The Arabian Nights meets the American South in Mary Helen Stefaniak’s new novel, The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia.
If you’ll indulge just a bit of reviewer’s hyperbole: I wouldn’t change a single word of Mary Helen Stefaniak’s new novel, The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia.
When I sat down with Stefaniak in an Iowa City coffee shop, however, she revealed that her editor had lobbied hard to have a single word changed on the very first page of the book. I had my advance copy along and she had brought a hot-off-the-presses copy of the final book.
In my copy, I had the editor’s version of the first page, which included a reference to Timbuktu; in the edition that hits stores this month, the Iraqi city of Al-Basrah replaces Timbuktu.
The reason behind the editor’s preference for Timbuktu? She was afraid the combination of “Baghdad” on the cover and “Al-Basrah” on page one would, as Stefaniak put it, “skew people’s reading of the book.” After all, there’s a war on in Iraq, and the editor wasn’t sure folks would want to be reminded of that when they sat down to enjoy the novel.
“But it is partly about our relationship to Baghdad,” Stefaniak said.
In fact, that was one of the foundational concepts when she first started writing the book six years ago.
“All I wanted was a book in which a group of Americans had a different relationship with Baghdad—whatever you mean by that—than the one that was being developed in 2003.”
Nevertheless, The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia is about a lot of other things, as well. Set in the late 1930s and related by Gladys Cailiff, herself a young girl at the time of tale’s events, the book has as its fulcrum unconventional educator Grace Spivey. The Thousand Nights and a Night (perhaps more colloquially known as The Arabian Nights) is a centerpiece of Miss Spivey’s educational approach in the one-room schoolhouse over which she presides. She captivates her students—and eventually the entire town of Threestep, Georgia—with images, items, and ideas from Iraq.
Meanwhile, she herself is captivated, though in very different ways, by two of the town’s young men: Theo Boykin, an African-American who is probably Threestep’s most brilliant resident, and Force Cailiff, Gladys’ exceptionally handsome older brother. Her connections to both eventually prove dangerous.
Along the way, it becomes clear that there are surprising ties between the American South and faraway Baghdad of which few (both in the fictional world of the book and in the real world) are aware.
It is perhaps no surprise, however, that the book, with its young female narrator and its themes of social justice, calls to mind Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. Stefaniak, aware of the connections, deliberately crafted some telling contrasts, casting her lawyer as the bad guy and her young African-American as the learned figure.
“I was thinking about that little bit of reversal,” she said.
But for Stefaniak, another author informs not only this book but all of her work: “Everything I have ever written has been an argument with Flannery O’Connor, and also a tribute to her.”
As Stefaniak herself wrote in last month’s issue of this publication, her mother went to high school with O’Connor. The family of the young woman who would eventually become the famous author occupied a higher rung on the socio-economic ladder than the McCulloughs, Stefaniak’s mother’s family. Even so, O’Connor drew her characters out of the McCulloughs’ social milieu; the result isn’t wholly satisfying for Stefaniak.
“In Flannery O’Connor’s work, nobody saves anybody else. Only Jesus saves and everybody else is in the way. You’re the means of grace only because you’re in the way, and someone has to make a terrible choice.”
Her reaction to that is simple: “That is not my mother’s South.”
So, perhaps fittingly given their various connections (which also include Catholicism and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop), The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia can be seen as part of an ongoing “conversation” between the two writers.
One need not be conversant in the works of O’Connor or Lee or any other writer, however, to thoroughly enjoy Stefaniak’s novel. The book is suspenseful and surprising and consistent with O’Connor’s maxim that surprises in stories must be totally unexpected and still seem totally right.
“I don’t know about the ‘totally’ part,” Stefaniak said, “but I’m trying to make it unexpected and like it seems right.”
Near the book’s end, Stefaniak makes a bold narrative choice, turning the storytelling duties over to Gladys’ older sister May. She spins a tale in the tradition of The Thousand Nights and A Night that connects the events the community has recently experienced to events long past and far away. Inside the story, the teller keeps changing, but Stefaniak steadfastly leads farther and farther into a delightful (if sometimes grim) story before abruptly yanking the reader back to the layer in which Gladys again takes up the narrative reins.
The extended passage reveals Stefaniak to be a risk taker. It also fully confirms what the rest of the book suggests: she’s a masterful storyteller. Pick up The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia and let her tell her tale to you.