It’s rare that I read a book that leaves me feeling like Catfish Alley: simultaneously a bit raw and heartbroken; joyful and hopeful. I couldn’t immediately talk about it, and even now, I’m sure I’m not doing justice to this amazing, wonderful story.

Set in the mid 2000’s in a fictional Clarksville, Mississippi, Lynne Bryant’s Catfish Alley tells the story of Roxanne Reeves and Grace Clark. Roxanne has clawed her way into her small town social strata, hiding her poor Cajun upbrining. As she’s preparing to lead the annual tour of antebellum homes, a newcomer suggests including prominent places of  local African American history in the tour. Roxanne teams with a reluctant Grace Clark, an elderly black woman and lifelong resident of Clarksville, to learn more of the African American history of the town. Grace and her friends take Roxanne back to the pivotal year of  1931 as they relay their history. As Roxanne learns more about the local history, her own life changes in previously unimaginable ways.

At first glance, Catfish Alley will garner comparisons to The Help. But the more accurate comparison, to me, is To Kill A Mockingbird.  The book’s examination of race, especially in the context of small southern towns,  is painfully honest. Roxanne’s initial reactions  to her first real exposure to  African American culture are not unlike things I have heard throughout my life. The shameful history of the deep south is unflinchingly revealed here with a storyline interweaving the Klan and lynchings- things that even now people prefer to brush under the rug of history, preferring instead hoop-skirted tours of old plantations.

At the same time, the rich culture of the African American community  is examined more broadly than in The Help. Not everyone simply works for the whites in town. Catfish Alley has a black doctor. Grace attends a teaching college and teaches for years. Adelle, Grace’s best friend, is a nurse. That being said, the book in no way glosses over the racial struggle that is in many ways still not over.  The lives of Grace and the people in her community were marked with discrimination and tragedy.

Yet, there’s a pervasive sense of joy with Grace and her community, too.  The love between Grace and Adelle and their friend Mattie is almost palpable.  Despite the tragedy and sadness in their lives, they choose to see the joy and love in life as well.  As she learns more about her new friends, Roxanne discovers what really matters in life, and allows her to fundamentally change her life.

In her author’s note, Lynne Bryant remarks that it wasn’t until years after she left Mississippi for graduate school that she realized that “my whiteness was accompanied by privilege whether I chose to exploit it or not.” I think that is an incredibly honest statement to make, and more than one reader will identify with it.

Catfish Alley left me speechless, and I urge you to read it. Now.