Pamela Petro,
Sitting Up with the Dead:
A Storied Journey
through the American South

(Arcade, 2001)

In Sitting Up with the Dead, travel writer Pamela Petro both takes her role as cultural ambassador for the South too seriously and not seriously enough. Both facts damage an otherwise fascinating glimpse into the cultural heritage of America's southern states.

Petro's premise is simple and full of potential: a northern writer journeys through the mysterious world past the Mason-Dixon line, collecting folktales to learn about this country-within-a-country. That theme alone is tantalizing fodder for a reader, but Petro adds another twist: she's not collecting written stories, but oral ones. She interviews famous folktale performers from the Mississippi to the Gulf to the Atlantic, crossing from mountains to interior farmland to coastal plains. She even recounts the folktales as transcripts of the performance, complete with the performer's gestures, sound effects and asides to the audience. All these themes and narrative tricks should yield a riveting rollercoaster of a book that leaves the reader feeling they have journeyed through the heart of the South.

Unfortunately, Petro's own storytelling has one major flaw, one that ruins both the authenticity of her narrative and her own authorial authority: she cannot leave her own preconceptions and stereotypes behind. She enters the South with images of an ignorant, violent people, ready to lynch anyone with skin darker than a beach tan or burn crosses on her motel lawn. To her credit, she is honest about her fears of the South from the first pages, and, in fairness, these stereotypes are shared by many Northerners (I was once one of them myself). But, for Petro, racism is like a travel companion without whom she is too frightened to go outside, one she would do better to leave back in the hotel room once in a while. Granted, one cannot look at folktales from the South without taking African-American and white relations into account; to do so would both do serious injustice to stories' meanings and trivialize the evils of slavery. But Petro takes her liberal sensitivities to extremes; hyperanalyzing the nuances of her environment to find racism everywhere, like a child in a dark room, seeing ghosts in every sway of the curtain or creak of the floorboards.

Her stories suffer for it. This is a shame, as the actual folktales are diverse, entertaining, and quiver with history, like "A Polar Bear's Bar-Be-Cue," a clever inversion of the Underground Railroad, or the West African folktale, "The Story of the Girl and the Fish." And for fans of ghost stories, Petro delivers several creepy delights, like the various versions of "Taily-Po" and "The Plat Eye." Her trickster tale, "Tar Baby," is full of wicked fun, as is the aptly named morality tale "Wicked John." These folktales, told by the best in the field, could easily stand alone, without Petro's personal musings and unintentional agendas.

There is plenty to enjoy in Petro's book. Her writing style is fresh and original. Her experiences as a travel writer bring the landscapes of the South into vivid relief. Her reflections are often insightful and sometimes funny, and she does her best to be scrupulously honest. The use of transcript-style performances to present the actual folktales is unique and refreshing. And, to her credit, no matter how irritated I became with Petro's hypersensitivity to political correctness, I still turned every page eagerly. But I left Sitting Up with the Dead feeling she failed to show anything about the South's folklore besides the spectre of racism and the shadow of the Civil War. Both are there, certainly, but so is five century's worth of lived history. By focusing on one facet of those collected stories, Pamela Petro misses the richness of the whole of the South today, and the South from days past. She certainly muddies the shine on what could have been a gem of a folklore collection.

- Rambles
written by Tracie Vida
published 3 April 2004

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