A Place Called Wiregrass Summary
Victimized by an abusive father who battered his mother, Michael Morris trusted his religious faith during his childhood to help him survive spiritually. For his first novel, he appropriated those experiences to create his protagonist, Erma Lee, and depict her awakening and transformation from a person who sees herself as an unworthy, abused wife to one who values her family, friends, and community. Erma Lee initiates her spiritual transformation by escaping from her unfaithful, violent husband, Bozell Jacobs, and her emotionally cold Mama. Abandoning her tedious factory job in Cross City, Louisiana, Erma Lee drives with her granddaughter Cher, of whom she has custody, to Wiregrass, Alabama, the hometown of their cousin Lucille, who once bragged at a family reunion that plentiful, well-paying jobs were available in that town.
When Erma Lee and Cher arrive in Wiregrass, they discover that their cousin distorted the truth but are nevertheless determined to stay. Erma Lee enrolls Cher in school and rents a furnished mobile home at the Westgate Trailer Park, owned by the nosy Miss Trellis. A high school dropout, Erma Lee secures a job in the Barton Elementary School cafeteria, stretching her small paychecks to buy groceries and pay expenses. Erma Lee worries about how she will be able to support Cher throughout the upcoming summer. The school’s principal, Patricia Murray, asks Erma Lee to tend to her sickly mother, Miss Claudia Tyler, during the Easter vacation.
When she sees Miss Claudia’s elaborate house, Erma Lee, feeling ashamed of her background, pessimistically assumes that the wealthy Miss Claudia, the widow of a local store owner, will reject her. Instead, she is surprised when Miss Claudia embraces her, urging Erma Lee to read her Bible and discuss religious issues. Meeting finely dressed churchwomen who visit the ailing Miss Claudia, self-conscious Erma Lee feels insecure and flawed, comparing herself to them and fretting that she will be fired. Evasive about her past, Erma Lee hides her secrets, lying that her daughter Suzette is hospitalized for a mental condition instead of admitting the truth, that she is incarcerated in prison for dealing drugs and abandoning Cher.
Erma Lee and Cher attend Easter services with Miss Claudia at her friend Missoura’s Bethel AME Church, a black congregation that unconditionally accepts the white women’s presence, praising and blessing them. Miss Claudia’s minister, the Reverend Winters, and many of the First Methodist Church’s members seem preoccupied with material rather than spiritual wealth, considering attending services a duty rather than a spiritual opportunity. An elderly man chastises the Reverend Winters and the congregation for ignoring him and others in need.
After Erma Lee’s car breaks down, she meets mechanic Gerald Peterson, a widower, who encourages her to attend his church and participate in community events. She accompanies Gerald to Wiregrass Community Church, a nondenominational group, where the minister, Lee Avery, preaches about his flaws and how he befriended God, who forgave him. Church, Avery notes, is not for perfect people but a place to fix problems. Inspired by Avery’s words, Erma seeks the peace he describes, asking God for help. She feels compelled to be baptized again, recalling how when she was a child her Aunt Stella took her to vacation Bible school at the Antioch Missionary Church, where Erma Lee memorized Bible verses and was saved, receiving a Bible stamped with her name. She stopped worshiping because she heard the minister and a church member pity her for being poor. Later, Gerald welcomes Erma Lee to a secluded, Edenic area of his farm, a spot he considers his emotional sanctuary, referring to it as paradise. Erma Lee realizes she can trust and perhaps love Gerald.
As her friendship with Miss Claudia deepens, Erma Lee experiences unconditional acceptance and love. A former seamstress, Miss Claudia makes exquisite clothes for Erma Lee and Cher to wear on special occasions. Her friendship gives Erma Lee courage to divorce her husband. Erma Lee begins to respect herself and feels like she belongs in Wiregrass. Miss Claudia’s generosity extends beyond material items; she gives Erma Lee her trust, revealing that she also was a battered wife and telling Erma Lee about how Missoura and her husband aided Miss Claudia’s escape from her abusive first husband.
Although Cher does well in school, especially in mathematics, she longs to be reunited with her father, LaRue Rouche, whom she cannot remember because he left when she was a toddler. Cher keeps a photograph of her parents underneath her pillow and furtively calls her father. Erma Lee discourages Cher from seeking a relationship with LaRue, refraining from telling Cher the truth about her parents. Defying her grandmother’s wishes, Cher runs away with her father. Financially aided by Miss Claudia, Gerald accompanies Erma Lee to rescue Cher, whom LaRue has exploited to acquire money for heroin.
The theme of rescue continues in Miss Claudia’s efforts to establish a shelter for battered women in Wiregrass. Privately battling leukemia, Miss Claudia confronts public opposition and denial of that social problem from members of her church, who she had expected would support her efforts. Erma Lee protects Miss Claudia’s health secret and nurses her as she declines. After Miss Claudia’s death, Erma Lee and Missoura start a shelter in an empty grocery store, vowing to continue Miss Claudia’s legacy of generously giving love to people in need.
Sources for Further Study
Dixon, Joyce. “A Q&A with Michael Morris.” In A Place Called Wiregrass. San Francisco, Calif.: HarperCollins, 2004. Transcription of interview, originally posted on the Southern Scribe Web site, that relates Morris’s experiences with religion and how he expresses faith through his fiction.
Hilliard, Juli Cragg. “Michael Morris: Writing at Last.” Publishers Weekly 250, no. 37 (September 15, 2003): S10. This profile discusses new Christian books written by four authors, noting how Morris’s religious views influenced his writing.
McGregory, Jerrilyn. Wiregrass Country. With material by Jerry DeVine, Delma E. Presley, and Henry Willett. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1997. This volume in the Folklore in the South series explores cultural aspects of the Wiregrass region, including music, community activities, and storytelling; provides insights into the characters and situations in Morris’s book.
Summer, Bob. “Wiregrass Springs up Fast.” Publishers Weekly 249, no. 23 (June 10, 2002): 19. Discusses why Morris’s novel was marketed as Christian fiction despite his assertion that he did not write it specifically for a Christian audience.