Facing South: A Dream Come True

Magazine cover with photo of man in suit, hands in pockets, looking away from camera

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 13 No. 4, "To Agitate the Dispossessed: On the Road with Ernie Cortes." Find more from that issue here.

Athens, Georgia — Robbie Branscum is a successful author of books for young readers, but success has not come without a struggle. Hers is a story of a dream fulfilled, a dream rooted in a love of books and people. 

"I went to the seventh grade in a small one-room schoolhouse deep in the Arkansas hills," she says. "I can still remember my mental hunger for books. A book was something to cherish, to be read over and over again." 

If adversity builds character, then Branscum's early life enriched her. "I was four when Dad died, and we five children went to live on our grandparents' small dirt farm. We didn't have inside toilets or electricity. I reckon we couldn't have got much poorer, but there was so much work to do and so many things to see and explore that we didn't know we were poor." 

By the time she was 15 she was married and off to California to the "promised land." In spite of 12-hour days picking cotton or grapes, she continued to dream of those books back in the hills. In the heat of this dream she forged her commitment to write. 

"I started writing when I was about 16 or 17," she says. "Country-Western songs, poems, short stories — anything you can think of — and I graduated into children's literature." 

Branscum's marriage ended, leaving her with the responsibility of providing for herself and her young daughter. She admits her lack of education bothered her, but that never hindered her pursuit of her dream. 

"A sense of humor can keep you going when all else fails," she says. "I have a deep faith in God that lights up my life at its darkest hour. I have a love for people, and they return it double-fold. What more can a writer ask for?" 

In her first novel, Me and Jim Luke (1971), the two boys of the title discover a dead man in a hollow tree while possum hunting. This opening incident is based on her grandfather's finding a dead revenuer, but the novel's plot and characters spring from Branscum's fertile imagination. Even after more than 15 published novels, this story remains her favorite. "My brothers were a lot like Sammy John and Jim Luke." 

The ability to combine intrigue with an ample measure of humor characterizes many of her stories, as readers of The Murder of Hound Dog Bates (1982) will discover. Convinced that his aunts have poisoned his dog, Sassafras Bates sets out to prove his point, unaware of where his quest will lead him. This novel received a New York Times Best Book of the Year award. 

Branscum's books for young readers capture the language and customs of the Arkansas hills of her childhood with clarity and honesty. Branscum went back to these hills recently to renew her vision. Chuckling at the term "poor Okies," she says, "It's true these people have little money and a lot of them live in old houses, but they know how to live. I love the people and the old, old houses. They still play and sing to entertain themselves and each other." 

Back now in California, Branscum contemplates her future as a writer. "I'm trying to break into the adult field, but I would never give up writing for children and young adults because they are the neatest people on earth. Young people need someone who understands them, and I love telling them about a way of life that, alas, no longer exists." 

Branscum has written several books for adults, but so far she has failed to place them with a publisher. Also, filmmakers have begun to express an interest in her novels, so she has prospects in that area. While success is now more a matter of degree for her, Branscum remains unchanged at heart. 

"What I want as a person," she says, "is the freedom to do the things that I love, which are to write and fish and raise my garden." 

At the moment these are viable goals. "We have a small cottage at the foot of tall mountains and a huge lake almost at the front door. I'll keep one eye on my writing and the other on my fishing." 

Whatever the future holds for Robbie Branscum, she will always be close to her Southern traditions. She has said often, "I guess I will always dream of a small farm, a creek, a moon as big as a summer sky, the far-off bay of hounds running fox and coon, and my Arkansas hills." Readers young and old continue to share the fruits of her dream.