Growing up in the South yet living on the West Coast for nearly 40 years, I resonate with the idea that you can never fully “take the South out of the girl.” I still feel Southern in many ways, as if the culture were in my DNA, even though it isn’t. My parents were transplanted Northerners, so my experience of being Southern came less from them and more from my own experiences in school, with friends and their families, and of course, in the pages of books. Classics like Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell gave me a rich picture of the Antebellum South and To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee exposed the dark side of class and racial bigotry of the depression-era South.
More recently, Kathryn Stockett’s The Help portrayed the South of my childhood in the 1960’s. While we didn’t have “help,” I knew families that did. Memories of the Civil Rights battles of that time are threaded into the fabric of my being and this book resonated deeply with the pain I felt about the injustice that existed all around me. Stockett did a masterful job of weaving together the inconsistencies of that time period – the familial bonds between whites and their “help” as well as the exploitation of Black Americans. This book is on my list of favorites.
Another powerful depiction of Southern culture in the 1960’s was Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees. The white, motherless protagonist Lily had been raised by her black nanny/mother figure, Rosaleen. When Rosaleen is beaten in a racial incident, Lily joins her in fleeing town and Lily’s abusive father, with a plan to travel to a town that might offer clues to her mother’s death. This was a powerful coming-of-age story about healing past trauma and the power of love and connection.
On a lighter note, when it comes to Southern “beach reads,” Mary Kay Andrews is my go-to, hands down. I’ve read all of her books written under that pen name, and have thoroughly enjoyed them all! As I described in Blog #7: Girls Just Want to Have Fun, her books don’t surprise me as much as bring me comfort and enjoyment. They are engaging and fun and remind me of the things I still miss things about the South. I’ve really enjoyed her more recent books, The Weekenders and The High Tide Club, which have tackled some deeper and darker issues than her earlier books. Still, I think my favorite is Ladies Night. The therapist in me loved the themes explored in this book, and the setting was so much like my hometown that I felt transported back in time!
The newest on my list of Southern authors is Lisa Patton. Her Dixie series of three books (Whistlin’ Dixie in a Nor’easter, Yankee Doodle Dixie, and Southern as a Second Language) was as Southern as it gets. The protagonist, Leelee Satterfield, reluctantly leaves her hometown of Memphis and follows her husband to Vermont, only to have him desert her, forcing Leelee to run the inn they purchased on her own. In the second of this series, she returns to Memphis where the welcome home is less than welcoming, and in the final book of the trilogy, things start to look hopeful until some unexpected events occur. I think this final book was my favorite, primarily because I was so invested in the characters. I was rooting for Leelee and desperately hoping for some promising or happy ending. If you want to spend some time with a Southern Belle, this series will satisfy!
Patton’s most recent book, Rush, took me back to my late 70’s sorority days and the amazing camaraderie, comfort, and safety I found there. It also explored some important and relevant social justice issues within the Greek system of the past and present. It’s reminiscent of Stockett’s The Help, but set 50 years later, with racism and class inequities still very much alive. I found myself growing attached to the characters, especially Miss Pearl, and found it hard to say goodbye – I’m hoping a sequel might be in the works!
Like the title of Lisa Patton’s third book suggests, “Southern” really can be a second language and a culture shock for those who haven’t lived in it. Are you a Southerner or not? And do you have a favorite Southern book or character?