Book Review: “Cotton in Augusta,” “Joy in the Morning” and “From Myra to Laura” A Trilogy by Shirley Proctor Twiss
Through Myra Stuart MacTavish’s long and energetic life, Twiss’s trilogy explores women’s economic and social conditions in the decades spanning 1909 to the mid-1970s. As Myra progresses from the daughter of a sharecropper in Georgia to the wife of a store owner and motherhood, she acquires the characteristics valued in a Southern heroine: an enduring work ethic, ingenuity, deep faith rather than shallow religiosity, fierce loyalty to family and friends, generosity, and perseverance.
As her story opens in Cotton in Augusta, Myra, age 13, is running home from school to help her father, Martin, weed cotton. He regrets her missing school, but Myra adores her father and happily works along side him to earn praise for working like a man. She especially treasures the evenings when she and her brothers sit on the porch with Martin, and he encourages them to find and follow their dreams. His gentle wisdom and generosity establish the foundation of Myra’s lifelong ideals.
Along with fieldwork, Myra fulfills her family’s domestic needs. Ann, her mother, suffers from depression, and her sister Annie Lou, a lazy snob, taunts Myra as crazy and goads their mother into switching her. Rather than seething with resentment and sulking, Myra learns to garden and can vegetables and fruits. Most importantly, she fears that Arno, Jesse, and Dolly, her youngest siblings, will perish without her protection. Ann’s care for Dolly is reckless at best and, with or without reason, she brutally beats Jesse. After her father’s sudden death, Myra and an older brother take charge of the family.
With her marriage, at age 15, to James MacTavish, she moves to Glencoe, Georgia. Both contribute to their contentious marriage. Friends warn Myra that the MacTavish men like their liquor, and James is no exception. He often arrives home roaring drunk, but never abuses Myra or his children. Though well justified in objecting to money wasted on liquor, Myra carps often and loudly about spending money for anything, including necessities. Despite James’s drinking and her nagging, by the book’s end they are financially established and the proud parents of Idella, Laura, Stephan, Wallace, Ruth, and Brian James.
Cotton in Augusta, nominated for the Southern Independent Booksellers Award for a first novel, is the strongest book of the trilogy in writing and plot interest as Myra confronts conflicts ranging from poverty and prejudice to tragedy and rejection. In all three books, Twiss excels in sense of place. Her explanation of sharecroppers’ status in the cotton industry and their field drudgery, for example, reads like Cotton Sharecropping 101.
A few technical corrections would have greatly increased her trilogy’s readability. Indicating the year at the beginning of each chapter, as in the third book, would have grounded her readers in the correct century. Next, scene changes without proper spacing constantly break reading focus. Finally, a thorough editing would have energized inactive language and corrected grammatical errors.
In Joy in the Morning Myra and James, despite their differences, dearly love each other and expand in character and perspective as they raise their family during the Great Depression. Thanks to Myra’s survival skills, the family never starves, but James, a stranger to desperation, quickly loses heart. Greatly relieved when he is hired to work on a dairy farm, James and Myra move their family to the country. Once again, sense of place prevails as their hopes dissipate, and isolation closes in.
From Myra to Laura opens in 1955, a year after James’s death. Desolate, Myra immerses herself in soap operas and the news. The industrious Myra emerges as she questions the larger scope of current events. Why are American men and women fighting and dying in Viet Nam? How could the Ohio National Guard justify killing four Kent State University students? With every report on the Civil Rights’ Movement, Myra agonizes anew at the violence and worries about her black friends. Finally, at age 63, Myra conquerors her fears – I ain’t goin’ there and let them laugh at my dumb country ways – and learns to read and write. She marvels as her knowledge expands and seeks ways to be more involved. Though too old and frail to march into the Civil Rights‘ confrontations, Myra works to mitigate racial hatred in her community.
The Laura of the title is Myra’s oldest granddaughter, who defies her mother’s demand that she attend business school to train for a career in a local bank. Instead, Laura works her way through Georgia State to become a writer. Journalistic successes earn her a job at a New York City publishing company but, despite her accomplishments, Laura revers her family, especially her Grandmother Myra.
Twiss slights her readers by permitting her story lines, especially in From Myra to Laura, to slip into pages of narrative because her dialogue is as keen as her sense of place. With her first sentence, James’s sister Olieta proves herself an odious prig whom readers hope to never meet again, but the kindness of Myra’s Aunt Nannie Bessie welcomes her to every page.
Reducing the narrative pages in Laura’s story to dialogue scenes would have introduced the characters with equal brevity and insight.
Myra’s responses to the plight of women in all three books illuminate her character and humanity. Though shocked when meeting her Aunt Nannie Bessie for the first time, so obese … that she looked like a barrel with feet and hands sticking out … There was something about her that gave Myra a good feeling. Reading that … a little Jew lady met her at the door … bodes ill, but Myra had only heard about Jew stores from Glencoe’s intolerant citizens. Myra establishes a lifelong friendship with store owner Mrs. Rosenberg and leaves the store convinced that … if they were all like Miz Rosenberg, she would think a lot of them.
Other women sorely try Myra’s humanity. James’s sister maligns Myra as … Washington County trash that is trying to take over Glencoe. Sadly, Myra’s oldest daughter inherits her aunt’s vicious arrogance. Idella gloats to James, during the Depression, that she has the job that should have been his, and she sneers at Myra, “… you should have learned to talk better by now.” Though heartsick, Myra unceasingly reaches out to Idella as a mother and a friend.
Conversely, her daughters Laura, Ruth, and Wallace energize the storyline as they explore life with options that Myra considers too liberal and, occasionally, downright scandalous. As their audacity and initiative lead to an independence that Myra has never imagined, she abandons lifelong allegiance to society’s ways and mores and adds independence to her list of characteristics valued in a Southern heroine.
From beginning to end, Myra remains an engaging character as she progresses from a cotton sharecropper’s daughter to the beloved matriarch of a large and robust clan. On a deeper level Myra and each of her trilogy peers represent an aspect of women’s twentieth-century struggle for recognition as individuals with rights.
BIO: Shirley Proctor Twiss, a true daughter of the South, grew up in Swainsboro, Georgia, a small town surrounded by tall pines and cotton fields. She was an avid listener to the great story tellers in her family and filled spiral notebooks with their tales and some of her own. Her ambition to write continued and grew stronger, but concern for special needs children drew her into the field of special education, her true calling.
Retirement after twenty-four years gave her the opportunity to return to writing and tell a story that had been in her mind and heart for many years. Shirley has lived in Greenville, South Carolina, for the past thirty-five years and enjoys this vibrant city in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, but still considers herself a Georgian with many stories to write.