Saturday, September 8, 2001

The Swan House: Early 1960s Atlanta

Elizabeth Musser's new book, The Swan House, introduces Mary Swan Middleton, a sixteen-year-old girl growing up in Atlanta, Georgia in the early 1960s. Mary Swan has enjoyed a privileged life in the ritzy Buck Head section of town, with all the advantages of wealth including private girls' prep school, society dinners and dances, and a black maid to keep the house in order. Yet in this coming of age story, Mary finds her life torn apart by tragedy and a struggle to bring meaning to her life.

The historical account of the 1962 Paris plane crash, in which over a hundred Atlantans returning from an art tour perished, sets the stage. Mary's mother was on the plane, and the accident sends Mary's world tumbling. When Ella Mae, the family's black maid, suggests that Mary help out others as a way to overcome her depression, Mary discovers a whole new world on the other side of town. Grant Park is a rough, inner-city neighborhood, where every Saturday Mt. Carmel church serves spaghetti lunches to the poor. Yet Carl Matthews, a streetwise black teen, has something that Mary doesn't have. From him and the other blacks in Grant Park she finds both poverty and love, including God's love that goes beyond prejudice.

A school dare, a mystery that Mary must try to solve during the school year, drives the story along. In the process, Mary uncovers the truth about her mother, an artist who suffered from depression. At the same time she encounters the world around her, a world of racial prejudice as well as the hypocrisy and superficiality of the wealthy world. Through Carl Matthews and best friend Rachel Abrams comes discrimination against blacks and Jews respectively. Even Mary's boyfriend Robbie, from a "good family," chafes at the restrictions and high expectations placed on him by his father.

In this turbulent time of the Civil Rights movement, Carl and his friends follow the news of the day, including the incident at University of Mississippi that year, when a black student registers at the all-white school despite the protests. At various times in the story, Carl and his friends attend Civil Rights meetings, are beat up by whites while leaving church, and perform as a band for the "fancy white clubs" in Buck Head.

Part-child, part confused adolescent, Mary Swan enjoys reciting classical poetry and "corrupting" poems with silly rhyming lines, staying up late playing poetry trivia with Rachel. She also eagerly joins her 13-year-old brother Jimmy in schemes to keep rich women (who only want his money) away from daddy, while longing for a closer relationship to her busy and aloof daddy.

Other interesting characters include Miss Abigail, the Christian woman who gave up her wealthy life to live and work in the inner-city, first in Detroit and now Atlanta. Through association with her, Mary learns of the generous help that other wealthy ladies have given to Grant Park, and discovers the reason for Miss Abigail's joy. The Middleton's next door neighbor Trixie also helps out the family, having been close friends with Mary's mother and now someone that Mary can turn to.

The author grew up in Atlanta and currently works as a missionary in France; The Swan House provides a strong background of both places. Coca-Cola and its Atlanta legacy is here, as is the higher society of art appreciation, the influential Atlantans who would bring greater art and culture to the city; also Georgia Tech football games. Many prominent locations are actual historic places in Atlanta, including the Swan House (now open to tours), the High Museum (now part of the Woodruff museums) and Oakland Cemetery. According to the author's notes, a church in Grant Park continues to provide spaghetti meals to the poor every week. Even the Varsity, a fast-food teen hangout, is an actual place still in existence today. Sprinkled throughout are French words and phrases, courtesy of Mary's mother who was part French. Mary enjoys many days in her mother's Atelier (art studio), and makes many references to French painting styles. Painting, she realizes, is good therapy as well as a talent she has inherited from her mother.

It is indeed Mary Swan's story, told in first person from the present day (summer of 2000) perspective while visiting with her daughter Abbie. Mary takes a fresh look back, telling her story to Abbie with fond remembrances of that year, 1962 to 1963.

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