Originally published in 1978, Swift's tale of about the new librarian (Miss Jessie Gatewood) in a small east Texas town features an ensemble cast of quirky characters. When the enigmatic Miss Jessie arrives in Splendora from New Orleans to set up the town's new bookmobile (really just "a battered-up school bus with shelves") women begin to imitate her Victorian style of dress and vie to become her new best friend. Miss Jessie has eyes for Brother Anthony Leggett, assistant pastor of the First Baptist Church. He is likewise smitten with the new librarian. Each, however, has a secret that they believe may keep them apart.
Beyond her wearing her hair in a loosely twisted bun, Miss Jessie goes all out in dressing the part of a librarian.
That morning she had dressed beyond her thirty-three years in order to meet the town's and the committee's approval. She was well aware that her hemline fell halfway below her knees and a little farther still for good measure. She was secure in her dress of white eyelet over mint green cut with leg-o'-mutton sleeves, a high neckline, and trimmed with white silk ribbons...Her friend Magnolia had designed the dress and had carefully chosen the accessories: white silk, sweet-scented gloves, flowers at her throat, a pocket watch on a hold chain around her neck, and a white sash tied about her waist giving to her dress a slightly blousy effect, so right for her role...from her elbow dangled a white linen bag...and on her wrist hung a beaded reticule inside which she carried a white lace handkerchief, her cosmetics, and a few cigarettes she had no intention of smoking in public. Her lace-up shoes with one-inch heels have her the feeling a a matron, and her gold wire-rimmed glasses and Gibson-girl hair were just the right touches...This costume is important, especially considering her credentials are fabricated. She has no library degree or training, Nevertheless, she set to work
converting the school bus into a library on wheels. She designed shelves of various sizes and asked the Ag boys to construct them. She sewed gingham curtains with lace trim for all the windows and found space in the back for a small table and three chairs. Then she began stocking the shelves with every title available and ordered more with funds the county provided.Miss Jessie, furthermore, makes a map of the county "and a list of all the communities and crossroads to be included on [her] stops" and types "hundreds of file cards" - these of course would be for the card catalog, which libraries in 1978 would most certainly still have been using.
I was most intrigued by Miss Jessie's concern over some donated works, many of which "she lamented, are not suitable as they contain nothing that will advance the mind." This kind of thinking among librarians - that we should be gatekeepers of information, rather than connecting people with whatever information they want - was more common in the mid 1800s (according to Wayne Wiegand's A Part of Our Lives: A People's History of the American Public Library) than it is today, but certainly fit perfectly with Miss Jessie's Victorian ideals.
The rather Victorian courtship between the assistant pastor and the librarian was, of course, hot gossip for the town.
Chester Galloway saw them in his pasture and said that he did not think it looked too good for the assistant pastor and the town librarian to be entertaining themselves on the ground. His main concern was what the young people would think. But his wife, Verna, said that it looked perfectly all right as long as they were carrying a Bible.A quick check through spy glasses (and what's wrong with that?!) confirmed that the two were indeed using a Bible to hold down one corner of the blanket.
Their relationship takes some rather unexpected twists, especially when the town conspires to make it the focus of the annual Crepe Myrtle Pageant. Ultimately, the two find their own way, and more importantly, the town library finds a permanent home on the top floor of the newly renovated courthouse.