December 10, 2021
Pope Blends Family History and Fiction in New Novel “The Gods of Green County”

In a presentation to the Emmanuel community, Professor of English Dr. Mary Elizabeth Pope shared the elements of her family history that became the characters and the conflict in her novel "The Gods of Green County."

Professor of English Dr. Mary Elizabeth Pope’s new novel “The Gods of Green County” (October 2021, Blair) has been categorized in many genres —historical fiction, Southern Gothic, even mystery with its 2022 Beltie Mystery Prize nomination. But the question of where the novel “fits” categorically makes sense given Pope’s deeply personal connection to its people and place—the book endeavors to honor a family legacy more than it does to follow certain literary genre rules. As a review from the Southern Review of Books notes, “At the core of this story are the people—the people of Paradise; Coralee’s family; the people of the South at a time in American history when jobs were scarce and hope was even harder to come by.”

In “The Gods of Green County,” Pope’s protagonist is the young Coralee Harper, the setting, depression-era, rural Paradise, Arkansas. When Coralee’s brother, Buddy, is killed by the town’s authoritarian sheriff, she struggles with both the loss and the injustice behind it. She begins to see Buddy around town and questions whether it’s a sign from God or if she’s losing her mind. As Judge Leroy Harrison, formerly the lawyer who represented Sheriff Wiley Slocum in her brother’s murder trial, tries to piece together what happened the night of Buddy’s murder leading up to Coralee’s sanity hearing, the threads of the intricately woven town pull even tighter, with influence from the church, the women of Paradise, and even Coralee’s own second husband, Big Earl, playing a role in her fate.   

In a December 2nd event, titled “Fiction and Family History,” Pope shared how she blurred the lines between the two in a presentation to the Emmanuel community.

Pope’s parents had two very different upbringings—in different parts of the country as well as different economic strata. While her mother’s family was “well-to-do” living just outside of Providence, her father grew up “dirt poor” in the small town of Cardwell located in the Missouri Bootheel, a region of the state that juts into Arkansas and bears little resemblance to Missouri metros such as St. Louis or Kansas City. Cardwell, as Pope described it, was a place where laws were loose, technology didn’t touch, and where mechanization of cotton picking eventually sent residents to industrialized cities like Flint, Michigan, to find work in the booming auto industry.

That side of her family was always more interesting to Pope during family visits—the rules less strict and the stories more colorful for the insatiably curious future storyteller.

In her presentation, Pope shared the elements of her family history that became the characters and the conflict in her book. Her paternal grandmother, Delia, who battled mental illness throughout her adult life and spent seven years in Missouri State Hospital #4, was the basis for Coralee, her grandfather, the basis for Big Earl. Delia’s brother, Billy, was shot in front of a Cardwell tavern by the local sheriff in the exact same manner as Buddy, down to the bullet holes in his body, and the sheriff, similarly, was not held accountable.

For Pope, the makings of the novel was a slow process, one that began as early as 1992 when Delia passed away. Reflecting on the peculiar dinnertime phone calls her family would receive from her grandmother every night, her father’s lifelong reluctance to hug his own mother because he, and society, believed mental illness might be contagious, and her great-uncle Billy’s mysterious murder, she realized there was more to the story that she’d always been interested in.

Telling her paternal grandparents’ story took many years of gathering facts and filling in gaps, and Pope was aided by the residents of Cardwell, including the town’s longtime barber, as well as chance meetings with strangers. While at a bar in Iowa City, Pope met a man whose father was also institutionalized in one of Missouri’s state asylums and knew how to access medical records, which gave Pope greater insight into Delia’s mental state at the time of her hospitalization.

In a Q&A with her publisher, Blair, Pope said a series of poems about the subject of the novel that were published in the Arkansas Review in 2011 was the first time she’d come close to writing about her family history. “The validation of having them published gave me confidence that there was interest in the story I wanted to tell, and I think that really helped propel me forward when I started work on the novel,” she said.

She chose to tell “The Gods of Green County” through three different narrative voices—Coralee, Big Earl and Leroy Harrison, a composite character based on the lawyer who represented the sheriff who killed her great-uncle and a judge involved in her grandmother’s sanity hearing, created from Pope’s imagination for narrative purposes. While the basics of Coralee’s and Big Earl’s lives and their trajectories are similar to her grandparents, it is after Leroy becomes considerably involved with them that the events of their lives diverge into fiction.

Pope revealed that even though, or maybe because, Coralee was rooted in the reality of Delia’s life, she was often the hardest character to write.

“I wasn’t sure how to reveal the moments when she’s hallucinating and when she’s not,” she said. “In the end I decided to do what my family had to do when my grandmother told us something had happened and we didn’t know if it was true. We had to figure it out for ourselves. That’s what I decided to let the reader do as well.”

Along with the Beltie Prize nomination, “The Gods of Green County” has made “Best Books of Fall 21/Winter 22” in Deep South Magazine, and “Best Southern Books of October” in Southern Review of Books. Pope is also the author of “Divining Venus: Stories,” and her work has been featured in the literary magazines Arkansas Review, Florida Review, Bellingham Review, Ascent, Passages North, and Fugue, among others.

Pope with a photo of her grandmother, Delia, the basis for Coralee's character

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