1997 was a year to remember in Oxford. Among others, icons such as Willie Nelson and Henry Kissinger came into town, and the university was making amends with James Meredith, the first black student ever to enroll at Ole Miss. Needless to say, Oxford was humming with important people and events.
However, in the midst of these large names and significant occasions, a strange controversy broke out about a statue honoring the 100th birthday of William Faulkner, Oxford’s most famous son, and a magnolia tree that had to be removed to make room for it. A reporter for the “Oxford Eagle,” Jim Dees—now an author and host of “Thacker Mountain Radio”— was assigned to the story.
“The Statue and the Fury” is the title of Dees’ latest book, and it follows the events of that quirky year in Oxford. Dees saw both the humor and truths that emerged and kept nearly all of the newspapers for that year as well as his notes from his interviews.
“This Faulkner story broke, and it started becoming unintentionally funny in places and ironic in places and cool in places,” Dees said. “As events happened during that one year I knew then … it was going to be a book. I just knew it would peg enough things people had heard of, and then I could throw in all the Southern eccentricities and good ole Oxford weirdo stuff. My only intent was to write a funny story.”
Though the plan was to chronicle a humorous year, the book explores many aspects of Southern life, including more serious topics such as race. During our interview, Dees laughed as he remembered thinking he would write a diverse Southern story without race.
“That was another reason I thought it was a good story because it wasn’t just about white people,” Dees said. “It was a good, diverse story. It took in the whole ball of wax from every angle of Southern life that you can think of. When I started it, I thought, ‘I’m going to do this whole thing, and … It’s going to be that rare book about the South that doesn’t have any race in it.’ That’s how naïve I was. Of course, when I got through with it, it was probably over half about race.”
Many of the events and themes in Dees’ book relate to controversies still alive today. Everything from race to the state flag came up that year, and “The Statue of Fury” offers perspective to help us remember the debates we have now are much older than we are.
“Current students at Ole Miss will certainly recognize Oxford, will recognize the whole flag debate in the book,” said Dees. “In fact, the students now will shake their heads…when they realize we’re still talking about the same stuff.”
Dees credits his time as a reporter and all the experiences he had in 1997 as a major force in his life, and he thinks that the experiences that are in the book are valuable for everyone.
“My reporting job, I just loved it, and while I was doing it, I knew I was going to write a book about it. I just didn’t know it was going to take 20 years. It certainly is part of everything I do now.”
Despite the historical facts and sometimes serious content in the book, Dees did not write a depressing story. “The Statue of Fury” is an amusing story because Dees believes there is more than enough grave news in the world.
“I hope it’s entertaining. I hope that it’s a break for people that are reading very weighty books. I mean, it touches on some life and death stuff, but I hope it’s entertaining. There may be a little bit of offensive stuff in there, but I hope everybody’s cool with that, too.”
Square Books will host Dees today at 5 p.m. as he talks about and reads a selection from his book. Though he has yet to decide which part he intends to read, Dees said he will pick something that will let everybody leave feeling good, because “The Statue and the Fury” is not truly about controversies or disputes; it’s about Oxford.
“This book is about a bunch of things, but really, at the heart of it, it’s about Oxford and what a sweet little town it is,” said Dees. “Yes, people say it’s changed, but if you walk outside your door right now and walk around the Square, it’s still a beautiful town. I’ve lived here 30 years, and I’m just glad I wrote a book about it.”