The Crocodile Bride

Pedersen’s debut examines the myth and reality of female roles in the South.

The Crocodile Bride by Ashleigh Bell Pedersen. Hub City Press. pp.296. $26.

Deep in the Black Bayou, a ravenous crocodile feasts on everything from human bones to the surrounding physical landscape, and even the odd diamond ring and old-plated spoon. Unsatiated until one day, a young woman in a white dress with bruised arms asks the croc for his heart. It’s then, that the reptile falls in love—the young woman healing his avid hunger and building herself a physical home out of his heart.

But The Crocodile Bride by Ashleigh Bell Pedersen is more than just a tale to tell children about an avaricious eater who is transformed by a woman. It is an allegory that suggests that a woman’s responsibility is to heal violent men. In her debut, readers find three generations of women who are subjected to the cruelty and anger of men and who find ways to endure, restore, and hold their families together despite this antagonism.

1982, Fingertip, Louisiana: we meet 11-year-old Sunshine who “discovered the stones trapped inside her chest, one behind each bare nipple.” As the young girl wanders out of childhood, her father’s hands also start to wander. One night (as it so often happens in stories likes these) her dear ol’ dad Billy’s hands travel up Sunshine’s shirt—spiders, “large and five-legged, rough skinned, and warm”—in search of her stones.

Then there is Aunt Lou (Sunshine’s aunt and Billy’s younger sister) who met Robert Dalton—a conservative youth group leader—when she was a senior in high school. Watching Robert do the Lord’s work, Lou sought comfort in the confident man all the way to the altar.

Lou’s memories of witnessing Robert’s healing hands give her hope, hope that “her own bruises could cease to ache”—bruises she received from Robert. She had hope that a violent man’s behavior could be forgiven, that it could be forgotten.

Lastly, there is Catherine from Portland, Tennessee (Billy and Lou’s mother). Much like Lou, Catherine is swept off her feet by her suitor, John Jay. But two months later into the relationship, after a party, the dream boat of a boyfriend drunkenly pulls over on to the side of the road, and Catherine “heard a loud cracking sound…the sound of his hand striking her.” And so, we see what begins the cycle of stormy weather that permeates Catherine’s life, then filters into Billy and Lou’s life, and finally reaches the shores of young Sunshine’s summer. The way trauma moves here is almost genetic, like a thing passed through the blood. Yet, people are so much more than just flesh and blood.

When Catherine and John Jay arrive at their new home in Fingertip, its yellow home becomes the epicenter of the stygian storms in these women’s lives. Catherine gets lost in fantasies of never-weres about her beloved and allows her children to get lost in the “wished for. The imaginary,” as well as the tale of the Crocodile Bride—who could heal the suffering with her touch if they paid her crocodile their most prized possession. This comforting fairytale tells these women that healing abusive men comes at the high cost of sacrificing a possible healthy love and relationship that they want and deserve. A sacrifice that seems a duty, a burden to take on in order to ensure a better future. Perhaps, maybe? At first it almost seems honorable, a noble pursuit, but then it morphs into something foolish and imitable.

(Headshot by Bailey Toksoz)

Lou, at last realizing Robert’s behavior would not fade or be forgotten, escapes him with their daughter, J.L. She heads back to Fingertip, to the yellow house where she grew up—eventually settling into another place directly across the street. Closing “the map” to her abused past, Lou meets Nash, a man who shows her how love should be. Sunshine keeps hidden her confusion and discomfort of the wandering spiders, building herself a fort in her bedroom with books to escape the ghosts and storms of the yellow house.

As slow-moving as the waters of the Black Bayou the story is set in, these women endure and explore the repetitive nature of abuse and utilize myths as an escape from violence. Though the past leaves its marks and spider webs in the mind and on the body, the women of The Crocodile Bride attempt to break away, fleeing however they can. It is a tale too often chocked down to domestic difficulties. Here, Pedersen brings it to life—so that it’s not merely a tale told to children who may not entirely grasp its warning. The croc may lie in swamps, but it also lives in the very houses nestled nearby, waiting for a woman in a white dress to take the plunge into its stomach.

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