Sweet Everlasting: A Novel

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Sharecropper's son, mill worker, and ex-convict, Ellis Burt surely knows adversity. For a brief and cherished time there was a woman, and then a child, who had been a kind of salvation to him. Then they were gone, leaving Ellis to carry on with the burden of what he had done to them - the ruin he brought down upon them all. In The Sweet Everlasting, Ellis is seventy-four. Moving back and forth over a lifetime of memories, he recalls his Depression-era boyhood, the black family who worked the neighboring farm, his...
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The Sweet Everlasting

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Overview

Sharecropper's son, mill worker, and ex-convict, Ellis Burt surely knows adversity. For a brief and cherished time there was a woman, and then a child, who had been a kind of salvation to him. Then they were gone, leaving Ellis to carry on with the burden of what he had done to them - the ruin he brought down upon them all. In The Sweet Everlasting, Ellis is seventy-four. Moving back and forth over a lifetime of memories, he recalls his Depression-era boyhood, the black family who worked the neighboring farm, his time in prison, and the subsequent years adrift - working jobs no one else would take and longing for a chance to rejoin what is left of his family. Ever in the background are the memories of his wife, Susan, and their boy, W. D., and how Ellis drew on her strength and his innocence to resist everything that threatened to harden him: the shame that others would have him feel, the poverty he had known, and the distorted honor and pride he witnessed in others and knew was inside him as well.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
"I said I didn't believe in those stories like they have in the movies... I don't think the world fixes itself to suit folks... if you think it does, you're on the road to some sad times." The quest for redemption is the brooding motif of this deeply affecting debut novel by a Pushcart Prize-winning poet and academic. Narrator Ellis Burt, the 74-yesr-old son of a poor white Georgia sharecropper, grew up during the Depression and served six years in the penitentiary while still a young man. Moving restlessly back and forth from time present to time past, he recalls his childhood, courtship and marriage, trying to sort out what brought him to the one awful moment when he fell hapless victim to his early social deprivation. As a boy, he witnessed the horrible mutilation murder of his black friend, Isaiah, at the hands of Ellis's own hateful uncle and their bigoted landlord. When he leaves home, he joins a traveling carnival, falls in love, marries and, now father of a son, settles happily down. But, in one irretrievable outburst of violence, he destroys his idyll and is condemned to wander beyond redemption-until his life comes full circle in a surprising way. This is a haunting story, beautifully told. (June)
Library Journal
Unlike many published poets, Mitcham (Somewhere in Ecclesiastes, LJ 12/91) has successfully made the transition to fiction with an inspiring debut novel. This book pulls together the recollections of Ellis Burt, a white ex-convict who was born during the Depression in the Deep South. The racism that permeates every facet of his culture leads not only to the death of a black boyhood friend named Isaiah but also, indirectly, to his own son's death. Ellis's wife, Susan, tries to bring a sense of order and happiness into their modest lives. However, as Ellis remarks, "I've never been big on the sorts of things like you'll see in movies....I don't think the world works that way, don't think it's even anywhere close." With a down-to-earth narrative and poignant images, this book will immediately catch the interest of readers. Public libraries should request extra copies.David A. Beron, Westbrook Coll. Lib., Portland, Me.
Kirkus Reviews
An unsparing exploration of a modest, tragic life, in a debut of considerable power.

Mitcham's various talents (he is a poet as well as the chair of the psychology department at Georgia's Fort Valley State College) come into shrewd play here: The language in which Ellis Burt, at 74, looks back over his life is precise, evocative, convincing, and Mitcham's dissection of the manner in which Ellis's furies have driven him to several disastrous acts is persuasive. Ellis, a Georgia sharecropper's son, loses his innocence and any belief in his future when, at the age of 14, he witnesses several white men torturing, then killing, his best friend. Isaiah, the son of a black sharecropper, had been accused, wrongly, of robbery. Even as an old man, Ellis still remembers with painful clarity watching, in hiding, frozen, as Isaiah dies. Guilty, ashamed, he grows up a drifter, expecting little, until he courts and (to his astonishment) wins the love of Susan, who is confident, warm, supportive. For a time the sweet pleasures of marriage convince Ellis that life may have some point after all. But then, in an unthinking act of violence, he indirectly causes the death of his young son. Compounding the horror, he sets fire to his house in his grief, and the blaze quickly spreads to nearby homes. He serves time in prison and, when he is released, starts drifting again, hoping to locate some final purpose in his life. He finds it when he rediscovers Susan, now an inmate of a retirement home where he serves as a janitor. She suffers from Alzheimer's, and Ellis, with a nicely understated poignancy, quietly begins to tend her. It's a profoundly moving moment.

The flow of Ellis's memories is occasionally confusing or melodramatic, but the dense reality of this unblinking exploration of a life overcomes such lapses. This slender, resonant first novel gives us a protagonist so vividly rendered that his quiet redemption feels like one's own.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780380730278
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 9/28/1997
  • Format: Mass Market Paperback
  • Pages: 241
  • Product dimensions: 4.15 (w) x 6.86 (h) x 0.70 (d)

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