I’m going to tackle the first couple of discussion questions today. Here we go!
1. How is the novel shaped by the place in which it’s set? How would the story be different if it were set elsewhere? In a big city? In the North?
2. How is the novel shaped by the era in which it’s set? How would the story be different if it occurred today? How would the existence of cell phones and the Internet change this story?
If you’ve read the book, it would be hard to argue that Ford County doesn’t play a major role in the story. The racial makeup of the county and the county history basically is the story, especially when we learn about Seth’s motivations for leaving his estate to Lettie. The small town everybody-knows-everybody-and-their-mama vibe is a way for the narrator to drop in on conversations at the cafe and hear what the town itself is saying. We do usually hear what the white folks of the town are thinking, and perhaps having a young white lawyer in 1988 as the main character contributes to that.
What I worry about, though, being a Mississippian, is that 1988 isn’t far enough away from 2015 to allow a healthy dose of “welp, that’s how people USED to think” to permeate Sycamore Row. Sure, several characters have car phones (as I did!), and no one’s Googling anything, but it’s pretty much a modern novel. My point is that there are characters who have outdated ideas like “[s]he was a housekeeper, and a black one, and as such was expected to stay in the shadows when the family was around” (29), and yet it feels like a modern novel based in modern Mississippi.
There’s no doubt that this novel is totally shaped by being set in a Mississippi of the past – but to answer one of the questions above, I don’t think the plot would change very much if cell phones and the Internet were a factor. Locating lost relatives and discovering one’s family tree would be a lot easier, but the actual meat of the story would remain. I do wish Sycamore Row had more references to 1988. Jake could rock some acid washed jeans and jam out to some Rick Astley on his way to go see Rain Man to ease the tension of his court battle. Jake’s daughter Hanna could develop a crush on Patrick Swayze based upon the “She’s Like the Wind” video. Carla could deal with some mild depression as a result of the house burning of A Time to Kill and start a dose of Prozac. (Ok, I’ll stop, but that was fun!) More reminders that it was set in the past would’ve helped with the sense I came away with, which was that the book was a take on current-day Mississippi…only with car phones.