Anyone can be a Cracker Queen, Lauretta Hannon says. You don’t have to be a Southern woman from the bad part of town. You don’t need to have grown up with alcoholic, brawling parents living in a doublewide. All you need is a Willingness. To. Whup. Some. Ass.
But first, there’s the story of how Hannon got there. You may have first heard her on NPR’s “All Things Considered” or on Georgia Public Broadcasting’s “Georgia Gazette,” when she debuted with folksy Southern chats about her mac n’ cheese n’ sugar-eating neighbors, dogfighting in Savannah, and tossing cigarettes out of the car to roadside chain gangs in Warner Robins.
Now her stories are collected in one volume due out this month, suitably titled The Cracker Queen (Gotham Books/Penguin; $24; 221 pages). There’s even a section of homey advice at the end of the book about how to become a Cracker Queen—or sharpen your skills if you’re already on your way—so that you can turn into “both the life of the party and the reason why the police have to be called.”
In the spirit of the Sweet Potato Queens and Atlanta author Hollis Gillespie’s books, Hannon chronicles two generations of coming up hard.
The series of recollections would have more in common with Erskine Caldwell or Dorothy Allison if Hannon did grim and sad. She doesn’t. Just funny, poignant tales of searching for the heart of poverty, spousal abuse and credit-card fraud. Whether she’s recalling her parents’ drunken brawls or her 6-year-old desperation to keep a nosy social worker ignorant of the truth, Hannon maintains a sunny outlook and seems reluctant to linger too long on any of the sordid details.
Chapters such as “Breakdown” offer compelling evidence, though, that she makes her escape from “hardship and hard living” look easier than it was. After a drinking binge so intense her mother “loses” their house one night, Mama ultimately ends up in a psychiatric ward. With typical aplomb, she makes the most of her stay and fellow patients: “She entertained us later with impressions and stories of their bizarre behaviors, as if she were just an undercover reporter there on assignment.”
In a chapter devoted to her father, called “Riding High and Shirtless,” Hannon tells how she protected her dad from her mother’s fury one day by covering his sleeping body with her own. Regardless of his drinking, Hannon worshipped her father, a sort of Hank Williams with Buddhist tendencies. The hours she spent in his ham-radio shack, getting tutored in Morse Code and listening to jazz, are among the best descriptions in the book.
Some of her remembered past shoots by a little too fast, like a wreck seen from the window of a moving car. But whenever Hannon fills out the scene, it will either leave you laughing out loud—as in the pilgrimage to see the last “Wizard of Oz” Munchkin, where there was an identity mix-up—or break your heart. Or both. On a visit to her aunt’s house in Washington, Hannon discovered “a world I’d never known existed,” where people ate fresh vegetables for dinner, had cocktails but “didn’t turn into mean drunks,” and where “plastic never appeared at the table. This astounded me because everything in our kitchen was plastic. Poor people and plastic just go together.”
Her more fortunate relatives left a lasting impression on Hannon, who credits them with why she was able to imagine a better life for herself. But for the most part, it’s the core of her immediate family’s shirtless, hair-in-curlers, gun-waving, knife-wielding ways that somehow provided the necessary strength for her to find “the path to Queenly Glory.”
It can be yours, as well. Hannon stresses the value of the lessons she learned, tending toward a positive-but-hardnosed outlook: “Victims Ain’t Us” and “Outlaw Virtues” are just a few subheads from the advice portion of the book.
At times, Hannon seems to suggest, short of making crystal meth in your living room, every redneck, white-trash, illegal survival skill has a meaningful kernel that can be parlayed into self-realization.
On the whole, her philosophy could be summed up in this one gem: “Queens recognize that beauty lies in the broken and imperfect.” Her journey to spin gold from straw began in a bar that she compares to a church for its restorative powers. In “Pinkie’s Is Closed on Sundays,” Hannon writes about how the bar “served up a profane spirituality” that helped her take stock of what she valued most in life—fearlessness, authenticity, humor, love, forgiveness, thankfulness and purpose. “I realized that everything good flowed from those, and when they were missing, so was your joy.”
The Cracker Queen, like Pinkie’s, delivers all those, plus some of that same irreverent spirituality.