Early this spring, I met Jo McDougall at an Arkansas Literary Festival event. She is one of those rare, dear people who welcomes a new acquaintance with the comfort and ease of a lifelong friend. I was disappointed to miss her reading during the festival, but I have learned this week that we all have another opportunity to hear the story of her new memoir, Daddy’s Money: A Memoir of Farm and Family. I hope
Learn more about Jo, her poetry, her memoir, and where you can meet her in person on her website.
Jo McDougall’s latest
by Rod Lorenzen
(Reprinted with permission from the author.)
Better known as an accomplished poet, Jo McDougall has turned her considerable talent to writing a memoir about the vibrant rice farm where she grew up in Southeast Arkansas. While “Daddy’s Money: A Memoir of Farm and Family” (The University of Arkansas Press, $19.95, paperback) may look like a tribute to rural America, don’t bet the farm on it. McDougall writes eloquently about her early life, but it includes a sad refrain, about the fate of the family farm and her own trouble with her younger sister, over control of the family estate.
In between, however, McDougall serves up some tantalizing homegrown memories of the farm community around DeWitt, where she grew up with the rituals of early rising, working until dark and knowing all the neighbors for miles around. She recalls the inescapable sounds of a huge pump near her house that ran non-stop to keep the rice fields irrigated and the way the dirt smelled as it was churned up each spring.
The homeplace was built in 1910 by her paternal grandfather, Peter Garot, an immigrant of Belgium. Her father, Leon Garot, later took over the 1,110 acres when Peter Garot as lured into retirement by the sparkling waters of Hot Springs.
As a girl, McDougall learned how to snap the head off a chicken but was otherwise not required to work much around the farm. Daddy’s money was paying her way. For the better part of the last century, McDougal’s family thrived on rice farming and it provided them with an abundant life.
Still, there was the constant undertow of worry about growing conditions and the farmers’ utter dependence on the weather. Too much rain? Too little? Will the bane of all rice growers — the deadly white tip disease — show up to ruin everything? All this caused strain in the household as her father routinely complained to her mother about the season’s crop. McDougall writes:
“It never occurs to either of them, I suppose, to pursue another way of making a living. They are beholden to the spreading sunsets of this forever landscape, to the smells of water irrigating a dry field. To the color of rice at harvest, like burnt butter. They are beholden to the dirt.”
Near the end of the book, McDougall takes her grandchildren for one last look at the farm, now deserted, where she spent her early years. Pulling on the rotting door of a barn, she is aware that the “old homeplace looks like the setting for a Tennessee Williams play: genteel decay in the Old South.”
This book is a little unsettling at times: There is a painful scene in which McDougall bids against her sister at a court-ordered, “closed” liquidation of the family estate for possession of the red wagon of their childhood. Otherwise, “Daddy’s Money” imparts a broad connection to family that is sweetened by McDougall’s eidetic memory for the rich details of her youth.
McDougall, the author of five books of poetry, includes several new poems in this book that help punctuate the moods of her story. Characteristically, her words are always carefully planted and pruned. They never fail to provide an abundant harvest.