Frances Stebbins, Correspondent
[This is a memory from the many decades the author has been privileged to write for daily and weekly newspapers circulating in Western Virginia.]
In last week’s column,” Old TV Sets Never Die,” I wrote of viewing a number of award-winning films of an earlier day which I saw as compact discs before passing on the outmoded device to my favorite local thrift store.
I want to consider one of these discs and a book I’ll recommend for a Christmas gift if you have a Civil War enthusiast on your list. Both reveal in different ways our American history.
First the video. It’s “Driving Miss Daisy,” an award-winning film which came out in 1989 and starred the notable Black actor Morgan Freeman. The lead female role went to Jessica Tandy, a well-respected Broadway performer. Dan Aykroyd, lesser-known, starred in the third major part.
Like an earlier mid-20th Century film, “To Kill A Mocking Bird,” the tale of “Miss Daisy” Werthan and her Black chauffeur called Hoke points up the goal of respect for people of different races and cultures. Both these films of more than a generation ago, I found, do more to enhance for those different from oneself the sense of understanding that is absent in more direct and strident writings.
Today that focus, instead of accepting history for what it is, seems aimed at obliterating everything dear to those of us with generations of Southern ancestors.
I first saw “Miss Daisy” at a Roanoke motion picture theater with late husband Charlie perhaps the same year we moved from Hollins to Salem, and we were beginning life as “empty nesters” in a church and a city new to us. A lot has happened in those 22 years.
Seeing the movie as a decided elder today, I was perhaps more impressed by its acting, its realism of the South as I knew it in early life than I was earlier.
For those who have forgotten, “Driving Miss Daisy,” is the tale of an elderly Jewish widow in Atlanta, Daisy Werthan, and her gradual change of heart about the humanity of aging Black men. This comes about because the wealthy widow’s son I’ll call Bertie – for want of a name in print – perceives that it is no longer safe for his mother to drive her luxury car about the neighborhood.
The son now runs the family’s bag-producing business; he finds there among its employees Hoke, a valued worker and trouble-shooter when machinery needs fixing. Hoke is hired to drive imperious Miss Daisy who deeply resents her son’s assumption that she is unable to manage her life.
To her, as to many white southerners of the 1960s era, Black folk were loved and respected in their own ways but in roles of servanthood; the widow had a faithful and competent Black cook who knew her place around the kitchen, and was indeed much a part of the Werthan family until a sudden stroke took her life and hastened the bond that was breaking down the equal pride in their status which existed between Miss Daisy and her driver.
This bond is solidified as both, in their own ways, encounter the message of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Again, as the synagogue Miss Daisy supports is desecrated, Hoke points out that this kind of insult is often encountered by his folk.
In time, as the Black man and white woman age together, the viewer witnesses Miss Daisy’s incapacity from a stroke. The final powerful scene has elderly Hoke holding her hand as he visits her in a nursing home.
“The Civil War: The Story of the War With Maps” is a paper-back work unlike any I have seen in my long fascination with America’s 19th Century conflict. It was compiled in recent years by Dr. M. David Detweiler. He is listed as the president of Stackpole Books – which naturally is the publisher – but though the writing style is informal and easy to understand, the presentation is refreshingly clear and professionally written.
The outstanding feature is the presence of detailed maps of all the major battles and campaigns and the exact time they were taking place. The reader can follow, for example, the account of the first Confederate advance into the North which resulted in what is called the Battle of Antietam or Sharpsburg in September of 1862. It’s counted as a success for the Union with the result that President Abraham Lincoln took the first steps toward emancipation of slavery.
This book is for sale for $24.95 at the Salem Museum. I bought it with an honorarium given me by the Southern Cross Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) after a talk I made earlier this year about my grandfather, a Confederate cavalryman turned clergyman after the war.