Thursday, September 13, 2012


This time last week I had an unexpected conversation with a thoughtful student at Golden Gate High School (Naples, FL). She told me that when she read Leaving Gee's Bend, it made her angry; she couldn't imagine how Ludelphia could be happy, given her life circumstances.

We talked for a bit about poverty and hard times, and then I asked her if she remembered what it was like to be ten years old. She nodded and said she didn't remember having any worries. I smiled. Exactly. That's exactly why I chose to tell the story in the voice of a ten-year-old. Because at age ten, Ludelphia wouldn't be thinking about what she didn't have. Having never left Gee's Bend, she wouldn't even be aware of what she didn't have.

For Ludelphia, it was all about love. She was loved and wanted, and whatever things she didn't have (meat, shoes, sturdy roof), she was accustomed to.

Is that happiness? Or ignorance?

I love that it made this student mad, love that she was thinking about Ludelphia, puzzling over the way I chose to tell the story. And it reminded me of a quote I wrote in my writing notebook from amazing author ( my hero) Julius Lester, who wrote the Newbery Honor winning To Be a Slave. It's a direct quote from one of the slave narratives:

"Was I happy? You can take anything. No matter how good you treat it - it wants to be free. You can treat it good and feed it good and give it everything it seems to want -- but if you open the cage - it's happy."

- Tom Robinson, Library of Congress

Ludelphia was free. She wasn't a slave, though sharecropping was much like slavery in the way it offered no easy escape to a different (better) life.

Lucy Witherspoon,
The most important thing in the context of the story, is that at age ten, Ludelphia felt free. She wasn't burdened by the knowledge we in the 21st century bear. Her life was tucked in the curve of that river, no bigger than that bend.

And then she was crossing that river, sleeping in a barn, high-tailing it back home in the back of a wagon. She had her Mama and Daddy and Ruben and Etta Mae and baby Rose.

Yes, she was poor. And she was also happy.


  1. There are many things today we believe we need in order to be happy, arent' there? But the true feeling is to be loved, as Ludelphia is. If we know we can count on those who surround us, family & friends, then all the rest is irrelevant, at least to me. How wonderful that this student was touched by your book & wanted to talk with you about it, Irene. I imagine she will long remember your conversation.

  2. all I need is to be true to who I am and seek the things that make me happy... Didn't Ludelphia do that? She took the unknown path to seek the only thing that would save her life.... life as she knew it... what made her happy.

  3. My father grew up in Palmerdale, Alabama during the Great Depression and World War II. When he reflects on that time his perspective is that they didn't know they were poor. Everyone else was in the same situation as his family and they all worked together to do the best that they could. Kids played together and enjoyed special treats when they came their way. Treats that today we take for granted. Like candy bars and cokes. How many stories do we hear of people who, materially, have "everything" and yet are SO very unhappy and empty.....


Your thoughts?