This deeply felt memoir is a journey through family history, feminist insight, and southern mythology. In it a daughter reflects on the complicated and volatile love she and her father shared. Shirley Jean Abbott grew up in Hot Springs, Arkansas, in the 1940s and 50s and was the beloved daughter of Alfred Bemont Abbott, affectionately known as “Hat.” Hat wasn’t a bookmaker in the literary sense, even though he allowed Shirley’s mother to believe as much while they were dating. Rather, his craft was gambling, and his business was horse racing.
Despite the corruption, which put food on the table and rabbit coats in the closet, Abbott remembers the kind and attentive father who spent nights reading to her. He alone is responsible for opening the door to a world of language and literature for her. And she ran with it. Against her father’s wishes, after graduation she headed for New York City. In the end, the girl he had nurtured into an independent and intelligent young woman had outgrown the small town where she grew up. The Bookmaker’s Daughter was originally published by Ticknor and Fields in 1992 and was a Book of the Month Club selection.
A classic that has been in print since its first publication in 1983, Womenfolks is both a personal memoir and a meditation on the often pernicious mythologies of southern cultural history. Shirley Abbott gives us the gritty, independent women of the backwoods, the South’s true heroines, whose hardscrabble world is one of red dirt and hard work—a far cry from the hoopskirts and magnolias of southern lore. As honest, vibrant, and remarkable as the women whose stories illuminate these pages, Womenfolks draws a vivid portrait of a rural culture beset by poverty and sustained by deeply rooted traditions. In her new preface to this edition, Abbott assesses what has changed—and what may never change—about the burdens of southern history and expresses her hope that the better angels of our nature may prevail in our still-new century.