Judson Mitcham's vision is stark and poignant as he wanders back and forth through the life of Ellis Burt, reassembling shards of memory and emotion like broken stained glass. Animate with images both horrifying and tender, the novel entwines the struggles of the mid-twentieth century South with those of a good man fighting a dark inheritance of injustice, racism, and personal tragedy, of a love found and nurtured and suddenly lost. But this is not a novel of social protest. The writing is intimate, but never overdone; Mitcham does not seek to shock his readers with the hideous, but rather draws them into the intricacy and struggle bound up in Ellis's life. The story is told by Ellis himself-the son of a sharecropper who grows up enduring oppression almost as severe as his black neighbors-- in a voice of mellow, patient wisdom summoned by age and great suffering. Peering into the past at moments so delicate they appear as 'what a ghost might look like to somebody that ain't never seen one,' their memory becomes as enduring as the Sweet Everlasting flower, 'keeping their color and shape long after they [are] dead.' The Sweet Everlasting
combines the confusion of a man who has seen dark things -- and done them, too -- with the wonder and resilience of goodness, as fresh and evanescent as the smell of fields after rain.
An Eighth Day View:
In "The Sweet Everlasting," Judson Mitcham cuts through the moral ambiguities of life in the midcentury, rural South to show us the heart and soul of a good but flawed man.
Sharecropper's son, mill worker, and ex-convict--Ellis Burt surely knows adversity. For a brief and cherished time there was a woman, and then a child, too, who had been a kind of salvation to him. Then they were gone, leaving Ellis to carry on with the burden of what he had done to them, of the ruin he brought down upon them all.
In "The Sweet Everlasting," Ellis is seventy-four. Moving back and forth over his life, he recalls his Depression-era boyhood, the black family who worked the neighboring farm, his time in prison, and the subsequent years adrift, working at jobs no one else would take and longing for another chance to rejoin what is left of his family. Ever in the background are the memories of his wife, Susan, and their boy, W.D.--how Ellis drew on her strength and his innocence to resist everything that threatened to harden him: the shame that others would have him feel, the poverty he had known, and the distorted honor and pride he had seen in others and that he knew was inside him, too.
Like the hero of William Kennedy's masterpiece, "Ironweed," Ellis Burt is a man of uncommon personal dignity and strength, always moving toward, but never expecting, redemption.