The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia by Mary Helen Stefaniak
One Thousand Nights and a Night to Remember
I had a busy week with little time to read – all the more frustrating because I was reading a great book - The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia by Mary Helen Stefaniak – the kind of book you don’t want to put down, and one that I think will be the hit of the coming year.
We are in Threestep, Georgia, it is 1938. We meet eleven-year-old Gladys Cailiff who will be our narrator. Gladys is an intelligent and observant child on the cusp of maturity – she is both gullible and suspicious. Threestep is a small community peopled by both black and white, segregated by law but neighbours in fact. The Ku Klux Clan meet the last Monday of every month. Their activity is an everyday concern in spite of “the state of Georgia’s mask law, which was passed back in the 1870s and which prohibited grown-up persons from wearing masks while carrying on in public.”
Life changes for Gladys when Ms. Grace Spivey, an educated and well travelled young school teacher arrives in Threestep. The white children attend a one room school house where they soon find themselves listening to Ms. Spivey reading aloud from The Arabian Nights Entertainments also known as One Thousand Nights and a Night, stories told by the “resourceful Shahrazad, wife of the Sultan, who told her husband stories every night and always stopped at the most interesting part, to keep him from cutting off her head in the morning”! The children hear about a world far from their own, enthralled and excited, they learn reading, writing and arithmetic – inspired by these magical tales. All of a sudden the children want to come to school – even the bitter and nasty Mavis Davis.
The black children attend another school with no expectation that they will continue to any sort of higher education. Theo Boykin, Gladys’s neighbour and friend, however is a black boy with keen intelligent and an inventive mind. Theo is being tutored – with high school text books “borrowed” from a white student.
Threestep is a town with only 3 radios – one in the school – where the classroom listens to the Mercury Theatre broadcast of War of the Worlds in 1938 – many fully believing that Martians have invaded. Much later, looking back, some of the town elders might have been happier with a Martian invasion than the arrival of Ms. Spivey, who is about to change the lives of most of the citizens of Threestep – including Gladys’s older brother Force, a young man with movie star good looks and charisma to match. When Ms. Spivey decides that the annual June town fair should adopt the theme of a Baghdad Bazaar there is not a resident of the whole region who is unaffected by the results.
Mary Helen Stepaniak grew up in Wisconsin but spent her summers with relatives in Georgia. She was inspired to write this book after the invasion of Iraq, wanting to portray a different understanding of Baghdad – a place that was considered the Cradle of Civilization, for her, the Arabian Nights and Babylon. In her research she across the book Camel-Bells of Baghdad by Dr. Janet Miller, a native of Tennessee who traveled in the middle east in the 1920’s and 1930’s. She took the liberty, as a fiction writer, of making Ms. Spivey the friend and traveling companion of Dr. Miller.
While looking for a way to tie the story together with the lives of slaves on the plantations of Sapelo Island off the coast of Georgia the author discovered that there was a book written, in Arabic, by a literate Muslim slave who was brought to a plantation on Sapelo island. His appearance and influence tie the past to the present in the lives of the characters in this extraordinary novel.
Toward the end of the novel, as her older sister, May, tells her about events that took place before Gladys can properly remember them, Gladys reflects “I had been living in a world I knew nothing about”. The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia, will discover this world – the perfect book to read this holiday.