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Wednesday, March 25, 2009 10:06 pm

First novel wordplay reflects writer’s “crush on life”

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Joanna Beth Tweedy, The Yonder Side of Sass and Texas: A Novel. Southeast Missouri State University Press, 2009. $19.

It is hard to imagine a single person who has exerted more influence on the literary life of Springfield in the past calendar year than Joanna Beth Tweedy, founder and co-editor of Quiddity, theliterary magazine at Springfield College — and moderator of the half-hour “Quiddity” radio program broadcast at 6:30 p.m. on the first Wednesday of each month on WUIS-FM. This two-pronged aesthetic initiative has brought a diversity of literary, social and ecological issues into the center of the community. In the introduction to her debut novel, The Yonder Side of Sass and Texas, Tweedy admits her love of diversity and confesses to a “crush on life,” a theme that waves like a bright banner throughout this lively and highly readable work of fiction.

Although billed as a novel, The Yonder Side is really a collection of interlocking vignettes — many of the 25 chapters are self-supporting and could easily stand by themselves. But, collectively, the rambling episodes create a kind of family saga focused on the MacTerptin Family, an Irish-Catholic clan rooted deeply in the southern Illinois orchard country where they grow peaches so delicate they can be cut with a butter knife. The MacTerptins have eight children, seven of whom are girls, each named after a state: Texas, Arkansas (“Sass”), Montana, Alabama, Michigan, Delaware, Nevada — and their mysterious red-haired brother whose secret name (“Keegan”) is finally revealed near the end of the narrative.

Names play a key role in this book, not merely as folksy reminders of the rural setting, but also as badges of the inscrutability and “quiddity” of each character. So the reader encounters a nun named Sister Aquiline, a restaurant called Tump’s Talkeasy, the good-hearted Grandpa Jelly — and a host of odd monikers who inhabit Tweedy’s Kincaid Hills, including Dog Dentleman, Slug Milby, Cockeye Murk, Tuffer Danner, Squint DeWitt and Stretch Waters.

Naming characters in ways that suggest their essential traits may be as old as Charles Dickens, but Tweedy’s rambling style and ubiquitous wordplay seem closer to William Faulkner and James Joyce. The language in The Yonder Side runs the gamut from arcane and scholarly terms all the way to slang, localisms and outright inventions (or neologisms). Her “crush on life” reveals itself with linguistic hat tricks on nearly every page. At the high end, the reader meets manuduction, tatterdemalion, ataxic, quiddity, collywobble and mystagogy. At the other end of the spectrum, one finds gallinipper, bumfuzzle, swivet, modge-podge,cattywhompas and the all-purpose suss, meaning to know, believe, or understand. In addition, the novel is home to a thriving verbal family of compound words, like sundip, dreamheat, spoonshare and skyshadow. The single best invention to emerge from Tweedy’s linguistic smithy is her word cicadence, a wonderfully poetic conflation of “cicada” and “cadence.” She is a born writer with a gifted ear.

The Yonder Side focuses primarily on Sass and Texas and their process of growing up, a familiar pattern in American writing. At the end, Sass goes from southern Illinois to France, England, Italy, Ireland, and, finally, the Sahara desert, where she experiences a kind of epiphany, deeply “sussing” a world “so foreign, so old, so otherworldly, and so affecting we are moved to a hush.” That moment will happen again and again to the reader who is lucky enough to encounter and savor The Yonder Side.

Dan Guillory is professor emeritus of English at Millikin University in Decatur. He is the author of seven books, including The Lincoln Poems, which was selected for inclusion in the National Bicentennial Celebration of Lincoln’s birthday in Springfield on Feb. 12.

Joanna Beth Tweedy will read from her novel in Springfield Thursday, March 26, at 7 p.m. in the historic Brinkerhoff Home at 1500 North Fifth Street, as well as Saturday, March 28, at 2 p.m. in the Vachel Lindsay Home at 603 South Fifth Street. A book-signing will follow each reading.

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