Mary Helen Stefaniak

The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia

2011 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award

Indie booksellers' Indie Next Great Read

Wisconsin Library Association Outstanding Achievement

From W. W. Norton & Company

The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia


Narrator Gladys Cailiff is eleven years old in 1938 when a new schoolteacher turns Threestep, Georgia, upside down. Well-traveled Miss Spivey ditches the curriculum for a worldly and inclusive educational experience that involves readings from One Thousand Nights and a Night and reinvents the town's annual spring festival as a Baghdad Bazaar. Most everyone falls under Miss Spivey's spell, but not the local chapter of the KKK, which is enraged by her equal treatment of black students like genius young inventor Theo Boykin. On the night of the Baghdad Bazaar, all the town's demons break loose, prompting a night of death-defying storytelling that takes readers from a schoolroom in the South to the banks of the Tigris and back again.


Early praise for The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia


"Mary Helen Stefaniak is a born storyteller, with a fantastic gift for mingling the exotic and the ordinary, the comic and the heartrending. Her tale of drastic change coming to a small Southern town in the 1930's is filled with wild incidents, vivid characters, and a surprise at every turn--a delight to read."

—Lynne Sharon Schwartz, author of The Writing on the Wall and Ruined by Reading


“Wonderfully seductive, one of those rare books you disappear into wholly. It’s joyous, shamelessly funny, heartbreaking, and page after page it gives you what you didn’t expect. This is a novel you’ll want to hand deliver to a friend.”
—David Long, author of the Inhabited World and Blue Spruce


“Wonderfully engaging … a great tribute to the power of education, strong women and the fine art of storytelling… an intricate dazzling pattern of history and imagination and truth.”
—Jill McCorkle, author of Going Away Shoes and Carolina Moon


"Miss Jean Brodie finally meets her match in the delightful, charismatic Miss Grace Spivey. Mary Helen Stefaniak has created a generous, tender, witty, provocative novel."
—Valerie Miner, author of After Eden and The Low Road


“Set in the 1930s, The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia centers around one magical night when the Middle East comes radiantly to life in the deep South. Taking her cue from The Arabian Nights, Mary Helen Stefaniak has fashioned a sequence of stories within stories to uncover forgotten links in American history and to probe the myriad facets of prejudice. This unique novel delves into the nation’s recent past in order to caution us about the imminent future.”
—Judith Kitchen, author of The House on Eccles Road and The Poets’ Guide to the Birds


“I finished reading The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia early this morning and felt like I'd taken a wildly imaginative journey. I put down the last page and tried to think of the last time I'd been transported in quite the same way. Mary Helen Stefaniak is a highly original writer whose attention to detail doesn't keep her from far-flung plot twists and turns, nor wonderfully inventive names. The humor is broad on one level but then understated on another, which is authentically Southern. Congratulations on this rich, enjoyable novel.”
–Mary Grey James, Women's National Book Association




The Turk and My Mother
W.W. Norton & Company
Winner of the 2005 John Gardner Book Award


Four generations come to vivid life in pages spanning the entire 20th century, from the outer reaches of Siberia to the heartland of America. The sheer, indulgent pleasure of storytelling gives shape to this multi-layered comic novel about an immigrant family's secret history.

"You don’t just read The Turk and My Mother," says Jane Glaser, book club coordinator at Next Chapter Books in Mequon, Wisconsin. “You participate in it, like one of the characters, eavesdropping on family secrets that may or may not be meant for your ears.”

"Stefaniak's easy familiarity with the vernacular idioms of the old country and the new, and her respectful, zestful ear for different voices, create a world . . . at once magical and grounded in reality."--Publishers Weekly

"Fans of Amy Tan and Carol Shields will revel in the themes of remembrance, forgiveness, family devotion and forbidden love."--Booklist

"In this magical book, life and love triumph over loss and pain, and a big new literary talent arrives. For Stefaniak, as for Alice Hoffman, we come to recognize that we are all immigrants in the territory of the human heart, following the thread of love through the labyrinth that takes us home--a journey across continents and history that is hilarious, heart-breaking, and deeply touching."--Jonis Agee, author of Acts of Love on Indigo Road


"The Turk and My Mother reinvents the family saga and the art of storytelling as we know it."
--Lan Samantha Chang, author of Inheritance


"The Turk and My Mother is a wild ride through a symphonic family history that carries you breathless with laughter and curiosity to a most satisfying conclusion."
--Sandra Scofield, author of Occasions of Sin: A Memoir


"The Turk and My Mother sparkles with originality, humor and insight. Mary Helen Stefaniak has a true gift for making the ordinary feel magical and the exotic feel hauntingly familiar. I love this novel!"
--Eilzabeth Stuckey-French, author of Mermaids on the Moon


A Note to Biographers Regarding Famous Author Flannery O'Connor
All the scenes in "A Note" are wholly imagined, but the biographical information--both about O'Connor and about my mother's family--is, to the best of my knowledge, true. Some names have been changed, composite characters created, and a few dates rearranged. My aunt Sissie does not appear in the story, but I would like to acknowledge here, with gratitude, that she is the one who really said, "I call them all St. Joseph's."--MHS, in New Stories from the South (Algonquin 2000)

Self Storage and Other Stories
New Rivers Press
Winner of the Wisconsin Library Association’s 1998 Banta Award


“Stefaniak puts her characters to the test and watches them exceed themselves.”
--David Hamilton, author of Deep River


“These are transformative tales. . . . The world around us is the same but we are changed, our awareness heightened, our empathy renewed.”
--Sharon Oard Warner, author of Deep in the Heart



A Different Plain
(University of Nebraska Press, 2004), edited by Ladette Randolph, includes the story, "Believing Marina," by Mary Helen Stefaniak.
The authors of A Different Plain explore the Midwest, a vastness of small towns, corn, cattle, football, and family businesses. They also venture far afield, to desolate western lives, crowded urban relationships, poignant couplings, comic families, cross-country bus rides, and the worldly idiosyncrasies of characters everywhere. Original, spirited, and surprising, these contemporary stories depict a modern world on the move and extend the tradition of great fiction from Nebraska into the twenty-first century.

In the Middle of the Middle West: Literary Nonfiction from the Heartland
(Indiana University Press, 2003), edited by Becky Bradway, includes the essay, “Positively 4th Street,” by Mary Helen Stefaniak.

Stefaniak’s "Positively 4th Street" recalls people and events of her Milwaukee south-side neighborhood. It's one of 42 essays that take their inspiration from the Midwest -- not just its physical terrain but its emotional terrain as well. The writers are poets, novelists, filmmakers, and journalists; some came and stayed, some came and left. Others, like Stefaniak, were born and raised in the Midwest.

Selected Works

Novel
A hidden history of the South emerges when a worldly teacher leads Threestep, GA, to reinvent itself as “Baghdad.”
Hilarious and moving, a masterful debut novel about a Milwaukee immigrant family's secret history.
Short Fiction
"Every story I have ever written is in some sense an argument with Flannery O'Connor, as well as a tribute to her. This story happens to be the only one that mentions her by name."--MHS
Short stories by Nebraska writers edited by Ladette Randolph, with an introduction by Mary Pipher
Fiction (short stories)
In these nine stories, “the familiar world is both funnier and sadder than it seems.”
--Kalamazoo Gazette
Creative Non-Fiction
A rich and comprehensive collection of literary writings about the Midwest.