The Book I Read: The Kudzu Queen, Reflections on a Mockingbird, and Ethna McKiernan

Hey there! Welcome back to the Book I Read podcast with Michael Jarmer Writer Guy, a podcast where I talk about books, reading in general, writing fiction and poetry, with some occasional diversions into music listening, teaching and learning.

Hey, hope you had a lovely Valentine’s Day–and a stellar President’s Day. We’re supposed to be heading into Spring, but Geez, it’s snowing again in Portland, in February, in the last days of February! Loosely following the news about the impending winter storm across most of the northern states, I assumed that here in the banana belt that we would miss it–we would get a late February pass. No such luck. Schools will be closed tomorrow. My boy will love that. I don’t have anywhere to go, so I’ll be okay. It will be a quiet Thursday and Friday. At any rate, here I am, episode 14. Haven’t given up yet. 

I want to talk for a few moments here in my little introductory song and dance about my particular tastes in fiction. I tend toward the nutty, the experimental, the outrageous, the absurd, the unconventional. As a younger reader I was immediately smitten with the likes of Vonnegut, Beckett, Barthelme, and I still tend to gravitate toward the more experimental—David Foster Wallace, David Shields, Aimee Bender, but then, despite these leanings, in my history as a reader, there have been novels and stories squarely in the realm of realism that stand out for me, works that were influential, that had a profound effect on me, personally, intellectually, emotionally, artistically—some of which, I’d venture to say, have been the most important books of my life: at the top of that list I’d put Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, the short stories of Raymond Carver, Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird

Which brings me to this episode’s “book I read”—it’s a novel called The Kudzu Queen by Mimi Herman. Mimi Herman is a fellow graduate of the Warren Wilson MFA program, writer of two previous books of poetry, and a writing teacher who facilitates the absolute dreamy sounding writeaway retreats for writers. So, The Kudzu Queen was just released into the world, it’s getting all kinds of rave reviews—and I wanted to read it, first, as she is a friend of mine, and secondly, because we have scheduled a reading together here in Portland—she’s touring the country promoting her book and she’s coming all the way from North Carolina and she asked if I would like to join her for a reading—what a wonderful invitation–so that’s happening in Portland, Oregon on March 6 at the Corkscrew Wine Bar. If you’re listening and you’re in the neighborhood, please put it on your calendar and join us! 

I’d like to come back around to my introductory remarks about my affinity for the wild and wacky in fiction, despite the fact that some of the most pivotal books in my life have been works squarely in the tradition of realistic fiction. This novel by Mimi Herman is squarely in that realistic fiction tradition–and one of the first things I will say about it is how powerfully it reminded me of the magic of a great realistic novel to transport a reader through time and culture, into other people’s lives. By the time you spend 300 pages with a character or a group of characters, often you feel like you know these imaginary people better than you know the people in your real life–it is an enormous gift and it’s no wonder that the scientists are telling us that one of the sure-fire ways to increase one’s ability to empathize with others is through reading fiction. It’s probably one of the things that drove my English teaching pedagogy more than anything else. Sure, let’s find out what this symbol means–but more interestingly and maybe more importantly, how do you feel about this, how were you moved by it, how did it change the way you think about this issue? 

All right. Mimi Herman’s The Kudzu Queen takes place in the fictional town of Pinesboro, Cooper County, North Carolina, in 1941. Our main character, and our narrator, is Mathilda Watson, known by family and friends as Mattie or Matts. She is 15. She lives with her parents and two brothers on a farm. Her parents are not just farmers, but landowners, at least a few properties in their possession. Dad is college-educated–was for a time an academic, but made the call at some point to farm. Mom, however, is not college educated but by any standard her husband’s intellectual equal. This family is close–old fashioned to a degree–in that, duh, it’s the 40’s and we’re in the south–but they seem uncharacteristically–no, that’s not right, they seem–against prevailing stereotypes, progressive, stable, and loving.

In sharp contrast to the Watson family is the family of Mattie’s best friend and neighbor Lynnette–The Johnsons. Lynette’s mom has health issues and her dad is an abusive drunk–so Lynette finds herself often taking care, mothering her two younger sisters. But Mattie and Lynette are pals and spend oodles of time together–Mattie often spends the night at Lynette’s and sometimes attends church with her family. 

So, outside of the troubled nature of the Johnson family issues, Mattie’s narrative about growing up in the country (as opposed to other kids from her school who live in “town,”) is light, warm, fun, even playful. It is super difficult not to be charmed by Mattie’s voice, her humor, and fierce intelligence. She is a personality you want to spend 300 pages with. 

Here’s a little passage that captures this winning personality, as Mattie recounts the day she meets Lynette for the first time, in Home Economics class, where nobody wanted to be her kitchen buddy. This is after Mattie has been assigned Stove 19: 

“’Vesuvius,’ that stove was called, though I didn’t know it at the time, despite the fact that it was common knowledge. Most of the other girls had heard about the infamous stove from their older sisters–a commodity my parents had short-sightedly neglected to provide me with–which might have been the reason Stove Number 19 was, like me, abandoned. 
         At that moment, three things happened: the oven door on Number 19 fell open, hitting me sharply on the knee; an anonymous boy, rushing past the classroom window, which had been raised in the frail hope that a cool breeze might chance by, paused in his passage and let out a huge fart, a Notre Dame of a fart, a Beethoven’s Ninth of a fart, and Lynette Johnson–soft, skinny, with wispy pale brown hair and green eyes, strewing apologies like milkweed–flustered into class, came to a halt beside the only partnerless person in the room, and closed the oven door.” 

She’s funny. She’s witty–and you hear that voice so clearly, you forget there’s a writer named Mimi Herman behind it. “Beethoven’s Ninth of a fart.” That is a one-million-dollar line. 

But the main plot of this novel and a hint toward the significance of its title is introduced in the very first sentence of chapter one–“You could tell Mr. James T. Cullowee was something from the moment he drove into Pinesboro in his shiny green Chevy truck.” Oh boy, a stranger has come to town! 

Hold on. Let’s back up a little bit. I know, it’s exciting, you want to know about this stranger–but we have to talk about kudzu first. Do you what Kudzu is? I didn’t. To be perfectly honest, before hearing about this novel, I’m not sure that I had even heard the word, let alone knew what it was. So, we take a quick trip to Wikipediaville: Kudzu is a group of climbing, coiling, and trailing deciduous perennial vines native to much of East Asia, Southeast Asia, and some Pacific Islands, but invasive in many parts of the world, primarily North America. And says kudzu is commonly known as “mile-a-minute” or “the vine that ate the south.”

So, our stranger rolling into to town, Mr. Cullowee, for reasons that are not especially clear to me, reasons that might require some further research, is promoting kudzu as a crop to farms all over North Carolina. His claim is that kudzu, “the crop of the future,” is a miracle plant. Listen to him go here in the first chapter: “‘Kudzu, the wonder crop!’ He picked up a handful of vines and let them flow like a waterfall from his palm. ‘It’ll grow anywhere you plant it! No plowing, no fertilizer, no weeding, it needs barely a drop of water. Excellent forage for your horses, cattle, and mules, and a ground cover like you’ve never seen. . . Kudzu, the perfect plant! You can jam it. You can jelly it. It’ll cure headaches and heart attacks. You can grind it into flour and fry it up as a side dish. . . Step right up, ladies. . . There’s plenty for everyone!”  It turns out, that over the course of the novel, it’s turned into desert, cookies and candy, it’s made into clothing, and you can even smoke the stuff! I mean, if you know anything about kudzu, you find Cullowee’s salesmanship hilarious–even if you don’t know anything–your suspicions are immediately fired up–as Cullowee seems right out of the gate to be your quintessential snake-oil salesman. Think the Music man, the botanical version of the Music Man. But! This guy is skilled. He’s exotic, super charismatic–and, this is important, he’s handsome. Immediately, our narrator Mattie and likely all the other girls in the community have got some strong feelings about Mr. Cullowee. And he’s tapped into that as well–as he introduces and sells to the community a kind of pageant, a beauty, talent, etiquette competition for all the young girls: who wants to be the Kudzu Queen of Pinesboro, North Carolina?

The comic aspects of this novel keep us happily moving right along, while the drama is a slow but steady burn–initially, we’re having so much fun preparing for the Kudzu Queen pageant, that the only potential problem seems to be, as Mattie and her younger brother Joey plant their own secret Kudzu garden essentially before anybody else takes it up, is the question: will Kudzu just sort of overrun Pinesboro? More sinister, but kind of bubbling under the surface: Is this Mr. Cullowee guy for real? What does he want, really? Does he have ulterior motives? Is he dangerous? Is Mattie’s intense attraction to this guy going to spell trouble for her? And in a slightly different direction–as Mr. and Mrs. Johnson become more and more unpredictable and/or vulnerable and more and more responsibility falls on Lynette’s shoulders, what can Mattie and her family do to help Mattie’s best friend and her sisters? 

Ultimately, things get pretty intense in Pinesboro on a number of levels as the story works its way toward the Kudzu Queen Pageant and as the questions above move toward their dramatic and often surprising answers. 

I’ve known I wanted to tackle a podcast about this particular novel for quite some time, but as it started to get a whole bunch of positive attention, I resisted the temptation to read the reviews. I wanted my response to be uncluttered or uninfluenced by other people’s responses, but I did peak into the first part of an interview–I forget where–in which Mimi was asked about how conscious she was while writing about the similarities between her character Mattie and Scout from To Kill A Mockingbird. I am paraphrasing from memory, so forgive me if this is a bit wonky, but Mimi Herman said she was not thinking about Scout at all, but after the fact, she could see the parallels. 

Even before I saw this snippet from the interview, while I was reading I could not help flashing back to the experience of reading Harper Lee’s novel for the first time. The setting of both novels is similar, less than ten years apart and two or three states away. The tone of The Kudzu Queen is close to that of To Kill A Mockingbird, the fun, the humor, the child-like first person perspective of wonder and curiosity and adventure, and both of these children have pretty significant tom-boy characteristics, although, this child Mattie is several years older than Scout and growing into a young woman. And the point of view is somewhat different–the action of Mockingbird is of a younger child—but that narrator is an adult looking back—while the narrator of The Kudzu Queen seems to have less temporal distance—Mattie is narrating, perhaps, a short time after the events she’s describing. Then there’s the familial relationships, especially the sweet but charged kind of relationship Mattie has with both her brothers, similar to but less fraught perhaps than the relationship between Scout and Jem. While Atticus was a single widowed dad, Mattie’s parents are both alive and together–and while neither of them are lawyers, they seem to be the intellectual equivalent.  While there’s no Boo Radley–there is the kind of gothic element introduced by Aunt Mary’s farm–aunt Mary being long gone, her house empty, it becomes a secret getaway for Mattie–and a place where, at least imaginatively, she communes with her Aunt’s spirit. And finally, as To Kill A Mockingbird winds toward the Halloween Agricultural Pageant, The Kudzu Queen culminates in its own pageant, the competition for the Kudzu Queen crown. 

Let me spend an extra minute with To Kill A Mockingbird. My relationship with that novel morphed over the many years I taught it in high school English classes. Here’s the thing–if I were still teaching, as much as I love that novel, I would stop using it in the curriculum. As a childhood memory narrative, as a beautifully evocative and wonderfully dramatic novel, as fiction that captures a particular time and place, it is without question a masterpiece. But its traditional use in the classroom, often as a vehicle for discussing racial injustice, has been misplaced. I don’t want to get too deep into the weeds, here, but at the very bottom, if you want to teach students about racial injustice, let’s choose the works of black American authors. Period. Maybe, and for some very good reasons I won’t address here, the days of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird as staples of high school English curriculum are over. 

Which leads me back once again to The Kudzu Queen. The black characters in Mimi Herman’s novel have agency and influence, and the character of Rose Moore, a childhood playmate of Mattie’s whose family are tenants on one of the Watson farms, strikes me as being one of the heroes of the novel, a significant and powerful influence on Mattie Watson. 

There’s a trio of heroes in this novel, I think. Between Rose, Lynette, and Mattie–all of them make enormous impact on the community in which they live, all of them trailblazers, truth tellers, –realistic, yes, not without flaws–but each of them are given these incredibly powerful moments in the novel’s conclusion. Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird is pretty darn loveable–but these characters are more than that–and if Scout’s final moments with Boo Radley brought you to tears–I’m telling you–you better bring a hanky for Lynette’s performance at the Kudzu Queen Pageant, and while you’re at it, bring medals of honor and bravery for both Rose and Mattie. 

Damn, this is a great novel. Since I finished about a week ago, it’s been hard for me to stop thinking about it. Go get yourself a copy and pronto, would you, please? 

You know, for a while there I was closing my podcasts, especially if I was focusing on fiction, with a poem. I think I want to resume that practice, especially now, on this cold and snowy february afternoon. It just seems like the right thing to do. And I have been thinking for a long time about paying some tribute to some poet friends of mine who have recently passed–so I’d like today to share a poem with you by Ethna McKiernan. Another fellow graduate of the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers, I met Ethna the first time and several other times at our annual alumni conference for writers. She was a generous, kind soul, a brilliant poet, a champion of Irish-American culture, and an advocate for unhoused peoples–in fact, the last decade of her life she worked as a street outreach worker for homeless charities, providing aid, comfort, and service to homeless populations in Minneapolis. Because during the winter months our thoughts may turn to those folks in dire need of shelter–it seems fitting to read one of Ethna’s poems on that subject. Warning up front. The poem I’d like to read is a heavy one and contains some language that might not be suitable for all listeners. This is a poem called “Band-Aid,” and can be found in her book Light Rolling Slowly Backwards: New and Selected Poems.

Because I do not have permission to reprint the poem here, please listen to the podcast for the reading.

And that, people of Earth, is a wrap on my 14th episode, the sixth episode of Season 2, of a podcast/blog series I’m making about books I am reading in a series called The Book I Read. Hope you liked it. 

Stay tuned for episode 15–in which I am likely to be talking about–I actually have no idea what I’ll be talking about–so many choices, so little time! I’m sure whatever it is, it will be absolutely fabulous. 

Until then, if you want to learn more about me and the stuff I write and the music I make, please visit (if you’re reading this, you’re already there!) or to read and listen. Look for me on to subscribe and support for as little as .99 per month, or as much as you want. You can contribute to the sustainability of this little endeavor.  

You can find my novel Monster Talk at,,, you know, almost anywhere you can buy books online, but support your local bookstore, would you please. If they don’t have my book, they can order it for you. Hey, and get a copy of Mimi Herman’s The Kudzu Queen and Ethna McKiernan’s Light Rolling Slowly Backwards at or from other online or brick and mortar bookstores.  

This podcast was, is, will continue to be produced, written, recorded, and performed by Michael Jarmer. The music in this podcast was written and performed by Here Comes Everybody, Rene Ormae-Jarmer and Michael Jarmer. 

Thank you so much for tuning in or reading. Again, Happy Valentine’s Day, happy President’s Day. I hope all kinds of great things lay in store for you in the following months. I hope to be back here real soon! Until then, so long. Be kind. See you next time. Cheers.   

Published by michaeljarmer

I'm a public high school English teacher, fiction writer, poet, and musician in Portland, Oregon

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