With Spare and Powerful Prose, Mary Ward Brown Joins the Southern Literary Tradition

updated 09/07/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/07/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Take a left at the country store," says Mary Ward Brown. "After about eight miles you'll come to a place where the fences look different. Take the paved road past the pastures until you come to my soybean fields." Brown has lived in the same house for most of her 70 years and until recently, she hasn't had much cause to tell city folk how to find her 1,500-acre farm in the heart of Alabama's fertile black belt. Yet since the publication of her first book a year ago, an increasing number of journalists, publishing types and just plain admirers have found their way to Brown's door.

Tongues of Flame(E.P. Dutton/Seymour Lawrence, $15.95), which consists of 11 vignettes of life in the Deep South, has met with an acclaim surprising for a first book from an unknown author, and a septuagenarian at that. Critics have likened Brown's slim volume to the work of writers like Flannery O'Connor, Eudora Welty and William Faulkner. In May PEN, the literary society, gave Brown its prestigious Ernest Hemingway Foundation Award for the best first work of fiction. "Profound, compassionate and unflinchingly honest," reads the citation. Last month Tongues came out in paperback. Those rights went for $15,000, which isn't exactly in the Stephen King league, but still will buy a lot of seed for a farmer's widow. Bemused by the hoopla, Brown says quietly, "I look at other people my age and think, 'Why did this good thing happen to me?' "

Why indeed? Perhaps because, in prose as pure as branch water, Mary Ward Brown captures the complex changes in the new South. She writes of ordinary folks, black and white, caught in commonplace dilemmas, with a clarity that makes them startlingly real. Plump Dovey Goodwin tries to save a country church, spare Ella Hogue calls for the alcoholic doctor in her last sickness, a widowed judge finds hope in a budding amaryllis plant. "I get letters from readers all over saying they know these people," says Brown of her fictional characters. "But they are no one I really know. They are a little bit of everybody, here, there and yonder."

Take Miss Emma. A widow, she is "outwardly thin and frail, but her eyes might have belonged to a veteran of some long, major war." For years Miss Emma and her sons toiled to pay off debts left by her mean-spirited farmer-husband. When she's finally free and clear, she decides to buy a tombstone for his grave, then learns that he had kept a mistress in town for years. Jolted at first, Miss Emma finds unexpected solace in the news. She's the survivor in neat, black oxfords and gold-rimmed glasses.

"I'm a Miss Emma in a way," says Brown, whose own footwear runs to stylish open-toe pumps. "I live alone in the country. Like Madame Bovary, c'est moi. Except that I didn't feel that way about my husband."

The white wood-and-shingle house Brown lives in is her childhood home. Built by her father, it has an interior of impregnable heart of pine. No trace remains of the plantation buildings, the store, the saw mill, the grist mill and the cotton gin that once surrounded it. Rooms are furnished with Victorian antiques and overflow with books.

Mary Ward went to Judson, a small Baptist women's college in Marion, just six miles up the road from her home. After graduation she took a job as Judson's publicity director. In 1939 she married Charles Kirtley Brown, 14 years her senior and publicity director at Auburn University. After seven years at Auburn, they moved with their young son back to the land that Mary's father had left her.

For six years during the '50s Brown wrote. She was good enough to be taken on by a New York agent, and a few of her short stories appeared in literary magazines. Still, it was a difficult time. "I didn't want to mortgage the land," recalls Brown, "so we did without things. We never went anywhere. I was upstairs trying to write fiction, and Kirtley was trying to run this awful farm. My conscience hurt all the time." So she stopped writing. "I knew something important was missing from my life," she says of the years she spent as a full-time wife and mother, "but I also knew that something more important was in it. You don't give up any more than you get."

In 1970 all the debts were paid and the land leased at a price that afforded them a comfortable living when Kirtley Brown died. Mary learned to manage the business. She also took a job as a secretary in Marion before she realized she wanted to write again. Fortunately, her New York agent was still in business and encouraged her efforts. In 1978 a short story appeared in McCall's. Brown was 61.

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that there are no second acts in American lives, but for Brown the curtain had gone up. Turning aside any thoughts of remarriage, she wrote constantly. Since 1980 she has had eight stories published in literary magazines; these stories form the core of Tongues of Flame.

Initially tickled by the attention paid to her book, Brown now zealously guards her privacy. Although cordial to visitors and diligent in answering the fan letters that jam her rural mailbox, she routinely turns down invitations to speak or give readings. Any loneliness is assuaged by visits with son Kirtley, 44, a lawyer in Marion.

Marion (pop. 4,685) is a place of raw redbrick churches and more than a dozen columned antebellum houses, of rooms where bleached flour sacks edged in coarse lace lie across bureaus and where chinaberries yellow in the fall. Marion is to Brown what Yoknapatawpha County was to Faulkner.

On a recent drive down Marion's main street, Brown points out a number of empty storefronts. "White businesses are moving out," she says. "We're in the midst of a social revolution. Nobody knows where it's going, or how to act, or what to do. I don't know what's going to happen. Having perspective doesn't help me see into the future." But as long as she is able, Brown plans to chronicle what happens to her people, the Doveys and the Ellas and the Miss Emmas. Especially the Miss Emmas.

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