BOOK REVIEW: 'Playing with Matches': Southern Dysfunction Beyond All Belief

Reviewed by David M. Kinchen

BOOK REVIEW: 'Playing with Matches': Southern Dysfunction Beyond All Belief
'Home is the place where, when you have to go there, They have to take you in.' --- Robert Frost, The Death of the Hired Man

There ought to be a law against the amount of dysfunction Clea Shine experiences in her life -- as described by Carolyn Wall in her second novel, "Playing with Matches" (Bantam Books trade paperback, an imprint of the Random House Publishing Group, 320 pages, $15.00).

Growing up in False River, in southern Mississippi, Clea June Shine was more or less abandoned by her mother, Clarice, who "sold" her to a neighboring black family headed by the warm-hearted "Auntie" Jerusha Lovemore. Clarice is earning her living as the town's party girl, entertaining guards from the local penitentiary, as well as "respectable" local men. Clea visits her mother from time to time, but basically her new family consists of the Lovemores, along with their friends. She discovers early on that she has a gift for reading and learning and has both good and bad experiences with her teacher, Miss Thorne, who quickly realizes that Clea is talented.

Fast forward to Chapter 22 (Page 134 ff). Clea is on the road back to False River, a place she vowed never to return to. Taking her young children Luz and Harry, Clea has decided to leave her house on Lilac Lane, damaged in a storm, and her college professor husband, Thomas Ryder. Clea has learned that he's been unfaithful to her with an attractive young student -- and it's probably not the first time. So she loads up her aging Honda and heads for False River.

I'm not going to reveal the tragedy that forced the teen-aged Clea to leave False River and, after many life-changing experiences, finally meet and marry Thomas. I'll leave that to readers who will enjoy peeling back the onion-like layers of Clea's life and discover the secrets she's been hiding from everybody. Complicating an already difficult period in her life is a Category 5 hurricane -- think Katrina -- that is moving inland from the Gulf of Mexico and which may devastate the low-lying community.

Carolyn Wall
Carolyn Wall

Readers of "Playing with Matches" will meet people that will remind many of William Faulkner's Mississippi Gothic characters. You'll meet a kid who lives in a tree house, and -- when Clea returns, is a recluse who doesn't want to talk about the past, including the time when the two teens rescued a boy who was living in the crawl space of his family's shotgun shack. Didn't I say these people are true Southern Gothic unforgettable characters?

Here's an excerpt:

If there’s help for the little guy — ­for my Harry, who won’t talk — ­it’ll be north on a green elbow of the slow-­moving Pearl River. But that’s the one place in the world I cannot go. It would mean the chicken circus, the boy who lived in the tree. The burning bed. Hell’s Farm and the curse of Millicent Poole.

Wherever we go, Thomas Ryder will come after us—­won’t he? I hope he’s frantic and sorry, and that he never finds us. But I’m waffling in my thinking. In this tiny motel room with the worn-­thin rug and the rusty washbasin, it’s been a long night. The storm has played out. I leave one candle burning.

But oh, God, Harry’s neediness points me upriver. It steers me home.

The candle sputters out. In the stifling dark of after-­storm, I kiss my children’s damp foreheads, and I pray for three things:

Jerusha will remember me.

She’ll do for my Harry.

And she’ll care for them both while I’m locked away.

Past Auntie’s place was a narrow field of weedy grass, and then the bony old house that belonged to my mama.

I, Clea Shine, was born in Mama’s kitchen — ­on the table, so as not to ruin the sheets upstairs — ­and I lived there for one hour and ten minutes. It took Mama that long to get down off the table, clean herself up, and step into her high heels. Then she carried me, in a wicker laundry basket, over to Jerusha’s.

I picture Mama wobbling off through the brown grass, wrapped in a sweater, for it was coming on winter.

Poor Auntie, as I came quickly to call Jerusha. I was chicken-­legged skinny and already howling for my dinner. She couldn’t have known beans about foundlings and such. And I was a handful.

About the Author

Carolyn Wall is an editor and lecturer and -- as an artist-in-residence -- she has taught creative writing to more than 4,000 children in Oklahoma, where she is at work on her third novel, "The Birdcage". In 2009 Random House published her debut novel, "Sweeping Up Glass." Like her character Clea Shine Ryder, Wall has conducted a prison-writer mentoring service. She is best known for her six-week classes: “How To Write What You Feel" and for motivating writers everywhere.
Wall served as the Fiction Editor for ByLine Magazine and Senior Staff Writer for Persimmon Hill, the award-winning publication of the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum. For three years, she was chief writer for the museum’s children’s magazine. Her website:

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