The Orphan Mother Book Reviews


Media Interviews - The Orphan Mother

The 'Novelization' of Those Who Lived

There's an often told tale around Franklin and Nashville that Carrie's McGavock's descendants are bitter & indignant over my 'novelized' version of her story. Truth is, no one has actually ever met one of her descendants who resents the book as I pretty much know them all and know how they feel. For the record there are some distant lateral cousins, particularly a Mormon branch, but not her descendants, who have (amusingly) taken personal offense at my portrayal. 

I tell all this because today I received the following letter from one of Mariah Otey Reddick's descendants who has retired to Panamá . Wonder what he will think when I finish The Book Of Mariah? 

Dear Mr. Hicks:
After conducting on-line genealogical research on and off for several years, about my mother’s family, I had reached a dead end. On a whim, I Googled my great grandmother’s name and her photo appeared. The caption and related information led me to your book, The Widow of the South.

Tears welled up as I discovered that my great grandmother, Mariah Otey Reddick, had been given as a wedding gift to Carrie Winder McGovack. That was on November 5, 2013, and I have continued my search since then. Of course, I immediately ordered your book and began to read it as soon as I arrived in the USA in mid-November from our home in the Panamá highlands, where my wife and I retired in 2004. 

I wish to express to you, Mr. Hicks, my and my family’s gratitude for the sensitive and multi-dimensional and even heroic way in which you novelized Mariah. Candidly, as I ordered the book, I wondered what a 21st Century white American male would imagine a 19th Century enslaved African woman in America would think; and how she would behave. You gave her a life independent of her “role” and, more importantly, an interior life of the mind as a key supporting character in the main story. Or, as one reviewer put it, Mariah was one of the “three main characters.” Your characterization was realistic, excellent and uplifting.

Again, I express on behalf of all of Mariah Reddick’s descendants, a deep appreciation and gratitude for the rare humanization of an enslaved person you fashioned in The Widow of the South.

W. K.

Evelyn Waugh to Nancy Mitford’s request for advice on how to handle fan mail:

“I am not greatly troubled by fans nowadays. Less than one a day on the average. No sour grapes when I say they were an infernal nuisance. I divide them into…

(a) Humble expressions of admiration. To these a post-card saying “I am delighted to learn that you enjoyed my book. E. W.”
(b) Impudent criticism. No answer.
(c) Bores who wish to tell me about themselves. Post-card saying “Thank you for interesting letter. E. W.”
(d) Technical criticism, eg. One has made a character go to Salisbury from Paddington. Post-card: “Many thanks for your valuable suggestion. E. W.”
(e) Humble aspirations of would-be writers. If attractive a letter of discouragement. If unattractive a post-card.
(f) Requests from University Clubs for a lecture. Printed refusal.
(g) Requests from Catholic Clubs for lecture. Acceptance.
(h) American students of “Creative Writing” who are writing theses about one & want one, virtually, to write their theses for them. Printed refusal.
(i) Tourists who invite themselves to one’s house. Printed refusal.
(j) Manuscript sent for advice. Return without comment.

I also have some post-cards with my photograph on them which I send to nuns.

In case of very impudent letters from married women I write to the husband warning him that his wife is attempting to enter into correspondence with strange men.

Oh, and of course…

(k) Autograph collectors: no answer.
(l) Indians & Germans asking for free copies of one’s books: no answer.
(m) Very rich Americans: polite letter. They are capable of buying 100 copies for Christmas presents.

I think that more or less covers the field.”




I50 years after Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg, The New York Times asked me to commemorate the event by speaking to the BIGGER PICTURE of Why the Civil War Matters. What follows is my essay. I am honored to be asked to address this issue as I believe, in the end, it is the most important of issues in this, the sesquicentennial of the war. Here is the link and below it is the article.

IN his 1948 novel “Intruder in the Dust,” William Faulkner described the timeless importance of the Battle of Gettysburg in Southern memory, and in particular the moments before the disastrous Pickett’s Charge on July 3, 1863, which sealed Gen. Robert E. Lee’s defeat. “For every Southern boy fourteen years old,” he wrote, “there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon.”

That wasn’t quite true at the time — as the humorist Roy Blount Jr. reminds us, black Southern boys of the 1940s probably had a different take on the battle. But today, how many boys anywhere wax nostalgic about the Civil War? For the most part, the world in which Faulkner lived, when the Civil War and its consequences still shaped the American consciousness, has faded away.

Which raises an important question this week, as we move through the three-day sesquicentennial of Gettysburg: does the Civil War still matter as anything more than long-ago history?

Fifty years ago, at the war’s centennial, America was a much different place. Legal discrimination was still the norm in the South. A white, middle-class culture dominated society. The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act had not yet rewritten our demographics. The last-known Civil War veteran had died only a few years earlier, and the children and grandchildren of veterans carried within them the still-fresh memories of the national cataclysm.

All of that is now gone, replaced by a society that is more tolerant, more integrated, more varied in its demographics and culture. The memory of the war, at least as it was commemorated in the early 1960s, would seem to have no place.

Obviously, there are those for whom Civil War history is either a profession or a passion, who continue to produce and read books on the war at a prodigious rate. But what about the rest of us? What meaning does the war have in our multiethnic, multivalent society?

For one thing, it matters as a reflection of how much America has changed. Robert Penn Warren called the war the “American oracle,” meaning that it told us who we are — and, by corollary, reflected the changing nature of America.

Indeed, how we remember the war is a marker for who we are as a nation. In 1913, at the 50th anniversary of Gettysburg, thousands of black veterans were excluded from the ceremony, while white Union and Confederate veterans mingled in a show of regional reconciliation, made possible by a national consensus to ignore the plight of black Americans.

Even a decade ago, it seemed as if those who dismissed slavery as simply “one of the factors” that led us to dissolve into a bloodbath would forever have a voice in any conversation about the war.

In contrast, recent sesquicentennial events have taken pains to more accurately portray the contributions made by blacks to the war, while pro-Southern revisionists have been relegated to the dustbin of history — a reflection of the more inclusive society we have become. As we examine what it means to be America, we can find no better historical register than the memory of the Civil War and how it has morphed over time.

Then again, these changes also imply that the war is less important than it used to be; it drives fewer passionate debates, and maybe — given that one side of those debates usually defended the Confederacy — that’s a good thing.

But there is an even more important reason the war matters. If the line to immigrate into this country is longer than those in every other country on earth, it is because of the Civil War.

It is true, technically speaking, that the United States was founded with the ratification of the Constitution. And it’s true that in the early 19th century it was a beacon of liberty for some — mostly northern European whites.

But the Civil War sealed us as a nation. The novelist and historian Shelby Foote said that before the war our representatives abroad referred to us as “these” United States, but after we became “the” United States. Somehow, as divided as we were, even as the war ended, we have become more than New Yorkers and Tennesseans, Texans and Californians.

And Gettysburg itself still matters, for the same reason Abraham Lincoln noted so eloquently in his famous address at the site on November 19, 1863. The battle consecrated the “unfinished work” to guarantee “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

In that way, the Civil War is less important to the descendants of those who fought in it than it is to those whose ancestors were living halfway around the globe at the time. For if you have chosen to throw your lot in with this country, the American Civil War is at the foundation of your reasons to do so. True, we have not arrived at our final destination as either a nation or as a people. Yet we have much to commemorate. Everything that has come about since the war is linked to that bloody mess and its outcome and aftermath. The American Century, the Greatest Generation and all the rest are somehow born out of the sacrifice of those 750,000 men and boys. None of it has been perfect, but I wouldn’t want to be here without it


An Open Letter to Oprah

Dear Oprah,
I'm not sure you will remember me, but I'm the guy, some years ago, who asked you to spearhead a campaign to build a significant monument to the United States Colored Troops that were in Nashville before and during the Battle of Nashville, in the last leg of the Spring Hill to Nashville Campaign of late 1864. 

I explained the importance of their service to the Union and how they represented the tens of thousands of African-Americans, often the 'contraband of war,' who significantly aided in the eventual Union victory and to who we are today as a nation, only to be erased away from history. 

I felt, then as now, that building a significant monument in Nashville would not only honor their service and right some of the mishandling of history, but could serve as a road sign to the future. 

Well, that didn't seem to work, so here I am back with another idea. 

On December 2, a Basque athlete named Iván Fernández Anaya was competing in a cross-country race in Burlada, Navarre. He was running second, some distance behind race leader Abel Mutai, the bronze medalist in the 3,000-meter steeplechase at the London Olympics. As they entered the finishing straight, he saw the Kenyan runner - the certain winner of the race - mistakenly pull up about 10 meters before the finish, thinking he had already crossed the line.

Fernández Anaya quickly caught up with him, but instead of exploiting Mutai's mistake to speed past and claim an unlikely victory, he stayed behind and, using gestures, guided the Kenyan to the line and let him cross first.

Ivan Fernandez Anaya, a Basque runner of 24 years who is considered an athlete with a big future (champion of Spain of 5,000 meters in promise category two years ago) said after the race:

"But even if they had told me that winning would have earned me a place in the Spanish team for the European championships, I wouldn't have done it either. I also think that I have earned more of a name having done what I did than if I had won. And that is very important, because today, with the way things are in all circles, in soccer, in society, in politics, where it seems anything goes, a gesture of honesty goes down well."

I know you had high viewer numbers with your interview of Lance Armstrong. Would you consider interviewing Fernández Anaya? Maybe you could bill it as an hour that young people should watch, so that they can have a real hero in sport. 

I promise to watch and I bet I can get a bunch of other folks to watch, too. Like the monument to the USCT, I think it, too, could serve as an important road sign to a better future. 

Sorry to be bothering you, again, but like it says; "To him much given, from him much is required." Thank you for your consideration. 

Robert Hicks

Working on Essay for Garden & Gun's First Book

Garden & Gun is working on its first book [HarperCollins; fall 2013].

The book will be titled something like [Garden & Gun presents] Soul of the South: How to Live the Good Life the Southern Way. The idea is a kind of manual/meditation with topical chapters full of fun, voicey service and short and long essays (like mine). If Garden & Gun does it, you know it will turn out beautiful and be an inspirational, informative, entertaining read, as timeless as possible, still fresh 20 years from now.

I'm working on an essay tentively titled "The Tradition of the Southern Garden" Hopefully, it will be inspirational celebration /meditation on the perfect southern garden.



Pulpwood Queens Literary Tour of the South, Oct 11th - 15th

BREAKING NEWS! Kathy Patrick, THE Pulpwood Queen, is taking her book club members, from across the nation, on a literary tour of the SOUTH, October 11th - 15th!

They leave from Shreveport, Louisiana, stops at Jackson, MS (visiting Eudora Welty's home) then on to Oxford, MS for some Faulkner at Rowan Oak an Square Books then on to Nashville, and Franklin TN. This tour is for authors & booklovers alike who want to be part of THE southern booklover's adventure of a lifetime! Please send Kathy L. Patrick your email if interested (authors too!)

Grand Finale will be the Southern Festival of the Books in Nashville's The Pulpwood Queen Presents panel with authors, Amy Hill Hearth, Lynda Rutledge, Jenny Wingfield, Robert Leleux and a special visit w/ Robert Hicks (that's me) at my cabin 'Labor in Vain' in Franklin, along with a private tour of Historic Carnton Plantation. If you love southern authors and books, this is the trip for YOU! 

Finally, you will return back to Shreveport via Memphis where there will be much fun. 

A Walk Among the Dead

One February night, some years ago, arriving at Colleville sur Mer / Omaha Beach after it had closed, I scaled the fence-hedge around the American Cemetery.  and walked among the 9,387 dead. In the light of a full moon, the crosses & Stars of David seemed to glow. To my surprise the carillon still played on the hour despite the cemetery being closed. It played for the dead and for me that night. 
In all, I've been there 5 times now, but no time has ever been  as meaningful as when I walked among the dead that night as the carillon played 'Rescue the Perishing, Care for the Dying.'
Today is an important day for all of us. With Normandy, the war began to turn in our favor. With the sacrifice of all those boys and so many others, Hitler and his vision was wiped from the earth. 
I am grateful for the evening among the dead and for all the other times I have been there. Mostly, I am grateful for those boys. 

One February night, some years ago, arriving at Colleville sur Mer / Omaha Beach after it had closed, I scaled the fence-hedge around the American Cemetery.  and walked among the 9,387 dead. In the light of a full moon, the crosses & Stars of David seemed to glow. To my surprise the carillon still played on the hour despite the cemetery being closed. It played for the dead and for me that night. 
In all, I've been there 5 times now, but no time has ever been  as meaningful as when I walked among the dead that night as the carillon played 'Rescue the Perishing, Care for the Dying.'
Today is an important day for all of us. With Normandy, the war began to turn in our favor. With the sacrifice of all those boys and so many others, Hitler and his vision was wiped from the earth. 
I am grateful for the evening among the dead and for all the other times I have been there. Mostly, I am grateful for those boys. 

A Spouse Event @ Carnton Plantation.

This last week, I had the great pleasure to work with Well Planned Events in Nashville. They put together a spouse program for the National Board of Boilers & Pressure Vessel Inspectors. To tell you the truth, I didn’t know what the group was all about when I first got there but after talking and meeting everyone have to say that I was impressed. It seems that the profession came out of a terrible incident where a boiler exploded in a elementry school killing hundreds of children back in the '30s. 

These kind of accidents had happened as long as their were boilers on a pretty regualr bases. So out of this explosion the decision was made that there needed to be a way to inspect boilers to be sure they are safe. My first question to the group was do we still make boilers? Turns out there are thousands of boilers in every city in America, Soemthimes tens of thousands of them.

And, since there have been inspections, there has not been one boiler blowup in the country. Besides, they have now moved into insopecting nuclear power plants - recently shut one down near NOLA. 

I am glad to know there is such a job and glad to knwo they are busily at work. Their wives were a great group to meet. 


As Requested, I Am ReIssuing My Food Guide to NOLA for Folks Who Couldn't Find it.

I want to get it straight from the get-go that I am not, nor have I ever considered myself, even remotely, a ‘foodie.’ That said, you don’t get to be a Big Boy by a macrobiotic diet of unseasoned beans.
While I refuse to be lumped in with all the foodies out there, I will heartily admit to loving food. Add to that the ‘ambiance of the authentic’ in a time when most that surrounds us is far from real and I’m there. Where? New Orleans, of course.
Don’t get me wrong, there are restaurants and bars, food stands and dives all over the world that please me, but no place in America has more of them in such a small concentration than New Orleans. I add that qualifier to get the folks in New York, San Francisco and Chicago off my back. Remember, I said, I have favorite places everywhere.
I’m not going to come even close to mentioning all the great food in New Orleans or where to get it. There are way too many other sources for that, but among my personal favorites are:
Parasol’s Bar in the old historic ‘Irish Channel’ at 2533 Constance St.
Beyond the drink, I go to this Irish bar for one thing and one thing alone, their Roast Beef Po Boy. It’s the best there is.
Of course, if I were ever to grow tired of the Roast Beef Po Boy at Parasol’s, there is a close second to my heart:
Parkway Bakery & Tavern at 538 Hagan Avenue. It claims to be “New Orleans’ oldest Po Boy Shoppe.” I don’t know if it is or not, but I do know there Roast Beef Po Boys are up there among the very best on earth. I got stuck at Parkway during a torrential down poor that led to flash flooding several years ago and at that moment I could think of a better place to be.
Liuzza's By The Track located at 1518 North Lopez is where I like to go for a BBQ Shrimp Po Boy. Plain, simple, delicious.
Best cheap breakfast: Slim Goody's, a diner in the western part of the Garden District at 3322 Magazine Street. It also has some great vegetarian options.
Cafe Reconcile located at 1631 Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard: Not only is this the best meat-and-three joint in New Orleans, it's a non-profit that trains young people from the neighborhood to work in the restaurant industry as chefs, cooks, servers and managers. This is one of my favorite restaurants, for how often can you make the world better by loading up a plate?
Central Grocery at 923 Decatur Street is always a welcome stop for lunch in New Orleans. And as far as I’m concerned, it’s all about their muffuletta, New Orleans' other great sandwich. Served on a circular loaf of soft Italian bread piled with ham, salami and provolone cheese that is covered with a spread of chopped green and black olives, a bit of anchovies and a hint of garlic.

Of course, while your at it, what’s a trip to New Orleans without at least one or more trips to Café du Monde (800 Decatur Street across the street and down a bit from Central Grocery) for the ultimate reurrection from a long night of drinking in New Orleans with powdered-sugar beignets, hot from the fryer, chicory coffee and orange juice (good any time of the day).

Mimi's in the Marigny, 2601 Royal Street. There is little doubt that they have the best tapas in New Orleans, located in the city's funkiest neighborhood. Bars on two levels, billiards downstairs, lounge upstairs with awesome food late, late at night amid a very funky lounge scene, usually with a great DJ thumpin.

My favorite thing to do at Mimi's: show up on Sunday nights for DJ Soul Sister -- old school R&B, funk, groove. Great dancing.

When it comes to burgers, it’s a toss up for me between Port of Calllocated at 838 Esplanade Avenue (Truly great burgers, but usually there’s a line to get them.) and Yo Mama's at 727 Saint Peter Street in the Quarter with equally great burgers.  It's a bar that specializes in peanut butter bacon burgers and some rare and delicious tequilas. A winning combination in my book for sure.
Boucherie was opened by chef Nathanial Zimet who used to pull up ‘Que Crawl’ – a purple truck on the neutral ground outside Tipitina's nightclub during set breaks and sell AWESOME food to everyone with his take on New Orleans specialties, like fried boudin balls and duck gumbo. Late last year, he opened a real restaurant called Boucheriewith more ambitious dishes than those he still serves at his truck, but nothing costs more than $15. Both the truck and the restaurant are better than just good and kind of off the map of the mainstays.

Domenica (504 648.6020; 123 Baronne Street New Orleans, Louisiana 70112; the newest of Iron Chef finalist / Louisiana native John Besh’s amazing eateries. Using fresh and local ingredients, he conjures up wonderful rural Italian dishes – hand-made pasta, wood-fired pizzas and wonderful house-cured meats. All of this inside the handsomely-restored and chic Roosevelt Hotel

Coquette’s chef / proprietor Michael Stoltzfus serves up dishes like scallops w/ roast pork and mustard green ravioli and old-fashioned chocolate-filled beignets at this, the newest of Magazine Street's wonderful gathering of eateries. A+ local faire and seasonal dishes. (2800 Magazine St.; 504-265-0421)
During any month with a ‘r’ in it and May thrown in for good measure – that is oyster season, head over to Casamento’s at 4330 Magazine Street for some of the best oysters around. Truth is, folks around here eat oysters all year round these days, but they don’t eat ‘em within the tiled walls of Casamento’s except during oyster season and to be sure they don’t, the place is closed from June 1 until Labor Day. They have a good gumbo and an even better oyster stew.
You might not think of New Orleans as a barbeque city, but you'd be wrong.  The Joint at 801 Poland Avenue is Exhibition A. The place is terrific and off the tourist path, in The
Lola's on Esplanade, that is 3312 Esplanade Avenue, has really good Spanish fare is funky and byo except for maybe wine…I can’t remember. What I do remember and often ask for is their garlic-infused seafood paellas or their fidueas. The fish dishes are great and the ambiance is perfect.
Napoleon House Bar & Café in the heart of the French Quarter at the corner of Chartres Street and St. Louis Street is a favorite of mine for a drink. Anywhere else my drink would most likely be a Jack and water, but because it is the Napoleon House where my uncles once drank in the backroom speakeasy fronted by a grocery store, I like to order a Pimm‘s Cup in their memory. The story is that a previous owner of the house offered it for use by the Emperor / General in exile. The décor is perfect in every detail and its one of the best places to start a long night.
Last time I was in New Orleans, I tried a brand new place called Green Goodess at 307 Exchange Place in the French Quarter. It’s Chris DeBarr’s new place. He came out of Commander’s Palace. One of my best foodie friends took me there and it was well worth it on every level. The place is small and the DeBarr’s handiwork is amazing.
Irene’s Cuisine known to most simply as ‘Irene’s’ can be found at 539 St. Phillip Street. I would sum it up as pure local. The cuisine is country French and Italian with garlic a staple of both. The food is worth whatever the wait. Just try not to act the role of the tourist. The regulars would like to think none of us have ever found the place. The wait staff could not be more welcoming.
My dad use to tell how, in 1909, his parents first entered the world that is Galatoire's Restaurant at 209 Bourbon Street on 1909. That would be four years after the restaurant opened its doors to the world. He would then always add, “You do have to wonder what took them so long to get here.” But no matter what the delay was, my family has been eating there for the last hundred years. I went there with the Louisiana Revival architect, A. Hays Town, many years ago and sat at what he claimed to be “my table.” As he lived in Baton Rouge, I was never sure that he really had “a table,” but Galatoire’s always seems like the kind of place where someone really couldhave “a table.” Beyond that, the food is rich and old-fashioned as is the service and the room. Even though I have waited over an hour for a table for a large party, I even like that fact that its still first come, first serve, at least downstairs. There is a sense that nothing has changed since my grandparents enter the place, though, truth be told, much has had to change even since Katrina. Still, when I’m in New Orleans, a return to Galatoire’s is a must for me, usually with something like broiled pompano covered in fresh crabmeat.
If my dad or grandfather were still around, I have little doubt that they would be frequenting Chef Donald Link's Herbsaint Restaurant and Bar located at 701 St. Charles Avenue. You see, like my dining choices, Donald’s cooking is inspired by his grandfather. And while Galatoire’s will always remain linked to me and my times in New Orleans, there is little doubt that Donald Link is the man of the hour. Dinner at Herbsaint can match any other grand meal in New Orleans these days. Julia Reed and her husband, John Pearce, first introduced me to the joint and for that, I will owe them forever.
So while we’re about praising the mastery of Chef Link, let’ not forget Cochon. This is Donald’s second restaurant. With a his tip of the hat to his own Cajun roots with dishes like Spoon Bread with Okra and Tomatoes or Rabbit and Dumplings or the makings of a Louisiana Cochon du Lait (pig roast) with Turnips and Cracklings – all of it his sophisticated take on Cajun cuisine and all things pig (930 Tchoupitoulas St.; 504-588-2123). And then above it, Calcasieu, his new private dining space (504-588-2188).
A trip to New Orleans without a muffalotto at Central Grocery or a Po Boy at Parasol’s or dinner at Galatoire's is never complete. Now add Herbsaint and John Besh’ Domenica to the top of that list. What’s good there? Ask Donald or John, they’re both usually around. A fro me, I would say simply “Everything!”

At this point, I begin to ponder why exactly I don’t live in New Orleans. Oh, yea, possibly because I would weigh in at 350 Lbs. That’s why.

So enough of my recommendations. After all, if you need more than these, then you already live there and don’t need any of these. It’s your town, for Pete’s sake. Bon appétit.

There is little doubt that they have the best tapas in New Orleans, located in the city's funkiest neighborhood. Bars on two levels, billiards downstairs, lounge upstairs with awesome food late, late at night amid a very funky lounge scene, usually with a great DJ thumpin.