Picks and Pans Review: Womenfolks

updated 03/14/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/14/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Shirley Abbott

One of the great mysteries of life for many innocent males below the Mason-Dixon line is how a Southern belle is created. This marvelous book, which does a lot of other things besides, answers that question brilliantly. "As she set out," writes Abbott of "Margaret Anne," her composite heroine, "she had the first necessity of her trade well in hand—not her beauty, which was marginal, but the understanding that her first job in life was to attract boys." When Margaret Anne marries the football hero of her choice, she continues the pattern she had set as a teenager. When she cooks, "she makes silly things: salads with canned fruit and miniature marshmallows and shredded coconut in them.... Her basic principle is that nothing should look like what it is, and the compliment she most wants to hear is that 'it looks too pretty to eat.' " Abbott, a former editor of Horizon who grew up in Little Rock, Ark. in the 1940s and now lives on Long Island, has written this book to examine her past. She tries, with the help of an ancient aunt, to trace their ancestors back to their arrival on these shores, through the disastrous Civil War, dirt poverty, and intermarrying with Indians who then were driven West. The theme is that these Southern women were tough, smart and independent, and that the belle syndrome grew out of a romantic tradition which put women on a pedestal—even when they had to work like slaves. Abbott is convincing, and Womenfolks is charmingly written. It's also impossible not to want to read choice sections out loud to a friend. (Ticknor & Fields, $13.95)

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