Ellen Douglas's Truth: Stories I am Finally Old Enough to Tell

by Betsy Sussler

Ellen Douglas. Photo by H. Kay Halloway. Courtesy of Algonquin Books.

Ellen Douglas’s Truth: Four Stories I Am Finally Old Enough to Tell contains scattered tales and facts gathered from her relatives, and the residents and archives of the author’s community. These are disarming, resilient stories that consider subjective assumptions and defensive adjustments filtered through subsequent generations of a southern province. Like all of us, Natchez, Mississippi, has a past, some of which its citizens would rather hide than tell. Douglas’s family comes from strict Presbyterian stock—god-fearing, prosperous people who kept slaves. There is no attempt to make sense of this past: various interpretations—a people’s memory and a people’s amnesia—collide. There are no sure answers, no conclusions. The stories end when someone dies, but do not end as much as stop. The events of the last story, “On Second Creek,” haunt the entire book; a historian accidentally discovers papers in the university library that record the torture and death, in 1861, of thirty black men murdered for planning a slave insurrection that may or may not have been a figment of the white population’s imagination. Neither the black nor white community claims any oral history of the event.

These stories are powerful not only in what they reveal, but in what they refuse to do, which is make a linear narrative. There is no single truth, and there are maddening dead ends: “I am a writer of fiction, but the record I begin . . . like all history and all fiction, is a tangle of truth and lies, facts and purported facts, imaginary and real events. History, it’s been said more than once, is written by the winners. But of some contests even the winners may be loath to leave a record.” Douglas goes back to the oldest living relative of the man who recorded the murders, an ancient woman, almost blind, and what she discovers is this: the woman’s mother, a lady who told children tales, who made paths for the fairies with broken pottery and glass, also guarded the papers describing the murders—begged to have them placed in the library. The keeper of the myths was also the keeper of the only record.

The truths in these stories do not accumulate as much as they breed. What Ellen Douglas is finally old enough to tell are the stories that don’t add up or make sense: the ones left behind. Truth is what we each remember, and Ellen Douglas tells of its contradictions.

—Betsy Sussler


Truth: Four Stories I Am Finally Old Enough to Tell was published this fall by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.

American South
Cultural history
Winter 1999
The cover of BOMB 66