Milwaukee native Mary Helen Stefaniak returns home for a colorful reading
Post by megpeccarelli on 10/24/2010 6:36pm
To me, the opportunity to hear an author read from and discuss their work in person is more exciting than the idea of meeting Angelina Jolie. I will never forget the infectious elation of hearing Andre Dubus III read from his work in the first wave of success following the publication of The House of Sand and Fog; he seemed happily stunned to find himself reading in front of a packed room of admirers. Nor can I forget Zadie Smith’s (White Teeth, among others) soft as marshmallow, British voice (which I now hear in my head when reading any work with a British narrator). And I have been haunted by Arthur Golden’s revelation that he wrote several versions of Memoirs of a Geisha. At the oddest times over the years since I heard him say this, I have found myself wondering what secrets those other versions contain that never made it into the pages of the book I love so much. If seeing these authors in person was akin to meeting the most glamorous celebrity, being lucky enough to see Mary Helen Stefaniak read in her hometown of Milwaukee was like stumbling into Angelina Jolie’s family reunion and being welcomed with open arms.
I arrived at Boswell Books on Downer a few minutes before the scheduled reading of her latest novel, The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia. I walked in on the heels of three women who turned out to be the author’s cousins. Even though I hung back a bit when I realized this, I was greeted with the same warm hug from Stefaniak as they were. Slightly embarrassed, I quickly found an empty seat. When those same cousins made their way to the reading area, I again found myself in the middle of happy shrieks and more hugs. That’s when I discovered that I was seated directly behind the author’s sister. Before the reading began, I was privy to more colorful family stories, secrets and jokes than at my own family’s Thanksgivings. Suddenly, it was no surprise to me that the characters in Stefaniak’s novel are so vibrant and relatable, it seems everyone in her world is.
Stefaniak commands a room well, like the professor she is. But the true star of the evening was her work, which I make an effort not to spoil for you here because the journey is a pure delight. The author chose three small portions to read from The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia, which barely begin to reveal the adventures contained within the pages. Gladys is the narrator of the depression era tale. She is simultaneously innocent and wise beyond her eleven years of age. Through her eyes, readers experience how the worldly Miss Spivey turns the town of Threestep, Georgia on its head when she becomes the new teacher of Threestep’s one-and-a-half room schoolhouse. Miss Spivey introduces the schoolchildren to the world beyond their town and the gripping power of storytelling through The Thousand and One Nights. In the process, she transforms the lives of Gladys, her handsome older brother Force, and teenager Theo Boykin, the smartest person in the county. The book is touching and funny and the characters inspiring. Stefaniak artfully recreates small town Georgia and the bazaars of Baghdad with equal aplomb. It is a book well worth the read, and a book I will recommend at my own family reunions over the holidays.
Mary Helen Stefaniak is the author of The Turk and My Mother, which won the 2005 John Gardner Fiction Book Award from Binghamton University, and Self Storage and Other Stories, which received the Wisconsin Library Association’s 1998 Banta Award for Literary Excellence. Her fiction and essays have been featured in EPOCH, The Iowa Review, The Yale Review, and New Stories from the South: 2000 & 2006. Boswell Books is located at 2559 N. Downer Avenue in Milwaukee. Its schedule of events is available on its website at www.boswell.indiebound.com.