Book Review: The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia


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*** out of *****

Baghdad, Ga., isn’t really a place. As ignorant as this may seem, when I initially picked up Mary Helen Stefaniak’s novel The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia, I thought it might be a real place I had never heard of.

Nonetheless, my guess was wrong; my lack of geographical knowledge had failed me again.
A majority of the story takes place in the town’s schoolhouse in Threestep, Ga. Stefaniak brings readers into Miss Spivey’s schoolhouse, where she teaches small-town Southern children about stories such as “The Tale of Alaeddin: Or, the Wonderful Lamp,” “How Abu Hasan Brake Wind,” and “The Porter and the Three Ladies of Baghdad.”

A Writers’ Workshop alum, Stefaniak uses storytelling to compare the characteristics of a tiny Southern town in 1938 to the far-off and foreign city of Baghdad. Miss Spivey’s character is ambitious in her thoughts about teaching, especially in consideration of ethnicity.

Social issues such as ethnicity, sex, and politics run rampant throughout the novel, but there is an innocence and nostalgia that rules the story. Narration by 11-year-old Gladys Cailiff may be to thank for the maintenance of this naïveté.

Her precocious attitude along with a curiosity to learn all about her hometown and, most interestingly, the world outside of it, act as a window into the world of the people in Threestep.

The young and open minds of Miss Spivey’s students, such as Gladys, set the tone for change in Threestep. The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia evokes themes of family, a need for social equality, and the importance of education.

When Miss Spivey comes to town, she successfully shakes up the community with her progressive ideas. She feels that education is an equal right for people of all colors, sexes, and ages. She also teaches lessons that cross borders of towns, countries, and continents. She lives by a philosophy of democracy and education, which is not fully familiar to those who call the town home.

The closely knit Southern town that Stefaniak has created seems accurate. Everyone knows everyone else’s business. The unspoken is as important as things that are discussed. Most importantly, tight bonds are formed with those who trust each other, and grudges aren’t forgotten easily between enemies.

As Gladys says with wisdom beyond her years, “I didn’t know yet that the darkest, most dangerous secrets are the ones that everybody knows.”

Although the pace of the action in the novel is somewhat slow, the narrative writing style and vivid depth of characterization make up for the long buildup. The element of storytelling is one of Stefaniak’s definite strengths.

By the conclusion of The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia, I felt as though I got a chance to see a slice of American life from an era somewhat unfamiliar to me. It was a culturally historical lesson that was much more entertaining than reading a history book.

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