I first encountered good ol’ Southern charm in middle school when Peyton, a teenage boy’s vision of a goddess, with long blonde hair and cornflower blue eyes appeared as a transfer student from Georgia. She was, unfortunately, a gifted athlete, beautiful, polite but reserved, smart and self confident–and to top it off she had the most musical Southern accent. All the girls were prepared to hate her (who ever heard of a girl named Peyton anyway?) but there was just something about her that was both mysterious and inviting.
That charm and the ability to arouse curiosity are also evident in many novels written by Southerners–not just the literary William Faulkners, Eudora Weltys or Robert Penn Warrens, but also more contemporary writers such as Pat Conroy and Anne Rivers Siddons. These writers depict the South so vividly that their images have a lasting effect on their readers.
If you want to spend some time in the Bayou, sit under a gnarled oak enjoying sweetened tea and pralines, yell from a mountain top or romp through coastal tides and windswept dunes, pick up a book set in the South. You may laugh, you may cry but you’ll certainly be moved! Here are a few titles you may have missed over the years.
Penumbra by Carolyn Haines
In a departure from her lighthearted Southern paranormal mystery series, Haines brings to life this 1950s Mississippi story that has it all-melodrama, race relations, sexual tension and forbidden love. The kidnapping of a young girl and the beating of her mother are only two of the disturbing elements in this story. Racial barriers were still in place and life was not always pleasant for the black and mixed race characters in this story filled with heat, humidity and a sultry atmosphere.
The Bridge by Doug Marlette
Rick Cantrell returns to the Piedmont area of North Carolina after being fired from his cartoonist job at a New York newspaper. There is a historical perspective to the story as it traverses back and forth from the 1930s to the present detailing Rick’s Grandmother Lucy’s involvement in the 1934 Great Textile Strike and it’s long reaching effect on the town and its citizens. Family relationships and slowly emerging, long buried family secrets add depth and texture to this finely written book. The talented Marlette’s life was cut short in a Mississippi car accident last year. At his funeral, his best friend and novelist, Pat Conroy eulogized him with these words, “The first person to cry, when he heard of Doug’s death, was God”.
Fair and Tender Ladies by Lee Smith
This coming of age (and then some) tale is written as an epistolary novel in which the letters chronicle the life of Ivy, a young girl, living in the Virginia Appalachia region. Although there is much to be depressed about-poverty, family tragedies and social injustices, Ivy’s spirit transcends it all. Her love of life and indomitable spirit help her through many of life’s inequities and her spunky spirit will not be easily forgotten by the reader.
She Flew the Coop: a Novel Concerning Life, Death, Sex and Recipes in Limoges, Louisiana by Michael Lee West
Living ain’t easy in this small Louisiana town. The gossip mill runs strong in the story as various residents weigh in on the plight of teenage Olive who is pregnant by the Baptist Minister and hospitalized when she attempts to take her life. Spousal abuse, infidelity and rape -all serious subjects-are thankfully tempered by Southern humor, quirky characters and great recipes.