A review of Stars of Alabama by Sean Dietrich

Reviewed by Claire Hamner Matturro

Stars of Alabama
By Sean Dietrich
Thomas Nelson
Hardcover: 352 pages, July 9, 2019, ISBN-13: 978-0785226376

Stars of Alabama by Sean Dietrich is a beautiful novel, mesmerizing with its riches of complex characters, lush settings, and lyrical language. It is, quite simply, Southern Literature at its finest. Written with wisdom, insight, and with a captivating way with words, it is poignant and hopeful, engaging and vivid, and filled with people who might have died along the way except for the helping hands of others. Compassion is a dominant theme.

Dietrich’s dedication reveals something of the tone and the author. “I’d like to dedicate this book to the people of Alabama because it is about them. I hereby submit this work to the gnarled Alabama family tree, which I find myself a part of.”

The stories in Stars of Alabama focus on a diverse group of people moving toward each other, though their journeys will meander for years before coalescing on the shores of Mobile Bay in Alabama. While the story lines are initially distinct, they are linked by compassion and hope as the characters travel toward their common destiny.

Beginning in the Great Depression in the Deep South, the book opens with Paul, his dog Louisville, and Paul’s sidekick and best friend, Vern, “the tallest black man Paul had ever known,” hearing a cry in the woods. The dog tracks the sound and Paul and Vern find a violet-eyed, redhaired girl infant alone among the trees. They fall in love with the child at once. Meanwhile, Marigold, the child’s poverty-stricken and forsaken mother, is arrested in town trying to steal food. She and her baby are starving, but the law is not kindly toward her. Many people are hungry in the Deep South at the time. She fears her baby will die alone in the woods while she is in jail—and but for Paul and Vern, the child probably would have.

Sweeping westward, the story then focuses on 14-year-old Coot, an orphan boy in the clutches of an unsavory and abusive tent-revivalist fake preacher. Coot, who has been preaching since he was seven, is the star attraction in the tent revival in the dry plains of Kansas, where the people often suffer from dust pneumonia.

The author has a great talent for capturing the times, the mood of the people, and locale, and he does so in his description of Kansas and the people who visit the tent revival, seeking some measure of hope:

[Coot had] spent enough time on stages to know what his people were thinking. They were scared. That’s what was at the core of these people. There were terrified of the dust that hovered above the world. They drank the dust, ate the dust. The dust suffocated their children and wilted their food.

Moving back and forth between the stories and the main characters with beautifully choreographed organization, the story leaps from one set of down-and-out people to the next. Along the way, Paul and Vern, now the adopted parents of the redhaired baby, a child they name Ruth, also take in a widow and her two young children. Together, Paul, Vern, Ruth and the additional three become a family—not at once, but as they travel and work together, while taking care of each other they form the bonds of love and loyalty any blood family would envy. Their lives are hard, but they find work on farms in the South as they migrate.

Released from jail, Marigold finds her baby gone but doesn’t know the infant is safe thanks to the kindness of Paul and Vern. Ill and starving, Marigold is rescued by a group of prostitutes, but she never becomes a harlot, working instead as their maid.

Marigold discovers she has a rare and genuine gift, which brings her into grave danger near the climax of the story. Coot runs away from the abusive fake-preacher who holds him captive, and makes his way slowly toward a destiny with the other travelers in the book. He is trusting and naïve, which brings him into danger also. Paul and Vern and their family also face a life and death situation as they seek shelter on the road to keep from freezing to death and are accosted by armed locals. Thus, there is action and adventure in the book, though the true focus is more on the characters, than the action.

While the plot and the characters are engaging and profoundly well done, the writing itself is a star attraction in Stars of Alabama. Sean Dietrich can turn a phrase like nobody’s business, and his words sing with sharp images and telling details. Consider these sentences: “[T]he old thing started burning oil and making strange noises that sounded like someone was hiding beneath the hood with a short-barrel shotgun.” Or, a series of sentences that captures the true love on the newly married: “He was handsome, yes. But he was more than that. He was the rest of her life.”

Thomas Nelson, the publisher, is the Christian arm of HarperCollins. And the Christian themes of love, compassion, hope and caring for each other ring strong in the book, though it is not a preachy book by any means. There is an evil fake preacher balanced by a genuine good preacher, but it isn’t the preachers themselves which support the theology of the book. Rather, it is Paul and Vern saving a starving baby, then adopting a whole family of lost and hunger when they are on the brink of starvation themselves. It’s Marigold with her rare gift, using it for good to help lonely, scared people instead of seeking a profit from it. And it’s Coot, opening his heart to the reality of love and goodness when his childhood nearly lead him down a jaded, criminal path instead.

In the end, this is a fine, fine story about compassion. Well worth reading, it is a book that will inspire hope. The author, Sean Dietrich, is a columnist, novelist, and creator of the blog, podcast, and radio show “Sean of the South.” His essays and articles have appeared in Southern Living, The Good Grit, South Magazine, the Bitter Southerner, ALFA Alabama Farmer’s Magazine, Alabama Living, and several Southern newspapers. He is also the author of seven books.

About the reviewer: Claire Hamner Matturro is an honors graduate of The University of Alabama Law School, where she became the first female partner in a prestigious Sarasota, Florida law firm. After a decade of lawyering, Claire taught at Florida State University College of Law and spent one long, cold winter as a visiting legal writing professor at the University of Oregon.  Her books are: Skinny-Dipping (2004) (a BookSense pick, Romantic Times’ Best First Mystery, and nominated for a Barry Award); Wildcat Wine(2005) (nominated for a Georgia Writer of the Year Award); Bone Valley(2006) and Sweetheart Deal (2007) (winner of Romantic Times’ Toby Bromberg Award for Most Humorous Mystery), all published by William Morrow, and Trouble in Tallahassee (2018 KaliOka Press). Coming in Spring of 2019: Privilege (Moonshine Cove), a steamy legal thriller noir set on the Gulf coast of Florida. She recently finished polishing Wayward Girls–a manuscript she co-wrote with Dr. Penny Koepsel–and awaits the happy news when her agent, the great, fun, funny, and radically energetic Liza Fleissig, places it with the right publisher. Follow her at  http://www.clairematturro.com and https://www.facebook.com/authorclairematturro

Originally published in SLR: http://southernlitreview.com/reviews/stars-of-alabama-by-sean-dietrich.htm