A Farmer's Tales

updated 07/19/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/19/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

CLAD IN SCRUFFY JEANS AND HIGH-TOPS, Dori Sanders is tramping around her family's South Carolina farm, chattering to a visitor about its wonders. "Hey, baby!" she says, caressing the pale fruit of a peach tree. "Look how beautifully these babies are doing!" She points out the okra, a reliable moneymaker for most of the 50-plus seasons she has worked these fields. Scooping up a handful of soil, she fingers it reverently. "Oh, yes, this is wonderful dirt, yes, it is," she says. Then, addressing the landscape: "Would you believe, children, that Dori Sanders has a literary agent on Park Avenue in New York City?"

It's true—and by no means her most remarkable achievement. Three years ago, Sanders, who judges her age to be "60-odd," surprised the publishing world with a lyrical debut novel, Clover. The tale of a black farm girl growing up with a while stepmother, it impressed reviewers, landed on bestseller lists and was optioned for the movies by Disney. Now Sanders' second novel, Her Own Place (Algonquin), the story of a black South Carolina woman raising five children and running a farm on her own, is proving Clover wasn't just beginner's luck. "With Ms. Sanders' generosity of spirit and surety of step," said the Dallas Morning-News, "we would gladly follow wherever she led." Says Sanders: "Oh, yes, the reviews have been unbelievable. They arrive in a packet at the end of the day, and I won't read them because I want to sleep that night. In the morning I'm sorry I waited."

It's all a bit overwhelming for a woman who, she says, "never finished anything except the farming season. I was one of the underachievers in the family." She was also one of its most popular storytellers. While growing up on the same Filbert, S.C., farm she calls home today, Dori and her nine brothers and sisters would gather regularly at their favorite rock to spin fantasies. "My stories always ended happily," says Dori, who believes her pre-integration upbringing was "privileged. The farm right over there belonged to a white farmer, and all. I know is, if a storm were coming and we were finished with our work, we'd be over there helping him, and he'd do the same for us."

Her father, a school principal as well as a farmer, made sure his brood read when they weren't milking cows. "He loved words,'' says Dori. "His world always seemed more interesting to me than my mother's cooking and cleaning world." Yet Dori, an indifferent student, put in less than a year at the local community college before dropping out to work on the farm with her parents and later with her brother Orestus, now 64. (An early marriage, which she will not discuss, ended in divorce.) "All my friends moved away," she says, "but I never could leave, hard as it gets."

When it got too hard, she took odd jobs in the off-season. It was her boss at the Best Western State Inn in Camp Springs, Md., where she worked in the banquet hall in the 1980s, who noticed her literary flair. Coming upon some thoughts Sanders had scribbled on napkins and bits of paper, she urged her to try writing. ("I've always written down my observations and things people say—I just can't help myself," says Sanders.) Her first effort, a novel about sharecroppers, was judged "too melodramatic" by the editors at Algonquin, "but they said they saw a freshness in the way I wrote," says Sanders. For Clover, she stuck closer to what she knew—the farm life of her own childhood—and the editors were delighted.

Now that she has made her mark (and enough money to keep her in high clover for years), Sanders, who writes mostly in the off-season, could think about an easier life. "I still wake up at 4 and go to bed with the sun," she says. "The farm will really wipe you out." But she loves the camaraderie she feels with other farmers, and she'd miss the planting and the selling of her wares—which has grown more interesting of late. "People have started to come to our stand saying they were wanting some peaches but were really hoping to get a glimpse of the author," she says. "They ask me if she ever comes here, and when I say, 'You're looking at her,' their mouths fall wide open." Dori Sanders, underachiever, likes that just fine.


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