Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Katherine Tucker Windham

Katherine Tucker Windham, a historian and storyteller, passed way this Sunday. She was known for collecting and preserving southern folklore, especially in her book 13 Alabama Ghosts and Jeffery and its sequels. While most people outside the south have never even heard of Katherine Tucker Windham, I can't imagine what growing up in Alabama would be like without her.

Windham was born in 1918 in Selma, Alabama. She started writing when she was 12, reviewing movies for her uncle's small paper, The Thomasville Times. After college, she went to work from the Alabama Journal, becoming one of the first female police reporters in the country.

In 1966, Windham moved into a house haunted by a ghost they named Jeffery. According to her family, Jeffery could be heard walking around seemingly empty rooms and occasionally moved object around. Windham became interested in other hauntings and eventually wrote her first book, 13 Alabama Ghosts and Jeffery, collecting ghost stories from around the state. It became a hit and was followed by 13 Georgia Ghosts and Jeffery, 13 Mississippi Ghosts and Jeffrey, Jeffery Introduces 13 More Southern Ghosts, and several others.

I'm a writer, one who dwells on ghosts and creepy things, so maybe it's no surprise that I still remember my school library's oversized edition of 13 Alabama Ghosts with its heavy-duty, avocado green cover. But it needed that heavy-duty cover because it was in near-constant circulation, passed from student to student, poured over and whispered about.

The books were so popular partially because Windham knew how to tell a great story. A good ghost story is really a romance gone wrong or a a tragedy about justice denied or a harrowing war story. The ghosts and creepy things just highlight the human emotions underneath. But the books were also popular because they were about the people and places around us. The language and character types Windham wrote about were familiar; we could bring them to mind instantly. The cities where her stories took place--Courtland, Newton, Mobile--were places just down the road, places where we shopped or visited family. Reading the sorted, bloody history of your own small corner of the world brings a deep-in-the-bone thrill like nothing else.

Katherine Tucker Windham was a treasure house of stories and a vital link to the past. It hurts that she's gone. The world is a less amazing place without her.

(Cross-posted on my blog.)

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