Ask Foley author Kathie Farnell about the changes her native state has undergone, and they readily come to mind.
“Things are more homogenous now. We have a lot of chain stores. Everybody sees the same movies and there’s chain restaurants, so I think to some extent you may have lost a sense of place,” Farnell said.
Time’s sweep is on her mind these days with the publication of her first book, “Duck and Cover: A Nuclear Family.” Its series of vignettes us drawn from her Atomic Age childhood, a nexus of shifting cultural standards and historic perspectives.
Farnell will be at the West Regional Branch of the Mobile Public Library (5555 Grelot Road) on Tuesday, June 27, at 6:30 p.m. to discuss the comedic collection. A book signing will follow.
By her remembrance, Farnell’s youth was unusual for the time and place. For instance, both parents shared a law practice in an era when middle-class women didn’t normally work.
“We ate in the kitchen because our dining room table was covered with files and a typewriter so they could work when they were at home. A lot of the people my father defended were guilty, so he had a whole drawer full of murder weapons,” Farnell said.
Her cantankerous grandmother lived with them, a woman firmly stuck in her rural 1800s background. Granny had a chamber pot under the bed, a snuff can on the dresser and a hoe ready for the backyard. The elder got along with no one — son included — but her granddaughter Kathie.
“The neighborhood children didn’t like her because she would chase them out of the yard with a skillet, that sort of thing. So they would get up anti-Granny cheers, ‘Today is Friday, I wish it would rain, There goes Granny, Down the drain,’” Farnell recalled.
There was no love lost between Granny and the family maid, Libby, either.
“Libby would say, ‘I sure hope I ain’t here when ol’ Miss Farnell dies ‘cause the Devil is coming for her in person,’” Farnell said.
The pater familias’ position was hard-earned. A teenage hunting accident took his right arm and saved him from an impoverished fate.
“He couldn’t very well farm with one arm so he had to do something else. That’s why he first put himself through college and got a job teaching school and then put himself through law school,” Farnell said.
Her father inherited a little of his mom’s attitude. Angry outbursts were common.
“The [book] title is a play on words because in addition to the atom bomb drill, around our house you might have to cover up your head and duck away from my father,” Farnell said.
Though the setting is at a busy intersection of lifestyles, history and sociology, the stories are told through the eyes of a child. The book’s dry wit and laconic style fit such innocence, although the signs of the times and ironies are deeply buried without being obvious or insistent.
Take Farnell’s professional parents. They lived in Montgomery’s Cloverdale neighborhood, one of the capital city’s most notable suburbs, adjacent to the Montgomery Country Club.
“Both my parents were attorneys and if they’d lived some place other than Montgomery they might have been considered socially hot stuff, but in Montgomery it didn’t seem to matter too much what you did for a living, it was if your family was from there,” Farnell said.
So when a friend proudly told Kathie she could enjoy steak if she joined the pal at the country club, Farnell demurred. She said she didn’t like steak only because she didn’t know it.
“I’d seen country fried steak you had to beat with a hammer then you dumped it in flour and fried it, and that’s what I thought was on the menu. I didn’t know there was any other kind,” Farnell said.
The book concludes when she headed to Sidney Lanier High School in 1967. She later earned her bachelor’s at Montevallo, then graduated law school at Alabama.
She went on to work in the state attorney general’s office, then in energy and environmental law, then specialized in crafting appellate briefs. Some of Farnell’s work was instrumental in civil rights cases and in the highest courts at both state and federal levels.
Farnell changed careers again with a turn in public television and radio. Then came travel writing and now her first book. Amidst all the changes she’s witnessed, perhaps the book’s arrival is timely.
“Things are different but there’s been a renaissance for Southern cooking and writing, stuff like that,” Farnell said.
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