Norma Watkins writes a touching memoir in the newly-released The Last Resort: Taking the Mississippi Cure.
Watkins, a white woman, recounts a childhood in racially-segregated Mississippi. The story meanders through years of war, family separations and family curses. The book stages the background for Watkins’ adult decisions. The Last Resort is a charming memoir addressing challenges and boundaries in a segregated society.
Watkins begins her story with the theme of leaving, with her family watching her father leave to serve in the war by choice. His decision to join the Navy and fight the Germans in World War II meant leaving the family. They would leave their house, sell the pets and household goods, and move back to the family hotel where mama grew up. Now occupied by Uncle John and his wife Miss Hosford, the hotel is a source of income for those family members. Mama must return to the home she left and rely on her family to live. All family and staff welcome mama, Watkins, and Mary Elizabeth to the multi-room hotel to stay.
Watkins is indoctrinated into life quickly at Allison’s Wells Hotel, prepping and cleaning for the onslaught of summer guests, and attending new schools, learning where her wealthy family fits in with country folks. Time passes and she reminisces on life with her father, wondering when he will return. Sydney, her newest baby sister, is the result of father’s home visit with mother in Anaheim. From her sister’s birth, Watkins begins to accept sex and gender differences. She is informed that some things are not polite to discuss and is often silenced by the help who gossip while working.
Norma learns more about sex than she wants when father returns from the war with Helen and her son, Paul, in tow. Helen is a woman father picked up during the war-her husband is at war. She parades around the family flaunting her sexuality and sexual relationship. She latches on to the family, even moving to the new home mama procures for them with her son, Paul. Finally, the shame of Helen ends only when her husband returns from war and she has to return home with her son.
Eventually, life evolves for Watkins. She ages and barriers are raised between her and the “Colored” people who address her respectfully, making her feel like an outsider. Watkins begins to become more feminine and more interested in sex and gender than she had been as a child. At the same time, Jim Crow ends in the South and the Civil Rights Movement begin to pick up steam. Another recurring theme in the book is fires.
Starting in her childhood, Watkins imagines fires because she sees them occur so frequently in the area. As the family chose sides, she has to examine her role in the South, determining what it means to her life, her marriage, and her status as a white person.
Norma Watkins faces the challenge of remaining true to herself in a repressive environment, shunning the roles outlined for her by her family; in their genteel, southern way of life. She makes personal decisions on her family history and her personal life that are shocking and unprecedented at that time in the South.
The Last Resort: Taking the Mississippi Cure is her memory of the changes in the United States and how those changes impacted her lifetime.