Book Review Archives

Fanning the Spark: A Memoir

By: Mary Ward Brown
Reviewed by: Norman McMillan
The University of Alabama Press, 2009
$24.95, Hardcover

In 1978, Mary Ward Brown attended a series of lectures at the University of Montevallo by the renowned mythologist Joseph Campbell. According to her new memoir Fanning the Spark, she was most taken with some advice he gave: “To fulfill one’s destiny, a person should follow his bliss.” The central bliss this memoir focuses on is the bliss of writing. However, Brown shows us how that particular bliss competes with many other blisses, such as the delights of family and motherhood, the pleasures of place and home, and the joys of books and reading. Too often, pursuing one bliss means scanting another, and that unresolved conflict takes its toll, sometimes in the form of guilt. Her final thought in her memoir: “I just hope to write one or two more stories before I leave this earth and, at the same time, be forgiven a few sins of omission while doing it.”

Fanning the Spark, written with the same precision and restraint that readers of her short stories have come to expect, begins by describing her childhood in Hamburg, Alabama, where her parents operated a country store and a large farm. Her father she remembers primarily for his efforts to provide for her, efforts that continue to provide for her livelihood even today. And she describes two much-older half brothers, whom she adored. Much more important as Brown writes of her childhood is her mother, a woman most admirable in her willingness to do the hard work of bookkeeping and keeping the store while supervising many household functions. She obviously faced some of the same pressure of conflicting obligations as her daughter would come to have, and Brown finds her one day sitting at her work table in the store doing accounts, tears streaming down her face. In retrospect, Brown knows that she was crying over having to neglect her young daughter. This mother would die of cancer when Brown was only eighteen, leaving her with strong feelings of guilt for not having been more attentive to her mother during her illness.

The memoir recounts her short courtship with Kirtley Brown, who was publicity director at Alabama Polytechnic Institute, a position she held at Judson College. After marrying in the Judson Chapel in 1939, she moved to Auburn with him, living after a while with Kirtley’s parents in Noble Hall, an antebellum home just outside town. This might appear romantic, but trouble began to brew in the sensitive psyche of Brown. She developed acute anxiety neurosis, for which she sought various treatments, including five electric shock treatments at the Touro Infirmary in New Orleans. But her problems did not come to an end. Even though she had rejected religion as a possible help, in desperation she began to read the four Gospels, and the practical results were amazing. She says that she realized that she had been asking, “Why don’t you understand me and make me happy?” Things began to improve when she changed the question to, “Why don’t I understand you and make you happy?” After that, she says, “. . .my neurosis began to leave like an evil spirit.”

When Brown’s father died, she inherited the house and much of the acreage in Hamburg, and after a while she and Kirtley moved there, becoming cattle farmers. In the following years, from time to time she made some efforts to follow her central bliss, even publishing stories during the fifties, but in the end she dropped serious efforts at writing for many years. The responsibilities of wife and mother simply overshadowed the bliss of writing. And she was indeed quite a good mother to Kirtley Ward, her only child. His feats at baseball thrilled her, and her letters to him at college and later at Vietnam reveal a concerned mother, but a very strong, unsentimental one. For example, without hesitation she repeats to him directions on where to shoot the enemy so as to render him incapable of doing damage while he is dying. This toughness, so evident in her stories, is seen throughout the memoir as she talks about matters of race and family and culture.

In her long life of almost ninety-two years, Brown has naturally lost many close to her, and the most painful was the early death of her husband in 1970. A fifty-three-year-old widow, she showed herself quite capable of carrying on despite her grief, and afterwards she began writing and publishing again. And the rest, as they say, is history. In her usual modesty, she describes winning the prestigious Hemingway/Penn Award and her subsequent trip to Russia with other writers as being her “fifteen minutes” of fame. But she certainly never lost her perspective, and events in Greensboro, Alabama, seem to loom as large for her as those in New York City or Moscow.

The book has some wonderful strokes of wit. In a journal passage that reminds me of Flannery O’Connor, for example, she tells of sharing the room at the hospital with an insufferable countrywoman whose impositions increasingly eat away at Brown’s reservoir of human charity. I wish that one would become a full-fledged story.

Fanning the Spark is nothing less than a joy to read. Brown is there in every image, in every opinion, in every description. The portrait that emerges is of a sensitive artist willing to work tirelessly in pursuit of excellence. We also discover a person who, while greatly respecting traditions that have shaped her, is always open to the new. I chuckled when she reported that she was offered a joint in a New York City loft (without reporting her answer), and I was, I must say, a little surprised that she even dabbled in transcendental meditation, which she decided in the end to give up and “go on suffering with Jesus.” Brown is today one of the most open and youthful nonagenarians I can conceive of. Fanning the Spark is a testament to that spirit. April 2009

Norman McMillan is author of the memoir Distant Son: An Alabama Boyhood and of the play Truman Capote: Against a Copper Sky. Most recently he has written the play Ashes of Roses, based on stories by Mary Ward Brown.