Pipe Shop Letters

Dear Ms. McDowell,

I can't tell you how delighted I am that had the opportunity to spend an evening with you and your book last night. The book is interesting, inspiring, and informative. I hope that it is the beginning of a long, successful writing career. Congratulations...It was eerie that your Dad and mine died on the same date, Dec. 5, after working many years in a mill--my Dad, in a Celanese mill, from cancer, only three months after discovering he had it.

May God continue to bless you and enable you to prosper with your writing.

Dear Debbie,

I read your book, Leaving Pipe Shop, and liked it very much. I kept thinking as I read that it must have been very hard to write, hard because it confronts so much that is problematic or unresolved or just plain sad. It's a hard-to-categorize work: sociology, history, family history, personal (autobiographical) narrative, black female acculturation, etc. It's also both literary, in some respects, and non-literary--folklore-ist, dialect-capturing; poignant and humorous. Though you take yourself very seriously throughout, you avoid self-seriousness. For me this happens because of the implicit tribune and reverence with which you treat the main players other than yourself: Wiley, Grandma Edie, Auntee, Mother, Mama; and to a lesser extent Papa, Fred Jr., Gina, Mr. Lige, Daddy Frank, Bumbiddle, Reggie, Daddy Les, Crockett. Of the last, he comes close, although minor, to being a strong male avatar of soul of the qualities you celebrate throughout in your characterization of Mother (viola), the strongest female character, or presence, in the book.

I guess what I am saying is that for me the story is gripping and held interest, because, like good fiction, the characters and their various conflicts and complex relations with one another, and with you, were life-like and hence engaging--both predictable and not predictable. The revelation at the end, e.g. that Mother had a lover (or lovers) made her more human, but no less strong, no less resonantly ponderable as a good literary construct should be (and too few real life people are!) In addition to Mother and Crockett (whose presence though glancing is very strong), I think Wiley and your mother (esp. your mother toward the end) are very well done. Wiley is interesting--but conflicted: smart, sad, defeated by all sorts of things (esp. U.S. Pipe and Foundry), his failed attempt to be a tailor, his unhappy relations with your mother. But most of his simmering and brooding (and no doubt rage) are muted, only hinted at. You treat very sensitively his defeat by life; also your mother's sadness at his infidelities. You also treat your mother's expertise with a needle fascinatingly throughout. In its own quiet way her seamstressly competence is as impressive as Mother's more flamboyant and redoubtable force on others!

Okay, so this is your homage to and celebration of the past, people for you by so many other whom you treat as endearing and worthy of memorialization. But I came away wanting to know much more about you, your thoughts, your evolution from the 'Bama of your roots to your present mind-set and views and philosophy of life. Who are you, Debbie McDowell, or is it, as you see it, your role to give birth (or rebirth) to others and not tell of your own exfoliation and existential coming into being?

Perhaps, as your Author's Note at the end hints, you are reflecting the instincts of a novelist in Leaivng Pipe Shop, more than those of a biographer or autobiographer; still, in Leaving Purdue, or Leaving Waterville, or Leaving Charlottesville, I look forward to finding our more about what you think of all these wonderful characters herein resurrected contributed to what you became. As well as of course what in them that rubbed off on you growing up had to be overcome or repudiated or exorcised.

Anyway, don't mistake any of this for criticism: you do here a very convincing job of recalling in fine textured detailed the life of a girl and young woman surrounded by loving and strongly individuated (and for the most part very nice) people.


P.S. The sewing metaphor throughout for me is reminiscent of another fine autobiography I know--Sartor Resartus.

Dear Debbie,

I just finished spending 12 hours in bed with your book. I curled up, put music on the stereo, made hot lemonade with honey, and became an imagined member of the family. It was an engrossing, moving, and wonderful experience. So much more real than Skip's version.

I hope you make more than "chump change" on it, get lots of kudos and prizes, and letters from your adoring public. You deserve it. A caring a brave act of beautiful writing and openness.


You are so generous! The gift of your memoirs was absolutely wonderful. I sat down Sunday after Mass and did not put the book down 'til I finished. It was riveting--and so beautifully written. Now, girl, you have always had what we used to call "a felicitious style," but parts of this are downright lyrical...

Dear Debbie--

Fearing I won't soon get a chance to give you my congratulations in person, I'm writing to say what a joy it was to hear you read from Leaving Pipe Shop the other night!

Your storytelling is terrifically engaging and often moving and as part of your (enormous!) crowd I was completely entranced. Congratulations on this great literary debut, a so beautifully transgressing the bounds of academic writing, and a completing this wonderful book, which [we] will treasure.

Dear Debbie,

What a wonderful night! You even grabbed [ ] and that's no small feat with a 15 year old girl/woman. Debbie, your reading was magical. I went out, and I swear the night had more stars. Thanks for including us.

Dear Debbie,

I hesitate to put pen to paper. I am so aware of my lack of writing prowess after reading Leaving Pipe Shop. But I'd like to express the emotional involvement, the enjoyment, and the admiration I felt in a slightly more emphatic way than in a telephone cal..

Once begun I could hardly put it down, but not because I was racing to the end to find out what happened. One wanted to savor nearly every paragraph. Paul keeps telling me that I should write about my family, but when I see the skills in shaping and interweaving, the sensitivity to nuances of dialogue, and the clarity of memory you exhibited, I know his idea is as ridiculous as I've always thought it was--but you certainly make me regret my inability.

The thing that most impressed me was your handling of focus--from your childhood to the distance of today--from total involvement to cool analysis--through exasperation, identification, judgment, amusement to grief. As Mary Lee said it is truly a gift to the reader.

After your triumphant reading at Williams I heard only one demur. Someone mentioned their discomfort hearing anyone put down black strivings for middle class status. Reading the whole book, however, totally refutes anything of the sort.

The humor and the honesty of the book to me makes the respect and dignity and admiration you give to Pipe Shop people even more convincing and moving. I feel the book is not only a gift, but a service...

Dear Debbie,

I have just finish your book which I found moving in the same way that a particularly beautiful poem or piece of music moves me. It is beautifully written and remarkably well constructed. What particularly impressed me was the way in which the vignettes of the various members of your family provide the reader with a clear impression of what they are like and a subtly drawn account of your own life...

Dear Debbie,

Just a note to tell you how much I enjoyed reading "Leaving Pipe Shop" and to thank you for the insight and the colorful images as well as the pain you articulated.

Can you believe how many wasted conversations we all have avoiding the richness of who we really are?

Dear Deborah McDowell,

Thank you for sharing your memories of kin--I couldn't put it down and passed it on right away to a friend-writing to a writer has struck me dumb so I'll just say thanks......

Contribute your own reaction to Leaving Pipe Shop.

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