Author’s latest novel explores racial tensions in post-bellum America When I began reading Mary Helen Stefaniak’s latest effort, The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia, my defenses sprang up immediately. Being from southern Georgia, I expected to find misrepresentations and accusations running rampant throughout the narrative. After all, Stefaniak is a Northerner from Milwaukee and although her mother was born and raised in central Georgia, a Northerner’s account of the post-Civil War socioeconomic constructs of the Deep South are often laced with finger-pointing, judgment and, ironically, overtones of prejudice. Elements, in other words, which offer to compensate for a shameful part of American history. These elements never tainted Stefaniak’s novel. Instead, the latest novel from the Creighton University professor tackles heavy-hitting themes within a realistic, yet multidimensional narrative of the Deep South. The complex plot, wound tightly like a spiral, begins in 1938 with 11-year-old Gladys Cailiff narrating a season when a well-traveled young schoolteacher arrived in Threestep, Georgia and turned everyone on their heads. Miss Spivey, a dynamically round character, entices the children with worldly ideas, tales of traveling and above all, her idealism. Miss Spivey introduces the children to One Thousand and One Nights and A Night, a historical volume of books sometimes referred to as Arabian Nights or One Thousand and One Nights. Every day, Miss Spivey reads aloud from the enormous volume, transporting the class to a part of the world most of them have never heard of, a world exotically punctuated with camels, magic lamps and harem girls, a world that would almost be forgotten if not for a turn of events at the beginning of the 21st Century. While One Thousand and One Nights and A Night backdrops the narrative, we are consistently reminded that it’s 1938 in the Deep South. Racial tensions are a norm for most of the children whose parents have taught them a hierarchy of skin color, a belief system that became a raft to cling to after the North defeated the South in the Civil War. Small yet significant events transpire sporadically until the ultimate climax of the novel, a point in the story when Gladys, Miss Spivey and the whole town are forced to come to terms with what they once believed. It’s during this culmination that Stefaniak’s writing proves her expertise in the craft. In events leading to the climatic point, the novel’s pacing reflected an introverted 11-year-old girl growing up in the South as she cautiously and carefully pieced together what she saw before her. But during the novel’s crowning point, time is stretched, sped up, moved forward and backward in such a way that it becomes a page-turning, breath-holding experience. This pacing has great significance in the story as Stefaniak’s technique of using white space and short passages, set in various town locations, depicts the passing of time and the anxiety that’s worked its way into the characters’ psyches. Although the plot appears similar to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, the story (or stories, we soon find out) in Cailiffs is much more complicated. The novel uses the method of storytelling as a vehicle to explore issues of the ancient past, more immediate past and of course, the present day in true meta-fiction tradition. It would be unwise, however, to write the book off as just meta-fiction because it contains equal elements of southern gothic literature. The novel is primarily plot-driven but the character development is remarkable. The forces of nature — a highly gifted African-American boy, Theo, and Gladys’ brother, Force — are mixed thoroughly and realistically, depicted as neither entirely good nor bad. Even Miss Spivey, a character most readers would side with, makes some questionable decisions that echo what many can relate to: a desire to go back and right the wrongs, but tripping over human nature in the process. It’s this humanness that makes the characters relatable in a time of enormous transformation, not only in Threestep, GA, but throughout the country. It’s an era of relationships, eventually connecting blacks, whites and Arabs to a common ancestor. In a sense, Georgia in 1938 is quite similar to Nebraska in 2010, an insightful parallel that will have readers constructing their own stories as Gladys Cailiff tells hers. Mary Helen Stefaniak will read from The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia Thursday, Sept. 30, at 7 p.m. at The Bookworm, 87th and Pacific, in Countryside Village. For more information contact 392.2877 or visit maryhelenstefaniak.com.