A Southern Tragedy in Crimson and Yellow

A Southern Tragedy is my sixth novel. It was published in 2005. It’s about the Hamlet, North Carolina, chicken plant fire of 1991, where 26 people died and lots more were injured badly, because the owners had, long ago, locked all the fire exits and chained some of the other doors closed so the workers wouldn’t steal anything out the back doors. It was a nightmarish scene, as you can imagine. I wrote this book, which is not like any of my others, because Tom Wolfe had been in Chapel Hill, at the university, and talked about books and social realism and what a great thing it would be to see novels like the old time social realist ones, and I got inspired and wrote this. Fred Hobson, a Southern literary scholar, called it “neo-social realism.” I follow the women in a family in Hamlet from the merchant class in 1918, all the way in their decline to where they are, in late 20th century, working in a chicken plant. In the South, in chicken plants, there are very few white people working, except as supervisors, mostly black back then, except now mostly or all Hispanic, and so for these women to have declined in life to where they are “working chickens” is a real low point. I used to tell my students at UNC, whenever the 1 in a 1,000 expresses interest in reading something one of their actual creative writing teachers has written, not to read this one, that this is for people ages 45 and over. It’s probably true. It’s serious and it’s an “important record of a terrible event and the decline of small town life and one family of women,” but it isn’t(it ain’t) no fun.  I tried to write it with my usual funny contrasting scenes, but I couldn’t justify making people who got burned to death or died crushed against locked doors or suffocated on toxic fumes, into funny characters. So, after that early draft, I cut some of the darkly humorous stuff out and just made it serious and respectful. It won a prize for the best novel in NC for the year 2005.

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As of late July, 2010, I had the book also published as a Kindle edition.  It sells for $2.99.  I like the idea of that, on Kindle, and a cheap price.  It’s also on other digital formats.  This should be the link.


Here’s the first few pages:

The town of Hamlet was near the towns of McColl, Cheraw and Wagram, in the part of the state known as the Sandhills, just above the South Carolina line. The Pee Dee River(imagine Lumbee Indians in canoes and eels and catfish in the tannin-stained water) flowed west of the town, behind the hospital and past the former home for unwed mothers, past the abandoned distillery, and past the abandoned ice cream truck where an old man once lived, a hermit called Buttercup. Wild plums, blackberries and pokeweed grew along the banks of the river, and multiflora roses tangled beside the tracks of the Seaboard Air Line Railroad.

The river continued, away from Hamlet, through South Carolina and to the ocean, where it joined the Waccamaw just below Pawley’s Island.

In the town itself, though, grounded and unflowing, there was a poultry processing plant, and it was because of that plant that on a humid September day in 1991, people were bunched together in the streets the way that in old films entire populations congregated to watch the Martians land. The people watched the chicken plant burn. Smoke as streaked and creamy as melted Dreamsicles squeezed out from the eaves of the flat-roofed building like crimson genies from an old Disney cartoon.

The population, which might have seen flying saucers and then skinless, red aliens walking toward them, saw, instead, human forms as soot black as dark chocolate. At the same time, they heard nothing from anyone inside. As quiet as the crowd was, as quiet as air and as breath, they heard nothing.

Buildings had burned before. Rosin-rich pine lumber burned scarlet and yellow and orange, and in the nighttime skies, before streetlights and electricity and automobiles, the flames of those old buildings were clear and lovely and terrifying for 20 miles. People did not burn that beautifully.