In tone The Califfs of Baghdad, Georgia (Norton, 2010), by Mary Helen Stefaniak, reminded me of Olive Anne Burns’ Cold Sassy Tree (1984). Both are told from a child’s perspective, both involve narratives about family life in the old days, both are tinged with a wash of nostalgia and tragedy. Califfs is deceptive. Its first half is a ten-year-old Gladys Califf’s account of her family seventy or more years in the past. They live in a small town called Threestep and are, compared to most in the town, more moderate and tolerant in their racial views. Gladys and her family are good friends with a black neighbor named Theo Boykin, a young boy whom everyone recognizes as brilliant and who shows talent in engineering. There is a nonconformist school teacher, an Arabian Nights pageant, a long-suffering big sister named May whose husband keeps her busy bearing children, and so on. Midway through, as the children wait to learn whether their friend will recover from a serious accident, May begins telling a story about Arabia, and about the Muslims who moved for a time to live on one of the Georgia coastal islands before returning to their native land. Although her story goes on too long, it meshes in an intriguing way the first half of the novel and shows than Stefaniak has ambitions above and beyond those of nostalgia. The Arabian Nights is a major influence in this novel, especially on May’s long narrative.
Among the points of this novel: inadequate or nonexistent opportunities for education were a crippling force to many African Americans in the early part of the century; segregation and racism denied American society the full use of people like Theo; and our ancestry individually and culturally is far complicated than we might imagine. There is an implicit argument here for racial and international understanding.
Though I find fault with certain issues of realism in the portrayal of the South in the 1930s, and though it tells its story through another instance of a Southern family that is exceptional rather than typical, The Califfs of Baghdad, Georgia held my interest from start to finish.