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Dovey Coe by Frances Dowell

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Dovey Coe
Set in the 1920’s, Frances Dowell’s novel Dovey Coe, is the story of a twelve-year-old mountain girl accused of the murder of Parnell Caraway. Though she swears she did not kill him, it is a well known fact that Dovey disliked Parnell Caraway, who was courting Dovey’s sister, Caroline Coe prior to his untimely demise. As the story unfolds, we learn that the true murderer was not Dovey, but rather her deaf and mute brother, Amos Coe. In writing this novel, Dowell attempted to create authentic characters by embedding some of the cliché qualities of 1920’s mountain people into her characterization, specifically through her use of the southern Appalachian dialect. Though the author had the right general idea as how to depict an authentic mountain girl with Dovey, she overdid her writing. From the first pages of her novel she clutters the narrative with an abundance of dialect that could be deceiving to a reader who was not from the region in which the setting takes place, as well as leaves them misinformed of the southern woman’s ability to state her opinion in a manner which still allows her to maintain her dignity. Her narrative voice was distractive, and it lessened the quality of the characters.
In contrast, when in the novel Dowell was limited from using such dialect as was the case with the deaf brother Amos, the character seemed to have more credibility.
Perhaps Amos’ believability came from his muteness, as it limited the author’s ability to overpoweringly characterize him, but rather enabled the author to give him just enough personality to make him interesting. Amos, in the resolution of Dowell’s novel goes on to become a teacher of sign language which is a natural and believable progression of character elements that develops throughout the novel. We learn early on in the novel that the character Amos talks to his dogs Tom and Huck through his own unique version of sign language. To further his personality we learn later in the concluding chapters of the novel that the character Amos was the mystery murderer that killed Parnell. Though Amos was the most believable character, it must be reiterated that this is, indeed, directly related to the author’s limitation to use linguistic projection in developing his character.

Another, less realistic character in the novel, the protagonist in fact, is Dovey Coe. Dovey is the embodiment of the stereotype of southern Appalachian women and girls. Her character is meant to represent a positive, independent, young southern girl; when in fact, the use of Dowell’s dialect in the portrayal of her character Dovey Coe contradicts that very representation. This is demonstrated when she expresses herself to Parnell by saying,” I ain’t interested in the likes of you. That seems to be a trait with us Coe women, now don’t it?”, after he had been publicly humiliated by her sister, Caroline’s, refusal to marry him. Cynthia Goldin Bernstein writes in her article, Misrepresenting the American South, “Such mimicry creates an inaccurate since of southern dialect and reinforces the negative Southern stereotype.”
Indeed, Dovey’s character symbolizes capability and determination; if not a bit cloyingly; for example, in the first prose of the novel, she states her determination to prove herself not guilty of the crimes she was accused of, when she declares,” My name is Dovey Coe and I reckon it don’t matter if you like me or not. I’m here to lay the record straight, to let you know them folks saying I done a terrible thing are liars.” In fact a true southern woman’s response to conflict is generally more understated. In Margret Mitchell’s epic southern saga, Gone with the Wind, the southern protagonist, Scarlett O’Hara, demonstrates this exterior sweetness with her common response, “Fiddle-dee-dee”, when confronted with hardships or obstacles. A true southern women, in essence is not the “in your face type of gal”, but is without a doubt able to convey the proverbial, “eat crap and die” with a smile on her face and a colloquial “well bless your heart” at the end.

In conclusion, while the storyline was conceivable, the author lost her ability to grab and maintain the reader’s attention due to her excessive use of stereotypical dialect which had a tendency to clutter the narrative, and therefore distract the reader. Lori Lake put it in her article, The Uses and Abuses of Dialect: Ya’ll Be Sayin’ Wha’?, “Dialectologists… have discovered that the writing errors that tend to irritate readers the most are what the experts call "dialect difference."” Dialect difference is the misuse of a dialect from lack of knowledge about its structure and uses. Despite readers’ dislike of dialect difference, they do not want cookie-cutter characters that speak only the ubiquitous “standard” English. There is a fine line between authentic characterization and overwhelming dialect and Dowell, in her novel Dovey Coe crossed it.



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SkyDeer said...
Nov. 21, 2010 at 6:29 pm
I loved this book! Dovey is so unique.
 
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