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The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia: A Novel - Mary Helen Stefaniak Wait, wait. Don’t go. Let me tell you a story. I assure you it will be worth your while. Come, sit, sit. May I offer you some tea, some dates perhaps? No? Very well.

A very engaging writer named Mary Helen Stefaniak has written a wonderful story. Her tale begins back in 1938, a very grim time in most of the world. A young woman of 29 years arrived in Threestep, Georgia to take over the job of teacher. (There was no mention of a puff of smoke.) Grace Spivey was her name and she had a great impact on the small town. She was particularly fond of The Thousand Nights and a Night and read stories from her ten-volume edition of that famed work to her students. The children were smitten, as if by magic. In fact the entire town was so taken with her energy and vision that they agreed to host a town fair celebrating ancient Baghdad. Of course, this being Georgia, there were some problems when the story-telling teacher tried to teach black students as well as white ones, and had both races taking part in the celebration.

There were many notable people in this town. The Cailiff family includes 11 year-old Gladys. She is the narrator, or story-teller here. But she is not the only one. Gladys’ adult sister, May, has a considerable go as Scheherazade, not only in being cast as the character in the town production, but as the prime story-teller of a sequence of nested tales, offering deep historical back-story. That made my remaining programmer cells howl in protest, particularly as she truncates the five or six-deep nest without returning step-wise through the nest levels. I am sure I will have Dumbo-like dreams in which I am chased by rogue GOTO commands while incomplete structures collapse all around me. While I do not know if Scheherazade truncated her tales, the nesting of stories is pure Arabian Nights. It seems almost fractal-like, having nested narrators in the prime story and nested narrators within the told tales. So Stefaniak had quite a bit of fun with her Baghdadian connections. The matinee-idol-handsome, one might say prince-like, Force Cailiff, plays a significant role in the story as does Theo Boykin, the cleverest person in town. That he is black and a teen makes the potential for conflict quite rich. There is, of course, a crooked lawyer who heads the local KKK. There are many lesser personages who add to the overall texture.

The town is also host to an odd natural condition. It is blessed with large quantities of a substance called kaolin, a sort of clay that permeates much of the landscape, residing in some places just beneath the surface in large quantities. That it is called “white dirt” by the locals could be hilarious, ironic or obvious. I guess it depends on your point of view. But the stuff was not a pure literary device. Kaolin in quantity really exists in Georgia.

In fact much of the inspiration for the details in the book are based in reality. Stefaniak’s mother’s maiden name is Califf. The doctor with whom Grace Spivey traveled abroad was based on a person of the same name, who was also doctor. An Arabic book found on a coastal island in the novel replicates an actual artifact. I would strongly recommend checking out a lecture Stefaniak gave on the background to the facts in the book and how she constructed her story at this site. (http://digital.lib.uiowa.edu/u?/vwu,1806) Another excellent source is an interview Stefaniak did with Powell’s. (http://www.powells.com/blog/?p=23646#more-23646)

The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia is a very engaging read, with relatable, sympathetic characters, strong imagery and an interesting story. It is a plus to see how much fun the author appears to be having playing with Arabian Nights storytelling. And yes, she knows that Scheherazade is Persian, not Arabic.

I have some gripes, of course. I already noted the nesting discomfort I experienced. No, I was not joking about it making me uncomfortable. But hopefully that is merely a personal quirk. I did find, though, that the story seemed to peter out rather than resolve. I felt that the story-telling became a bit too diffuse toward the end. And I was disappointed with how she handled Grace Spivey’s end-story. But still and all. There is enough magic when you open the book that you do not have to rub it to get your wish, if your wish is for a good read…says me.

The name “Scheherazade” means “City Dweller.” We learn that Grace has studied French in Paris, drama in London and attended Teacher’s College in New York. That she enthralls her students with stories completes the image. It could be a coincidence, of course.

I enjoyed a tale in which a bookseller is also a trader in slaves. I am sure the author did not mean anything by that.

And if you would like to read the Arabian Nights for yourself: