One on One: Kudzu vines wrap around a great story

Published 11:47 am Wednesday, December 20, 2023

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By D.G. Martin


It’s a word. It is a plant. Something that will perk up North Carolinians when they hear that word.

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In one sense it is a bad word in North Carolina because it reminds us of the fields and fields of otherwise good farmland taken over by an exploding mob of plants. We see telephone poles and lines covered with that plant taking over everything everywhere.

But it also brings welcome memories of the late Doug Marlette’s comic strip named “Kudzu” and set in rural North Carolina and was itself the inspiration for a musical named “Kudzu” which featured the music of legendary Bland Simpson and the Red Clay Ramblers and was performed by them with enthusiasm.

Now there is another creative work that features our history with the kudzu plant.

“The Kudzu Queen” is the debut novel of Mimi Herman and is set in rural North Carolina in the early 1940s. It was a time when representatives of the U.S. Government scoured the countrysides to encourage farmers to plant kudzu as a crop.

Herman explained to me recently this background about kudzu in the early 1940s: “The government saw kudzu as being the savior plant. So, it was a plant that we could plant to prevent erosion. Think about the time right around the Dust Bowl. And people were looking for erosion preventatives. Also, we’re just past, the Great Depression.

“And here’s a plant that literally grew a foot in 24 hours. What better thing to feed your animals and your family? And there was all this stuff you could do with it. I mean, you could cook it, you could make things out of it, you could make baskets, you could make clothes out of it. It was a headache cure. It was a heart attack cure. Kudzu was an alcoholism cure.”

In this special kudzu time Herman builds her story.

There is a popular adage that says there are only two plots in all literature: “You go on a journey, or the stranger comes to town.”

In Herman’s novel the stranger is James T. Cullowee who arrives in Cooper County, North Carolina, in a green Chevy truck loaded with kudzu plants. He is charming and full of plans to promote kudzu planting.

Herman writes, “We watched him drive down Main Street, the crowd parting to let him pass. As his truck diminished in the distance, even the dust that rose behind him seemed magical, lightly tinged with green and gleaming with hope.”

Fifteen-year-old Mattie Lee Watson, the story’s narrator, is immediately charmed by Cullowee, who becomes known as the Kudzu King. When he plans a kudzu festival with a beauty contest and a Kudzu Queen, she aspires to win that crown.

Mattie’s family, including her wise and kind parents and two brothers, are respected in the community and provide a solid base for Mattie’s dealings with her friends and fellow contestants in the Kudzu Queen contest and her crush on Mr. Cullowee.

Mattie’s best friend, Lynette Johnson, and her troubled and poor family live next door. They provide a connection to the challenges knocking down poor farm families at every turn. Lynette’s mother is ill, and her father is a drunkard. For some reason the Johnsons invite Mr. Cullowee to stay with them. But when Mrs. Johnson dies, Mr. Cullowee moves in with Mattie’s family.

Another of Mattie’s friends, Rose, lives nearby in a sharecropper family on land owned by Mattie’s father. When they were younger, Rose and Mattie were best friends. But Rose, being black, was assigned to a separate school, and their friendship faded. However, as Mattie struggled with the pressures of the Kudzu Queen contest and her mixed feelings toward Mr. Cullowee, Rose is there to provide wise advice and support.

Even without the Kudzu King and the festival contest to drive the action, Herman’s story of Mattie’s growing up and struggles of farm life would be a welcome learning gift to North Carolina readers – especially as we remember the tenacious presence of the kudzu vine in our landscape.

D.G. Martin, a retired lawyer, served as UNC-System’s vice president for public affairs and hosted PBS-NC’s North Carolina Bookwatch.