BOOK REVIEW: A Sea Island Yankee by Clyde Bresee

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I was glad when early spring opened the doors to our second floor porch, a large, screened in  space eleven feet off the  ground with a “up in the rigging” view of our bottom pasture at Pineapple Hill in rural South Carolina. It is here that I keep my Pawley’s Island hammock for when the right time comes. It could be any time of day or night. Breezes sweep through reminding me of the coast. Wind in the surrounding treetops sound like surf. I can see an ocean in how grasses in the field wave just so.

I went out barefoot with a copy of Sea Island Yankee, Clyde Bresee’s memoir about moving from Pennsylvania to a Low Country sea island in 1921 at age five. Having undergone a similar experience, moving from the North to the South (Michigan to Sumter) in the late sixties with I was nine, I wondered if I had seen any of the same things he had, and if the South had gotten woven into the cloth of his soul as it had for me.

Prior to 1969, except on tv and movies, I’d never seen black people, Spanish Moss, a swamp, firecrackers, grits, shrimp, cotton, a Confederate flag, boiled peanuts, a surfboard, a crab trap, or a porpoise. I’d never heard a Southern accent as it sounds spoken by a genuine Southerner in the actual South. I’d never heard the N-word or that people from up Michigan were Yankees whether they fought in the War Between the States or not. There were other firsts for me too. I still keep them way deep inside me.

So, yes, I went to the hammock already feeling a brotherly bond with the writer, as if he at least knew what I knew of the world from having walked it on a similar path.

Bresee didn’t disappoint. When describing his arrival in the Charleston area after a long train ride, he mentions “black people everywhere” on the sidewalks downtown then the clattering sound when crossing an old wooden bridge that spanned the Ashley River.

He recalls his mother expected to see more water around them—all it took then and even today was a small creek in the Low Country’s maze of waterways to divide the land and cut it off from the sea.

Owners of the plantation where Bresee’s went to work had a roasted goose waiting for them on their arrival at the Cuthbert House, built in 1747 with a view of Charleston Harbor. The Cuthbert House was one of many buildings on the Lawton Plantation property. It and the Lawton House are still standing, by the way—many of the plantation homes and local landmarks that Bresee observed are long gone.

But I can see them anyway through his writing. Not only the grand old places but also the pitiful, open-doored shacks where the blacks lived. He mentions an old woman standing in front of one, smoking a pipe in a barren yard that had been surrounded by cotton once. He recalled a gin house beside a wharf where cotton bales had once been loaded onto boats. There, he saw  a wooden hoop with a burlap bag used as a net to catch crabs—he even mentions the rotted crab still in it. I understand why because I saw these things too.

Of course, he writes about the tides and their influence on himself and everything around him. Tides affected when boats and, in them, people and products could come and go. Back then, lives were planned and lived according to that timetable.

I liked also his description of St. Johns Island as an agricultural setting. He learned a lot about animals, especially cows, same as I am learning here at Pineapple Hill.

Through Bresee I met “Uncle Peter”, a former slave who had watched the shelling of Fort Sumter at the outbreak of the Civil War, and learned about his school teacher not allowing Abraham Lincoln’s name to be spoken—her lessons skipped over the Gettysburg address—and that a prominent islander claimed, “Because the white people here observe strict honesty, the negroes respect and trust them.”

Bresee tells us about his many childhood adventures fishing and scouting the island with a black boy his age—he regrets losing touch with him when the education given whites reached further than what was given blacks.

In many ways, Bresee’s South of 1921 was similar to mine of 1969. And even now it remains different in many of the same ways versus other places where I’ve lived after Sumter and as an adult: Chicago, D.C., and Tampa, to name a few.

The South is complex and yet the South is quite simple.

The South is hospitable yet, too, stand off-ish. Proud of its history—burying parts it doesn’t like.

The South is rich in old traditions while moving forward into new ways of being. There is sadness and there is laughter. Crabs still rot in nets found by Low Country creeks and Low Country boys still play with them. Souls are born while others pass. A breeze washing though a second floor porch is sweet with dreams.

These and other things wait for you in the South.

In Bresee’s book and here where I am now.

——Tim Bryant