If you read Mary Helen Stefaniak’s first published novel, The Turk and my Mother, you know it’s 1) set in the Bay View neighborhood of Milwaukee and 2) it’s a novel not “in” stories but “about” stories. It’s a great immigrant saga that I particularly enjoyed selling at the Schwartz Bookshop in Bay View (2005-2008). Stefaniak’s novel has stories wrapped in stories, each revealing more about one immigrant family.
So it was a bit of a surprise to start reading Stefaniak’s new novel, The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia. Set in 1938 and told through the perspective of 11-year-old Gladys Cailiff, it’s about what happens when Threestep, Georgia gets in a new teacher in the form of one Grace Spivey, a Nashville girl who has traveled the world.
Grace brings her exotic interests into the classroom, particularly her fascination with 1001 Arabian Nights. Soon she’s organizing the Baghdad Bazaar, enchanting half the town, and perhaps enraging the other half, certainly her proper-yet-shrill student Mavis Davis, and Mr. Gordon, the town lawyer and Klu Klux Klan leader.
For Miss Spivey has no tolerance for the town’s antiquated notions of race. The Cailiff neighbor boy, Theo Boykins, is clearly the smartest in town, but as an African American, is consigned to a second rate high school far away. And the idea of using his brother Eugene in the Baghdad Bazaar play? Why, the only way to do that would be to convince everyone that a genie is a kind of slave.
So the narrative continues, surprisingly straightforward, a To Kill a Mockingbird kind of thing, or to use a more contemporary comparison, Mudbound. (I’ve got one more but I’ll save it for the big finish). And then the stories start—how the camels got to Georgia, the source of the ancient copy of the 1001 Arabian Nights book, how Spivey got to Baghdad in the first place to develop her fascination with all things Arabian.
I love the way that the racial divide in the small Georgia town mirrors many Americans current relations with Muslims, only in the 1930’s, the Muslims culture is so unknown that the folks of Threestep see the Baghdad culture as more exotic than other. In a sense, this story is about bridging the divide between Muslim and non-Muslim (the town is pretty much all Christian) as well as white and black.
I won’t give you the context of the stories, as that would give too much away, but it so reminded me of Rabih Alameddine’s last novel, where the characters would tell each other stories (some contemporary, some historical, some legendary) as they sat watch over the dying patriarch in a place (Beirut) where folks of different colors and religions coexisted peacefully. Storytelling is such an intrinsic part of Muslim culture that these stories within a story in The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia make perfect sense when viewed in this context. Muslim culture finds itself seeping into the town of Threestep, which yes, does get renamed Baghdad.
So yes (wait for it), this novel is The Help meets The Hakawati. Please feel free to use this hook when you talk this novel up to others.
Stefaniak will be at Boswell on Friday, October 22nd. Welcome her back to Milwaukee (she grew up here, her mom’s from Georgia, hence the locale of the new book (and the last one). Want more? Here's Stefaniak talking about her inspiration.