I’m not smart enough to know how — or if — Rheta Grimsley Johnson will be remembered in American literature.
But I can say, at the very least, that the titles of her books do tend to stick in the mind. I didn’t think that Johnson could top the name of her 2010 memoir, “Enchanted Evening Barbie and the Second Coming.” But she has a contender with her new follow-up, “The Dogs Buried Over the Bridge.”
She’s talking about the departed canines interred around her farm, “an unremarkable place, a little more than a hundred acres of typical north Mississippi hardwoods and pines with a little pasture thrown in when the old Ford tractor is running well enough to beat back the brambles.”
Johnson often writes about her home, nicknamed Fishtrap Hollow, in her syndicated column about life in the South that appears in many places, including The Advocate’s Sunday editorial page.
“I named my home Fishtrap Hollow,” she tells readers of her new book, “because it sounded interesting, beguiling, even, and — no small matter, this — kept the exact location vague. Nothing messes up a lazy Sunday afternoon on the porch like some stranger, a fan of the column, arriving unannounced for a long visit, only to leave disappointed because you are ‘not as tall as you look in your mugshot,’ your bottle tree ‘isn’t the way I thought it would be,’ or an invitation to supper isn’t forthcoming.”
Johnson doesn’t travel as much as in the early days of her column, which she’s been writing more than 30 years. But Louisiana datelines still pop up in her writings pretty often. She’s filed pieces from New Orleans and Baton Rouge, and one of her books, “Poor Man’s Provence,” is about a second home she kept for a few years in Henderson, a small community near Lafayette.
She fell in love with Cajun culture, although she mentions in her new book that Acadiana “is an anachronistic place when it comes to segregating dogs.” Johnson likes dogs around the rooms of a house and is most at home in places where people feel the same way.
Her new book is a kind of extended valentine to the dogs she’s owned, which might sound cloying to readers who aren’t as gaga about mutts. But in a larger sense, “The Dogs Buried Over the Bridge” is about the fleetingness of time, a reality that Johnson’s dogs have helped her understand. Because our pets don’t live as long as we do, she suggests, they remind us that all life is touched by change.
“While I cherish my human friendships,” she writes, “I believe I’ve learned the most about life, how to lead a good one, from the dogs that have populated mine. Or maybe there’s no longer any way of separating the human and canine lives in my world, and the lessons overlap.”
Follow Danny Heitman on Twitter @Danny_Heitman.