Stefaniak (The Turk and My Mother) delivers a deeply engaging story from the heart of 1930s-era Threestep, Ga., that manages to include stop offs in 1775 Baghdad and 1864 Savannah along the way. Loosely following the tradition of The Thousand and One Nights, which spunky Miss Spivey uses as the core curriculum in her one-room Threestep schoolhouse, the novel is full of intrigue, with babies switched at birth, the Ku Klux Klan, camels fluent in Arabic, and wish-granting genies. Told primarily from the point-of-view of 11-year-old Gladys, the tale begins with the arrival of Miss Spivey, the new teacher in town. Fascinated by the Middle East, she transforms the town into Baghdad, culminating in a bazaar that attracts Georgians from across the state. But the young teacher's progressive spirit proves threatening to some, and her vision falls prey to a tragic chain of events, giving the novel a much-needed boost. In the tradition of Scheherazade, stories are told within stories, by many tellers, creating a nesting doll of events for the young Gladys to get to the bottom of. (Sept.)
“Wonderfully seductive, one of those rare books you disappear into wholly. It’s joyous, shamelessly funny, heartbreaking, and page after page it gives you what you didn’t expect. This is a novel you’ll want to hand deliver to a friend.”
“Wonderfully engaging … a great tribute to the power of education, strong women and the fine art of storytelling… an intricate dazzling pattern of history and imagination and truth.”
“This novel has strong, long legs. I hope it walks forever. Besides delivering suspenseful, eloquently detailed, non-sentimental prose, it spoons out a big dose of clarity that America needs.”
“Mary Helen Stefaniak is a born storyteller, with a fantastic gift for mingling the exotic and the ordinary, the comic and the heartrending. Her tale of drastic change coming to a small Southern town in the 1930s is filled with wild incidents, vivid characters, and a surprise at every turna delight to read.”
“A heartfelt, redemptive, and irresistible novel. Stefaniak knows that every story is many stories, and she handles the complex tales of romance, family, race relations, and secrets with intelligence, grace, and tenderness.”
“A novel fairly brimming with inventive storytelling and comic brio.”
“So lush with detail that most scenes possess cinematic immediacy. Ultimately, reading about the triumphs and tragedies of the Cailiffs will make readers feel right at home amid Georgia pines and pecans.”
In 1938, a new teacher came to the one-room schoolhouse in Threestep, GA, courtesy of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The story of Miss Grace Spivey, who was educated in France and at Barnard College and traveled in Africa and the Near East, is told by thoroughly entranced 11-year-old Gladys Cailiff. Miss Spivey uses Sir Richard F. Burton's ten-volume The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night as her primary textbook. After a successful Halloween event, held a day early so as not to conflict with the activities of the "Ku Klucks," Miss Spivey even manages a full-fledged Baghdad Bazaar, complete with camels. If that's not enough, she is seen spending her free time educating the local black children, including mechanically gifted Theo Boykin, who creates the special effects for the bazaar. Gladys's young voice is perfect for showing how folks thrive and struggle when such a force enters the mainstream, as she herself questions where the lines are drawn and how easily they can be shifted. VERDICT Though set a generation later and in a different sociological stratum, this new work by Stefaniak (The Turk and My Mother) should appeal to fans of Kathryn Stockett's The Help. Highly recommended.—Debbie Bogenschutz, Cincinnati State Technical & Community Coll. Lib.
A story set in rural Georgia before World War II that introduces readers to an odd group of characters brought together by a woman ahead of her time.
Stefaniak (The Turk and My Mother,2004, etc.) sets the stage for likable narrator Gladys Cailiff, a smart, witty and incisive 11-year-old who lives in the tiny town of Threestep, Ga. Gladys' story begins with the arrival of Miss Grace Spivey, the town's new schoolteacher, a diminutive redhead with a taste for adventure and a propensity for stirring up trouble. As it turns out, Miss Spivey spent some time in Baghdad and decides to duplicate its streets in Threestep after reading parts of The Arabian Nightsto her enraptured students. She also very loosely adapts some of those stories into a play that, along with turkey shoots and dunking booths, they hope will draw visitors from miles around to Threestep. But Miss Spivey doesn't do anything the easy way. She riles up the local school superintendent with her persistence in teaching the "colored" children who are not allowed decent textbooks. Theo Boykin, the Cailiffs' young neighbor and a budding genius, is the main object of Miss Spivey's efforts to give the area's black community a crack at equality, but her efforts—much admired by the Cailiff family—always seem to go askew. When she brings in a camel herder and his camels for the big night, all of Miss Spivey's past indiscretions seem destined to catch up with her. Young Gladys is a great narrator, but when May, her perennially pregnant older sister, takes over, the book veers into a mind-numbing story within a story within a story within a story that makes the reader long for Gladys to boot all of those other storytellers and retake the helm.
A simple, often engaging tale that unravels in the final third when the author abandons Georgia for Baghdad and never gets back on track.