Walking Across Egypt
“I got as much business keeping a dog as I do walking across Egypt,” says Mattie Rigsbee, the 78-year-old protagonist of our novel. And there, on page four, we are given an idea of where this story is taking us.
Though spry for her age, Mattie is “slowing down.” She admits to sometimes cooking only two meals a day because of her aging. (“It just slips up on you.”) Perhaps what makes her aging a difficult cross to bear is knowing that neither of her grown children have plans to settle down and have kids of their own. Set in Listre, North Carolina, we find ourselves meandering into Mattie’s life, much like the fice (stray dog) that wanders onto her front porch—and much like Wesley Bennfield.
When Wesley breaks out of the YMRC (Young Men’s Rehabilitation Center) he makes his way to Mattie’s for her delicious pound cake. Wesley had developed a taste for it when Mattie brought it to him at the YMRC. Why Mattie’s many acts of kindness? She is struck by Jesus’ words in the Gospel of Matthew: “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren ye have done it unto me.” The unlikely pair spends a few days together before the story culminates during the Sunday service at Listre Baptist Church. A mix-up in the choir loft, another stolen vehicle, and alarmed parishioners set the scene.
By now, Mattie is convinced that a little religion and cleanliness can turn Wesley for the better. Yet it seems Wesley is hell-bent on exploiting Mattie and her generosity. Robert and Elaine, Mattie’s ungrateful children, see straight through Wesley’s antics, calling him “riffraff” and questioning Mattie’s mental state. Her friends, all good, church-going, Christian ladies, seem just as appalled by her reckless acts of benevolence. She even admits to herself that perhaps she is losing her marbles, but over time her generosity begins to grab hold of Wesley. Oh, yes, he still curses like a sailor, and he does not seem to be outwardly affected by Mattie’s goodness. But for the first time in his life, Wesley knows he is loved—despite himself; and that makes all the difference. Perhaps Mattie will take that dog in after all.
This novel is full of authentically humorous anecdotes. Mattie, forgetting she had removed the cushions to be reupholstered, falls through her chair and is stuck for several hours. What could be a deadpan scene is hilariously brought to life by Eggerton’s command of the Southern dialect. (Mattie is more likely to “declare” than to say.) In a similar manner, Eggerton gives us a glimpse into the mind of a proper Southern lady when Mattie is utterly embarrassed at the thought of her neighbors finding out she watches a soap opera before washing her dishes. He captures the essence of southern life without turning the novel into a book of clichés. The ever-present theme of hopeful redemption places this book outside the category of Southern Gothic; however, the development of flawed and damaged characters echoes back to the styles of O’Connor, Faulkner, and Capote.
Eggerton, himself a native of North Carolina, artfully exposes the religious righteousness that permeates the South. He points to the ways in which it holds us back from doing the true work of Jesus—all while entertaining and captivating us with his characters. As a North Carolinian myself, I appreciate the authentic depiction of our cultural landscape and invite you to come for a metaphorical visit. You will find Listre a warm and nurturing place to reckon with the self-righteousness that lurks within us all.