Sitting up with the storytellers of the South

suwtdjktI’m delighted to hear that a new edition has been published today (by Arcade, in the United States) of Sitting Up with the Dead, Pamela Petro’s account of her first trip to the southern United States, and her encounters with the great storytellers who live there. She travelled from the Atlantic seaboard across the high country of Appalachia to the Gulf Coast, seeking out people who were keeping alive the narrative tradition and saying to them, “Tell me your tales.”

“Two covers, a spine, and a few hundred pages,” she writes in the prologue, “do not have nearly as much personality as living, cussing, dancing, spitting, smoking, eating, drinking humans.” She’s too modest: turn her pages and you’re with her on the journey — which is why I was so keen to buy an extract for The Daily Telegraph when the book first appeared in Britain in 2001.

The new edition has a foreword from Jimmy Neil Smith, founder of the National Storytelling Festival. It also has a plug on the cover from Paul Theroux, who recently travelled to the same part of the country for his own book, Deep South: “The origins of Southern literature are its folktales and local stories,” he says, “and the South is full of storytellers. Pamela Petro has found the best of them. This book is both important as scholarship and great fun as a trip.”

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