Louise Shivers, late-blooming author of ‘Here to Get My Baby Out of Jail,’ dies at 84

July 30, 2014

Louise Shivers, a late-blooming author whose first novel, “Here to Get My Baby Out of Jail,” a steamy tale of illicit love in rural North Carolina, was hailed as a Southern masterpiece, died July 26 at a health facility in Evans, Ga. She was 84.

The cause was congestive heart failure, said a daughter, Beth Siciliano.

Mrs. Shivers, who grew up in the tobacco belt of eastern North Carolina, raised a family and worked as a salesclerk before trying her hand at fiction. When she won a writing contest in the late 1970s, the judge of the competition, novelist Mary Gordon, showed Mrs. Shivers’s manuscript to an agent.

After some revisions, “Here to Get My Baby Out of Jail” was published in 1983 to universal acclaim. USA Today pronounced it the best debut novel of the year. Washington Post book critic Jonathan Yardley hailed it as “a breathtakingly accomplished piece of work that in no way betrays its author’s inexperience.”

Mrs. Shivers was 53 at the time.

Author Louise Shivers died July 26 at a health facility in Evans, Ga. She was 84. (Rob Flynn/For The Washington Post)

“Almost nobody believes me,” she told The Post in 1983, “but I didn’t write the book thinkin’ I was gonna get it published.”

With a title that evokes desperation and a distinctly Southern sense of loyalty, “Here to Get My Baby Out of Jail” is a taut, 136-page novel set in the fictional town of Tarborough, N.C., in 1937. (The title derives from a country song first made popular in the 1930s.) The story is told through the eyes of Roxy Walston, the discontented wife of a tobacco farmer.

She has yearnings that she scarcely recognizes until a stranger named Jack Ruffin — “as wiry and tight as a coiled bedspring” — comes to town and gets a job as a hired hand working for Roxy’s husband. Even with a 2-year-old daughter at home, Roxy feels helpless to resist Jack and rushes headlong into an affair, risking her marriage, her good name and everything else: “I didn’t think about the rest of my life. I didn’t care. I had to have him.”

A murder takes place, followed by a pursuit, but the book rises above the level of soap opera through Mrs. Shivers’s sure handling of atmosphere and tone.

“In the summers,” she wrote, “any little stir from the branches fanned the cured tobacco smell from the warehouses and sealed it over the center of town like a jar lid.”

Novelist Carolyn See, writing in the Los Angeles Times, called the book “a masterpiece, a jewel, an utterly brilliant piece of work.” The novel was made into a forgettable 1987 film, “Summer Heat,” starring Anthony Edwards and Lori Singer.

Mrs. Shivers, who lived for decades in Augusta, Ga., was considered a literary heir of Flannery O’Connor, a Georgian whose dark tales of passion and redemption are considered classics.

“Like O’Connor, Shivers writes with clarity; each of her words counts and has meaning,” Yardley wrote in The Post. “Like O’Connor, she colors her story with a wry, self-mocking humor that eases the burden of its harsh events. Like O’Connor, she is concerned about ordinary people whose ordinary lives always contain the makings of the extraordinary.”

Julia Louise Shingleton was born Aug. 15, 1929, in Stantonsburg, N.C., one of 10 children of a funeral director. She grew up in Wilson, N.C., a center of the tobacco trade.

She left the former Atlantic Christian College in Wilson in 1949 when she married Quentin L. Shivers, an engineer. They settled in Augusta, where Mrs. Shivers sold records at a Sears store and worked as a librarian.

She had been bookish as a child, but it wasn’t until her daughters introduced her to O’Connor’s fiction in the late 1960s that Mrs. Shivers began to think of writing anything herself. She attended writers’ workshops and began working on “Here to Get My Baby Out of Jail” in the 1970s.

Beginning in the 1980s, Mrs. Shivers taught at the University of Florida and other schools, and in recent years was a writer-in-residence at Georgia Regents University in Augusta.

She published a second novel to warm reviews in 1993, “A Whistling Woman,” about the struggles and secrets of a widow and her daughter in 19th-century North Carolina.

Mrs. Shivers later wrote a memoir of World War II and, at the time of her death, was completing a novel about the Civil War.

Survivors include her husband of 65 years, of Augusta; three children, Sherrill Cook of Phoenix, Beth Siciliano and Mark Q. Shivers, both of Augusta; three brothers; and two grandsons.

Growing up in a family with eight brothers, Mrs. Shivers “felt invisible,” she told The Post in 1983. “I was shy and quiet, submissive. I thought that women were supposed to be that way.”

When she discovered writing, she found a voice for herself and for other women who didn’t have a chance to speak up on their own.

“There are so many stories that women have known,” she said. “Every time I pick up a pot, I think of my mother or my grandmother. So much was going on around them, but they never got out of the kitchen to tell about it.”

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.
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