Andrea Bobotis grew up in Greenville, South Carolina with family stories abundant in murder, mystery and intrigue. But it wasn’t until she became an adult that she realized those stories would also make for a great book. Her resulting debut novel, The Last List of Miss Judith Kratt, is not only an homage to those memories but also to her roots of growing up in a small, southern town.
For me, the attraction to this book lay in the promise of a story that not only wrestled the topics of inheritance and loyalty but also examined an era when prosperity and oppression worked hand in hand in many southern towns. I couldn’t wait to dig in!
The almost century-long saga of the Kratt family, and their intimate connection to the small cotton town of Bound, South Carolina, is at the heart of this book. Readers will meet Daddy Kratt, a sharp, cunning, short-tempered entrepreneur who built his cotton empire out of sheer determination and not much else, along with his timid and quiet wife Rosemarie and their three children: Judith, Quincy, and Rosemarie (named after her mama).
The siblings share little else in common other than the family last name – Judith, the natural-born leader, struggles to find her place in a male-dominated world while Quincy deals in town gossip and blackmail, and little Rosemarie enjoys being spoiled as the baby of the family. Contrasting the privileged upbringing of the Kratts are their hired help – Olva, Charlie, and others, who clearly didn’t share the same opportunities in a south still divided by the color of one’s skin.
We begin in May of 1989 when a solitary train horn stirs up an old memory for our 75-year-old narrator, Judith Kratt. There, sitting in the sunroom of her grand plantation home, Judith thinks back to the day in 1929 when her younger brother was shot and killed, and when she saw her baby sister for the last time. Strangely enough, it’s not entirely clear whether the memory brings pain to Judith or simply a realization that she is the only repository of memories left in the Kratt family. As such episodes tend to do, Judith decides it’s time to take inventory of the family possessions filling her home.
“I marveled at my new lens. I cast my eyes about the room, and the objects there – Victorian chaise lounge, octagonal Jacobean parlor table, and mahogany sewing cabinet – sat up on their haunches expectantly. With a mild nod or shake of my head, I told them their fates regarding whether they would be remembered in my inventory. What hopes they had!”
So begins the retelling of a past through objects that quietly carried the tales of a past that is both beautiful and, at times, heartbreaking. Taking her own inventory of sorts is Olva, who has been with Judith in this very home since they were little girls. Referring to her as Miss Judith even now, whether by choice or habit, Olva still seems to hang on to a past that has long faded. Whatever the origin of their relationship, it’s clear that Judith and Olva share a sense of trust and comfort that can only come from seven decades of being by each other’s side. Still, there is a mystery to their relationship – each of them seems very careful to tiptoe around certain topics, never delving deep enough into the past to disturb the peace.
It doesn’t take long, however, for feathers to ruffle with the unexpected homecoming of younger sister Rosemarie. While Olva is overjoyed to see her childhood friend after 50-years, Judith is not as comfortable. Soon Rosemarie takes in two guests of her own, a man and his daughter who have a strange connection to the Kratt family history, driving Judith to frustrated distraction. And, just like that, what started as a quiet inventory of antiques soon becomes a revelation of family secrets that can no longer be kept under wraps.
I must tell you, as a reviewer, how hard it is to summarize a story about family drama and mystery without giving away too much. To keep this spoiler-free, I’ll stop here with the details, of which there are many more, and give you the reasons why I loved reading this book so much. Unlike novels where I can’t wait to get to the last page and see how things end, with The Last List of Miss Judith Kratt, I wanted to savor every page and tiny detail shared by Miss Judith. They are simply so beautiful and poetic…
And so it goes throughout the pages.
I was further surprised at how many times I changed my opinion about who Judith really was. I disliked her at first, thinking her snobbish, someone who cared more about possessions than people. Then I pitied her for never leaving Bound, unlike her younger sister, experiencing what the world was really like. Finally, I came to understand the selflessness of her choices, decisions that were tied so deeply with things no one else knew. The Last List of Miss Judith Kratt is a story about family, but also the rise and fall of a generation of thought and industry – a common theme experienced by many southern towns that boomed before eventually fading away in favor of modernization and globalization.
Andrea Bobotis lives with her family in Denver, Colorado and teaches creative writing at Lighthouse Writers Workshop. She is also an avid yoga teacher. You can follow Bobotis on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.
The Last List of Miss Judith Kratt published on July 9, 2019 by Sourcebooks.
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