A Writer’s Notebook: Beth Locke: “A Louisiana Girl”

This is another exercise drawn from my tutoring, this time from a high school junior who’s been studying The Grapes of Wrath. I’ll explain more below, but before you start reading, a little context: What appears in the Notebook is not my own work but an edit of something my maternal grandmother, Beth Locke (née Luallen), wrote in 1986. In this piece, she’s continuing, in brief, her life story, which began in a short bit she called “An Oklahoma Girl”; here, she’s describing her family’s move south where she became “A Louisiana Girl.” I’m skipping some of the intro, but the set-up is that, like practically everyone else in the Dust Bowl, the family has had to abandon the farm in Oklahoma. They tried selling Fuller brushes in Kansas for a while before giving that up and moving on down to Louisiana, which is where I’m picking up the story.

We left Kansas in November, 1937, and drove to DeRidder, Louisiana in a 1930 Chevy. We hauled our furniture in a four-wheel trailer. We left Grandma and Mike with Uncle Doyle. Doc and I were very excited, but when I think of my Daddy, what he must have felt. He was thirty years old, had two kids ages ten and twelve, and a wife and two hundred dollars in his pocket to build a house and live until he could do something else. I remember coming into Louisiana and seeing the beautiful tall pines and since we had never had hardly any trees in Oklahoma, this looked like paradise. We went to the land agent’s house and stayed several days. He had a beautiful home and we enjoyed staying there. His name was Mr. Scalfi and he proved to be a good friend to us all.

We looked for a place to live in while we were building our house. Finally found an old two-room shack that someone had been using for hay and sheep. We shoveled it out and moved in. Daddy bought an old wood stove and we used it for heat and cooking. This was a new experience for us, although Grandma had used to cook on a big wood cook stove. I can still remember the smell of the roasted peanuts that we tried out and found we liked them very much. We had a lot to learn about in this new country we had moved to. We felt almost like pioneers. It was a hard few months for Mama and Daddy. This was the winter and the coldest the weather ever gets in the South; of course, since we were used to the cold Oklahoma winters, it seemed like we were in the tropics. We were in the little cabin for Christmas and it was the first time we could have a little tree, since there were so few in Oklahoma. Mama and Daddy managed a little Santa Claus — how I’ll never know — and we were happy.

Doc and I got started to school. Our school was at Rosepine, a small town of about two hundred. Doc was in the sixth grade and I was in the seventh. Doc had decided he would no longer be called by his nickname and would register in school as Clarence. Well, this only lasted a few days, as he would fail to answer roll call when they called him Clarence, so it was back to Doc, and has remained so to this day. My teacher was a Mr. Scoggins and for the first few months I never understood one word he said. Didn’t take me long to pick up on them “youalls” though.

[…]

I liked school but had a pretty hard time at first. I was a new girl in school and also was a yankee — to these Southern children anyone that came from north of the county line was a yankee. But suddenly I discovered that all the boys thought I was cute! Well, let’s say I was someone different, and so they flirted with me; therefore, none of the girls liked me. Of course, my charm soon won them over, and at least I made a few friends, because as soon as the new wore off, all the boys lost interest.

I graduated seventh grade in the spring. We girls all wore pretty organdy long dresses. I wore pink and felt very pretty. Mama has raised a lot of pretty flowers in our yard and she had the prettiest white shasta daisies, and she fixed some in my hair. She always did her best to try to make her little ugly duckling daughter look as pretty as possible. I was chosen to be on the program. I recited the poem “I would like to live by the side of the road, and be a friend of man.”

There is so, so much more to the story, so maybe later I’ll include in the Notebook the story of my grandmother’s incredible bravery when she packed up and went to college despite how shy and inferior she sometimes felt, or the story of how my Papa — one of the coolest, manliest men I’ve ever known — courted and married her. But I wanted to include this section today for two reasons: 1) it’s a wonderful beginning to this part of her story, full of some richly specific details, and 2) it’s the part of her story most related to the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, those themes my tutee is studying in relation to The Grapes of Wrath. Also, for his class, he had to write a narrative of his own family’s westward migration, so he wrote about his great-grandmother, who lived in roughly the same period and same general region as my grandmother.

To be honest, though, I wasn’t reading my grandmother’s stories because of the tutoring — that was just a happy accident. I picked them up because I knew she’d also written an account of her husband, my Papa, J.C. Locke, and his upbringing in southern Louisiana. My plan was to borrow regional and cultural details from his childhood to add some richness to my Civil War novel set in the same region. But my grandmother is such a natural storyteller that I simply got caught up in reading everything she’d written — seriously, I changed maybe two words in this whole narrative, and I might have moved a comma once or twice. Other than that, this is all Beth Locke, in her natural narrative voice.

Thanks, Grandma! And thanks, too, to my mom for passing these stories on to me when my grandmother died eleven years ago. (Rumor is, my grandmother also kept extensive diaries, which I haven’t seen yet — I’m looking forward to diving into those the next time I visit my parents!)

Oh, and for any poetry nerds who are curious, the poem my grandmother recited at her seventh-grade graduation? It’s “House by the Side of the Road,” by Sam Walter Foss.

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