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Book Review: Miss Hildreth Wore Brown: Anecdotes of a Southern Belle by Olivia deBelle Byrd

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Q: What do you call a northerner who visits the south?

A: A Yankee

Q: What do you call a northerner who visits the south and stays?

A: A damn Yankee.

That joke loses its hilarity about the 10,000th time a Yankee hears  it. I moved from the Northeast to the Deep South ten years ago. Apparently everyone in Baton Rouge thinks that he or she will be the first person to tell this joke to a Yankee transplant. This could be the basis of the motto I wrote for that city, “Baton Rouge — where Southern hospitality is a thing of the past.”

I had misconceptions and stereotypical views of Louisiana when I moved down there. I confessed to one gentleman that the only things I knew about the state were Mardi Gras and malaria (I had seen Jezebel). His response: “My father had malaria.”  Okay, so maybe it wasn’t such a misconception…

So, as tragic as Hurricane Katrina was for a lot of Gulf Coast residents, it did me the favor of moving me out of the Deep South and into the Moderate South. Woo-hoo, as they say. I actually love the South, although I still don’t understand why Louisianans think the Civil War is still being fought, and they’re winning. It’s a “Southern thing,” y’all.

Olivia deBelle Byrd, bless her heart, explains and elaborates on a lot of Southern things in Miss Hildreth Wore Brown, a collection of anecdotes detailing what it’s like to be a certain kind of lady in the South. “Certain kind” because there really are a lot of different types of women in the South, just like the North. Hardly any of them are wearing hoop skirts, sitting on plantation porches, and sipping mint juleps. Hardly any.

One of the surprises in Miss Hildreth Wore Brown is the number of trips the author has taken to New York and Boston. Despite her visits, she doesn’t realize that some of the things she claims as Southern are true all across the USA.  For example, she writes of never wearing white to a wedding, a funeral, or after Labor Day (and for those unfamiliar with these fashion faux pas, white season begins on Memorial Day and runs through Labor Day. That’s why you see so many pairs of white capris and sandals on those two holidays).

Northern gals of a certain age were brought up with many of these strict values that are both illogical and difficult to shed. Totally shocking however is the fact that Byrd would wear black to a wedding. This gal of a certain age was taught not to wear black to a wedding because it indicates you are unhappy and equate the wedding with a funeral – -growing up, the only women I’d seen wearing black at weddings were widows, who never wore anything else.

Miss Hildreth Wore Brown is both a collection of stories about charmingly eccentric Southerners — mostly ladies — and a compilation of rants, mostly involving driving and children. Byrd discusses the things that are utmost priorities in her life — shoes, clothing, hair — and shares some of her experiences and fears concerning them.

She also tells us the three things a proper Southern female never discusses — sex, bodily functions, and money. My mother was from Hell’s Kitchen in Manhattan, yet she and her sister were very firm on those taboos (as well as religion and politics). To this day there are certain words describing bodily functions that I will not say — just thinking them makes me queasy.

As captivating as the stories in Miss Hildreth Wore Brown are, they do tend to reinforce some stereotypes, particularly the one about Southern women who are airheads only caring about the way they look and a collection of outdated social mores. I’m not sure what the Southern stereotype of Northern women is, but I know it involves volume and rudeness.  However, anyone who has been to a football game in the South, whether it’s LSU or the local high school, can attest to the boorishness some of the ladies display.

Byrd wisely avoids sports, and shares stories about shopping, special occasions, weddings, funerals, travel, Ivana Trump, and asparagus. Children, husbands, coffee, Robert Redford, beauty pageants, and Victoria’s Secret all show up on the pages of Miss Hildreth Wore Brown, accompanied by humorous details of Byrd’s dealings with them.

If you are a Southerner, you will enjoy the memories these stories evoke; if you’re a Northerner you will learn what some Southerners think of you, and it’s not always pretty. Personally, I know the difference between the North and the South. It’s shopping. The North offers more variety; the South offers better bargains.

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