Meredith entered the University of Mississippi; that same evening Maggie's father and Luke's dad were part of the White Citizens Council that drove to Oxford to prevent Meredith from attending class. Luke and Maggie begin an affair and he tries to uncover what happened on that fatal night over four decades ago. The key to this strong look at the impact of historical racism and the Civil Rights movement on subsequent generations is that Steve Yarbrough does not condemn anyone; even those who spurred by hatred tried to prevent Meredith from attending the U of Mississippi. Instead he presents his cast in 1962 and forty years later as people with faults and flaws. Readers will enjoy the amateur historian's efforts to learn the truth from a silent generation in which even his father who was there refuses to say anything while those he teaches looks at the Meredith event as ancient history. Harriet Klausner