By Rheta Grimsley Johnson
NewSouth Books, 2010
Reviewed by Julia Oliver
A native of Colquitt, Georgia, Rheta Grimsley Johnson grew up in Montgomery and graduated from Auburn University, where she received the National Pacemaker Award while on the staff of The Auburn Plainsman. In the thirty-plus years since, her byline with the quirkily spelled first name has become a byword throughout the South and beyond. Johnson has been a reporter and columnist for The Commercial Appeal of Memphis, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and other regional newspapers. Currently, her column is syndicated by King Features of New York. Her many honors include being inducted into the Scripps Howard Newspapers Editorial Hall of Fame and the Ernie Pyle Memorial Award for human interest reporting.
The French noun "memoir" looks and sounds mysterious and inviting. It’s all but replaced the solid term "autobiography." Yet frequently, the most attention-getting books in this genre present a victim’s viewpoint of a life filled with horrific situations. That is not the case here. Enchanted Evening Barbie and the Second Coming is a testimonial of life as an optimistic, ambitious adventure from a spunky, greatly gifted and disciplined writer. It’s also a paean to a nurturing circle of family, lovers and friends, mentors and colleagues.
The project began in January 2009 as a Christmas book, because Johnson "needed to write a book that would sell, and Christmas books, funny books, generally do." The first few of the twenty-four titled chapter-stories adhere to that plan. The opener, "Rapture on Hold," is a recount of a time when Rheta Grimsley was a "good little Baptist" who asked God to postpone sending Jesus back until after Christmas. Essays of comforting, homespun philosophy contain trenchant observations such as "No bus runs as hot as a church bus" and "A moment of church tour voyeurism remains one of the sexiest moments in my life, though experienced from six seats away."
Johnson has some good memories of her youthful marriage to Jimmy Johnson, her Auburn classmate who eventually achieved fame as the creator of the popular syndicated comic strip Arlo & Janis. They were once partners in a newspaper-launching adventure on St. Simon’s Island, Georgia. They gave up on the startup paper, and eventually, on the marriage, though they remain friends.
Her tone becomes more deeply reflective and at times bittersweet, however, in the chapters that she wrote following the death of her husband, retired journalism professor Don Grierson, in March 2009. Feb 2010
Julia Oliver’s current project is a play, Juliette’s Journey, based on Mary Stanton’s book Journey Toward Justice: Juliette Hampton Morgan and the Montgomery Bus Boycott.