I seldom write book reviews. They remind me too much of the decades I spent reading and grading thousands of my students’ book reports. Some of them were quite tedious, others hilariously bad, verbose, lackluster, or over-the-top dramatic. Occasionally, one would be well-written, interesting, and grammatically correct.
I’m going to try very hard to avoid all those downbeat descriptions in this book report on Athena Marler Creamer’s “The Help of Destin, Emma Irby,” and hope, for the sake of this lovely book, to write it more like that rare gem of a report I would receive from a good student.
Having read “The Help” by Kathyrn Stockett and seeing the movie (the book was much better than the movie), I surmised that Ms. Marler’s book may just be a derivative of the popular novel. You know, more of that cheesy stuff like: “You is kind, you is smart, you is important.”
For one thing, “The Help of Destin” is not a novel. It’s a biography of Emma Irby, but it’s much more than that. More than just a story of a maid who served Fort Walton and Destin families for 38 years.
It’s a series of interviews with people who knew Emma, and skillfully woven into the fabric of those conversations are tales of long-ago Fort Walton Beach and Destin. It’s also an anthology of the many quirky anecdotes, truisms, political opinions, and unorthodox philosophies that fashioned Emma’s unique personality.
The local color photographs that grace the pages of Ms. Marler’s book construct a pathway back into a time when our area was innocent in many ways, yet hard-hearted toward folks like Emma. A time when there was a publicly displayed sign posted by a small, but vociferous Destin contingent of the KKK:
“Negro, don’t let the sun set on your head,” read one sign that was posted.
Emma, a descendent of slaves, outlived that kind of overt hatred to be an invited guest of President Carter at his inaugural ball and to see the first African American ascend to the White House.
Readers, especially long-time local ones, will recognize the names of families Emma served. And some may think these well-known and often affluent citizens chose Emma over all other applicants to work for them.
Wrong! According to Ms. Marler, “You didn’t choose Emma. She chose you.”
Ok. Here’s a little name-dropping, if you insist: Clary, Tringas, Kelly, and Hanshaw.
I’d love to tell you some of the outlandish tales ascribed to this intriguing lady in the gaudy paper bag hats, the strange but sweet soul bedecked in baubles, beads, and bracelets.
But, I won’t.
That would be like sitting beside you in a thrilling whodunnit movie and telling you what’s going to happen next, including spoiling the ending.
My family is one of the many blessed by having been chosen by Emma. So, I, too have, a lot of stories that begin with “You won’t believe what Emma did (or said) today!”
The last time I saw her, she was walking along U.S. 98 from Fort Walton back into Destin, her home. I picked her up near the Gulfarium and drove her into town. Along the way, she chatted like a magpie, sometimes making sense, sometimes not. But she asked about every member of my family, by name, and with sharp recall.
I wondered what happened to her for years after that. I had heard a rumor that she was dead, then relieved to know reports of her death were “greatly exaggerated.” I like the words of one of those Ms. Marler interviewed: “Now we know Emma lives and always will on the pages of your book.”
Indeed she does.
Ms. Marler has done excellent research, pouring herself into this labor of love, honoring one of the most complicated and colorful characters to dwell among us. And I’m grateful she was apparently unaware of Mark Twain’s words:
“and so there ain’t nothing more to write about, and I am rotten glad of it, because if I’d ‘a’ knowed what a trouble it was to make a book I wouldn’t ‘a’ tackled it, and ain’t going to no more.”
Mary Ready of Destin is a twice-retired English teacher and long-time area resident. Her columns are published on Saturdays.
BUY THE BOOK:
You can buy Athena Marler Creamer’s “The Help of Destin, Emma Irby” at amazon.com. Learn more about the book at thehelpofdestin.blogspot.com