By: Frye Gaillard, Sheila Hagler, and Peggy Denniston
Reviewed by: John Sledge
The University of Alabama Press, 2008
Bosarge. Lyons. Morris. Reid. Wigfield. McCall. Simmons. Nguyen. Ngam. These are just some of the families of south Mobile County white, black, and Asian whose lives were impacted by Hurricane Katrina. Their stories, and the colorful, difficult history of the stretch of coast that they call home, are movingly presented in a new book, In the Path of the Storms: Bayou La Batre, Coden, and the Alabama Coast by Frye Gaillard, Sheila Hagler, and Peggy Denniston.
In a brief preface, Gaillard, writer in residence at the University of South Alabama and a Mobile native with deep roots, explains that he initially undertook this project as a paper for the Journal of American History, which had asked him to contribute to a Katrina-themed issue. Though New Orleans and the Mississippi Coast captured the most media attention during the disaster, the Journal didn’t want to exclude Alabama’s experience on the storm’s eastern edge. Gaillard’s initial forays into south Mobile County convinced him that there was much more to be told than a brief article could accommodate.
Despite his deep familiarity with the city of Mobile, Gaillard was relatively new to the county’s south end. He realized that if he was to penetrate this distinctive coastal community he needed a good guide, someone who had a fund of local lore and knowledge and the trust of the residents. He quickly discovered that he could do no better than Sheila Hagler and Peggy Denniston of Grand Bay, who are artists in residence with the Mobile County Public Schools. For years, photographer Hagler and writer Denniston have worked with area middle and high school children in documenting the culture of southern Mobile County.
The partnership of the three was a resounding success, as every page of their beautiful book demonstrates. Gaillard presents the sustained historical and descriptive narrative, while Hagler contributes her own pictures as well as those of her more talented students, and Denniston the youngsters’ sometimes painful poems and stories. Though Gaillard could have fairly easily related the area’s history and current events on his own, he references past authors like Julian Lee Rayford and [the Mobile Press-Register’s] recent reportage, and this would have been a lesser book without the offices of Hagler and Denniston.
The photographs are what first strike the reader from the elegiac cover shot to some two dozen others throughout the text and they are uniformly excellent. Especially moving is a two-page spread depicting four Vietnamese children holding hands on the dock as they wait for their father’s shrimp boat to return. Hagler positioned herself behind the youngsters, who are nattily attired in little print outfits, as they stare across a bright ribbon of water into the distance. Other pictures profile area personalities such as Nancy McCall, Elizabeth Sigler, Floyd Bosarge (recently deceased and to whom the book is in part dedicated), Rodney Lyons, and Dr. Regina Benjamin (a candidate for sainthood if there ever was one).
Gaillard makes no effort to gloss over the area’s sometimes bumpy human relations, including racial tensions and resentments in various permutations, Coden residents’ belief that their unincorporated community has been slighted in the resource allocations that have followed Katrina, and the social consequences of FEMA bumbling. Yet what emerges overall from these stories and pictures are the dogged resilience and determination of south Mobile County’s residents to hold on and rebuild come what may. Tensions aside, they have not hesitated to come to one another’s aid, whether it be through raging flood waters or after a motorcycle accident on the potholed Shell Belt Road.
Most recently, local residents have worried that their way of life will be wiped out, not by hurricanes but by the globalization that is gutting the local seafood trade and the high-end ersatz development plans that threaten to overwhelm the Bayou’s funky, genuine sense of place. But as residents surveyed their situation, Gaillard concludes, "Against all logic and reason, the hope remained that the Bayou culture—that battered self-reliance and its ties to the sea, which had served the people of the area so well— might be stubborn enough to survive." I’m not a betting man, but if I were, based on nothing more than the evidence of this fine book, I’d put money on it.
John Sledge is an architectural historian for the Mobile Historic Development Commission and Books editor for the Mobile Press-Register.
This review originally appeared in the Mobile Press-Register on Sunday, April 27, 2008.