Reviewed by Alex Chapman
Kat Meads, Regal House Publishing, $13.95-$24.95 (159 pp) ISBN 978-1646030156
I went into Kat Meads’s Dear DeeDee knowing only two things: the book is a creative nonfiction work by a Southern author, and it is formatted as a collection of letters passing on advice and generational knowledge to a fictitious niece. Since the writing is clearly centered around Meads’s upbringing specifically, I wasn't expecting much beyond a look into Mead's family and her experiences “growing up southern.” It was that, of course, but as I read, I realized how much more the narrative has to offer.
It begins with nostalgia and memory, a theme that carries throughout the book. “Aunt K,” as Meads calls herself, writes letters reminiscing about her young life and regaling DeeDee, a made up nice, with family stories that are a mix of utterly crazy and charmingly mundane. Gradually, she begins to weave in more themes: writers that DeeDee should read; glimpses of her life at the era the letters are dated; musings about the world at large.
This is the kind of story that could have been formatted as a journal, and when I first started my read-through, I wondered why Meads would go through the trouble of writing to a person that does not exist. As the book goes on, it becomes clear: it’s a matter of intimacy and--as she implies in her last note--the desire to pass on her stories to someone. When she directly addresses DeeDee, this intimacy allows the reader, at times, to feel like they are DeeDee. She asks, “How well do you remember it?” in her second letter, and continues on to describe a strangely comforting scene of an attic in her parents’ farmhouse. This question urged me to "remember" this attic that I had never seen and not only did this bring me into Meads’s world, but it also reminded me of moments in my own childhood. In this attic scene, she mentions “a pile of discarded schoolbooks,” for example, which brought me back to reading the calculus books in my grandparents’ basement. Through nostalgia--a universal emotion--she connects with the reader, and shared experiences lie in the most unexpected places.
As her notes continue, the reader slowly receives a more complete picture of Meads’s experiences, family, and thoughts. The South, where she grew up, is portrayed not simply as an idyllic memory, but as a multifaceted aspect of her life full of good, bad, and gray. While her letters are often humorous, she doesn’t shy away from the painful and the serious experiences, proving that family history doesn’t have to be pure joy or pure pain for it to be important. It comes across as genuine and personal, and it's clear that Meads is doing her best to pass on her family’s legacy in the most authentic way she can.
Dear DeeDee challenges the idea of what an epistolary form can achieve. The addressee doesn’t need to actually exist; in fact, writing to a made-up person can allow for a deeper connection between the author and the reader without intrusively breaking the fourth wall. The interesting form brought me in, and Kat Meads used it effectively to tell her story and explore topics in her unique, conversational voice. It was an engaging work, well worth the reading experience.