An intriguing combination of poetry and novella comprise WHITE LIGHTNING, a slim little volume from spoken-word poet Minton Sparks. It's pure southern and brimming with dark, unspoken family secrets.
The story opens as Jebo, Penny Sue's beloved aunt, has just passed on, minutes before she makes it back home. "It was no secret that Jebo had favored me," Penny Sue reflects. "Said I was a girl after her own heart. Momma hated it when Jebo said that."
Jebo's final request was that her funeral not be dirge-like: "Don't sit around 'sulled up' when I die; pitch a party when I'm gone. Her death is one of the few things that could bring Penny Sue, now separated from her aspiring country music artist husband Darrell, home, after Penny Sue and her mother fought. About what, Penny Sue isn't even sure." After the funeral, Penny Sue's daddy gives her Jebo's pocketbook and a Red Goose shoebox sealed with duct tape. In the shoebox are three of the four diaries that Jebo has kept for years. "When I die, read all four and don't skip a word," she told Penny Sue. But where is the fourth?
The rest of the novella follows Penny Sue as she tries to discover what has happened to the fourth diary. Mysterious notes appear, instructing her to record the poems in the diaries on a cassette, and the fourth diary will be returned to her. This is a clever way to include numerous poems of Sparks's throughout the novella, many of them deeply spiritual. By the time Penny Sue makes the poems public (including a dark one called "White Lightning," from which the title partly gets its name), the first three diaries have been read and absorbed by Penny Sue, and she's ready to face the truth about her family and herself.
Sparks has an interesting way with her characters and carefully drops hints about them throughout the novel. We know Aunt Edna is a little off-kilter long before we are plainly told, as she sports a nun-style haircut and one frosted spectacle lens. Penny Sue still calls her father "Daddy," and he fills Penny Sue's childhood home with seconds from his furniture store even as he seems helpless to resolve the family conflicts. Jebo is buried in a hot pink pantsuit and patent-leather pumps with a bow: "My guess was that Momma picked out that pink pantsuit as payback." Payback for what? We don't find out until the closing pages of the novella.
Of Penny Sue's mother, we discover that the walls in the house were painted hospital beige: "Momma either neglected beauty or never had an eye for it in the first place." Momma washes down her "relaxation pills" with iced tea, her lips smudging the rim with pink lipstick (although we're told if she wasn't in her own kitchen, her lips wouldn't touch the glass for fear of filth). We discover a lot about each person from Sparks's carefully planted details.
I loved the rich and unusual touches that help create a sense of place, such as the floral arrangement at Jebo's funeral that contains a dangling telephone receiver and the placard "Jesus Called," to a homemade buttermilk pie under a red-and-white-checkered dish towel, "steam curling off the crust." Sparks knows how to put you right in the middle of a southern family gathering and helps you smell, taste and hear everything.
If you enjoy southern fiction with spiritual undertones and stories about diaries and family secrets written in more literary rather than popular fiction style, you'll appreciate this novella from Sparks.
Reviewed by Cindy Crosby on November 13, 2011