Archive for the ‘Southern fiction’ Category


Something happened in Levy, South Carolina when Magnolia was seven years old. She is now in her eighties living in a nursing home, possibly with Alzheimer’s.  In her own words she is “trapped somewhere deep behind my eyes, waving… calling… but no one can hear me.” Her husband George is dying, but with his trademark dry humor, he knows that they have enjoyed a good life and he still adores his beautiful wife “even though [we’re] on the first floor where dementia lives, even though we are older than dirt, she is lovely and sweet and she is my bride.” But they are both learning that the past is never lost when people who lived through it are still alive.

When a life-size photograph of Magnolia and Joe, a stranger from their past, arrive at the home on the same day, we start to learn of a tangled web of lives, in the present and in the distant past. Each character, from Annie, their kind, but disappointed caretaker, to Ash, Magnolia’s long lost brother, tells his or her own story, some in the first person, some in the third person. Most of the characters have long buried secrets to hide and may not even admit the truth to themselves, so beware: everyone may not be a reliable narrator.

The Inheritance of Beauty can be read on several different levels. First it is a straightforward novel, with a leisurely revelation of the 70-year-old mystery, while it describes the sadness of families split by terrible circumstances who never get back together because no one wants to be the first to make contact. The characters are well-drawn, memorable and mostly thoroughly likable. It can be enjoyed as a touching love story of Magnolia and George’s relationship that lasted from childhood into old age. It also has touches of magic realism that are harder to spot: when my book club discussed it, only one of us noticed that a journey to a pond and a wetting symbolized a character’s baptism and rebirth.

The Inheritance of Beauty will appeal to lovers of Southern fiction, particularly for caretaker Annie’s lovely speech patterns. It is a good book for readers of Still Alice by Lisa Genova, which also deals with Alzheimer’s Disease, but on more practical everyday level.

Check the WRL catalog for The Inheritance of Beauty.

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stuckDensely illustrated and narrated, Stuck Rubber Baby follows the life of Toland Polk, a white carpenter’s son living deep in the restless South during the 1960s. The story is introduced by the modern day Toland, who is gently amused as he recounts this stormy portion of his life. The ’60s were a time of electrifying change, both social and political, and it was an exhilarating time to be coming of age.

Toland has a deep love of music, which leads him to hang out at bars with other people from town around his age, black and white, male and female. Without really consciously intending to, Toland gets drawn into the fight for Civil Rights in his town, compelled by his friendships and his rejection of the inequality woven into the fabric of daily life in the South.

But Toland has a secret. His entire life he has known that he is attracted to men, but he also realizes how homosexuals get treated. He endeavors to either hide or convert his feelings if possible. He meets a girl named Ginger, who is even more forceful in her support of integration, and is able to nurture enough of a crush on her to start dating. The story draws an intricate parallel between society’s rejection of blacks and gays. Toland knows he’s lucky that he can appear to be part of the majority by putting up a false face and having a relationship with a woman, but his black friends don’t have that luxury. Those friends of his who are both black and gay face exponentially more animosity.

The adult Toland is unflinchingly honest about his past experiences. He knows how his battles against his personal demons caused him to be insincere to those around him, but he also realizes that he was forced into many of those deceptions by the expectations of a society that could not, would not accept him as he was. The story brings in a wide cast of characters as people come in and out of Toland’s life and shies away from caricatures. This makes for a rich world that believably portrays a turbulent time in our recent history without stooping to lecture or browbeat.

Recommended for readers of graphic novels, historical novels, and social history.

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tomatoHow do some writers create compelling, even heroic, main characters that you wouldn’t want to spend ten minutes with in real life?  It’s a problem for some readers, but I admire the ability, and find that skill translates into forceful storylines.

Tomato Red is the story of four such characters.  Sammy Barlach tells the tale in an uncompromising voice; he does not hide anything from his audience, including his understanding that his whole life he’s been headed for prison or an early grave.  We first meet Sammy when he’s under the influence of crank and breaking into a McMansion to impress a girl. But the high runs out and he wakes to find himself in the company of two seemingly-sophisticated young people who want Sammy to help them with a project.

Turns out Sammy has come into the orbit of Jamalee and Jason Merridew, two of the inhabitants of the lowest life across-the-track neighborhood in West Table, Missouri.  West Table’s chief employer is a dog food factory, and Sammy can’t even keep a job there; Jamalee and Jason have bigger plans to escape West Table and go somewhere where people don’t treat them like the garbage on the bottom of their shoes.  That’s where Sammy comes in.

But there’s trouble with their plan, the kind that can’t be overcome no way nohow.  It seems their only choice is to put themselves into their own places – Jason at the local hair salon, Jamalee waiting tables at the country club, and Sammy doing whatever is left when the dog food factory doesn’t work out.  Even those efforts go awry, and the trio embarks on a cycle of revenge and retribution that destroys their plans once and for all.

The fourth person in the story is Bev Merridew, Jamalee and Jason’s mother.  She’s the kind of woman who learned long ago that for a pretty girl from across the tracks the best solution to life’s steamroller is to lay down.  So she lays down, either with a joint or with a guy who can put some money in her pocket, and lets the rest wash over her.  She even smokes, drinks, and sleeps with Sammy, which throws another sour note into his relationship with Jamalee.  When trouble hits too close to home, though, for once she decides to take action but finds what few assets she has are worth nothing to the important people of the town.

Woodrell’s characters are the very best thing about this book.  Sammy speaks in the cadence and language of a mostly unlettered culture that hasn’t yet succumbed to the uniformity of TV-speak.  Like the forebears who settled in the isolated Ozarks, he has a fierce independence, a fierce loyalty to the people he adopts as his, a fierce temper when crossed.  Jamalee barely contains her rage, knowing deep down that she doesn’t have the wherewithal to leave West Table.  Jason is learning about his sexuality, and it doesn’t look good for him among these rural alpha males.  Bev is earthy, practical, willing, which makes her a favorite among those same men.

I don’t know what it is about this setting, or the people who inhabit it, but it seems that I keep coming back to it, and with Tomato Red, I know I’m in good hands.  The author of the terrific Winter’s Bone (also made into a movie starring Jennifer Lawrence, who was nominated for an Oscar for her portrayal of Ree),  Woodrell’s writing is a reminder that an air of fatalism and a talent for stark storytelling seems to characterize the people of the Ozarks; maybe that’s what brings me back.

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incognegroThe best fiction is often that which is built on a foundation of truth. In the early 20th century, Walter White, a former head of the NAACP, went undercover as a white man in the Deep South in order to do investigative reporting on lynchings that were not being reported by the local newspapers. That journey served as an inspiration for writer Mat Johnson, who grew up as a light-skinned African American when you could be white or black, but not both.

The story follows Zane Pitchback, a Harlem-based reporter for the New Holland Herald. The light-skinned Zane, writing under the pseudonym “Incognegro,” has gained anonymous infamy for his blistering exposés on racial violence in the South. Frustrated that he’s not getting appropriate acknowledgement of his work, Zane seeks to shelve his investigative reporting and get recognition under his own byline. But when his own brother gets wrongly arrested for killing a white woman, Zane once again travels south for a story. Desperate to save his brother, and disguised as a member of the Ku Klux Klan, Zane tries to find the real killer before his brother gets lynched.

Zane is accompanied by his similarly light-skinned friend named Carl, who is experiencing the injustices of the South for the first time. Zane finds his brother alive but under constant threat from the local population. Even if Zane can discover the truth of what happened, he’s not sure he can get his brother free and safely back to New York. Meanwhile, Carl has taken on a British accent and is playing poker and drinking with the locals, but keeping from being discovered is a tricky and dangerous game.

An absorbing and compelling tale, this story brings to life the blurred and impermanent lines that are used by society to separate one group of people from another. Recommended for readers of historical fiction, especially those who are interested in social justice.

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bayouIf you asked people what they think of when they hear the term “American mythos” many would undoubtedly call to mind Cowboys and Indians and other aspects of the Wild West, unaware of the vibrant and complex stories and traditions of Southern Folklore. Bayou is a beautifully-rendered Alice in Wonderland-style fairytale set in Mississippi during the Depression. It is a uniquely Southern world, filled with mud and Spanish moss, concurrently embracing and fighting against the legacy of slavery.

The story centers on Lee, a young black girl, who is friends with Lily, the white daughter of the woman who owns the farm where Lee and her father live. Lily is snatched and swallowed by a monster from the bayou, named Cotton-Eyed Joe, and Lee’s father makes a convenient suspect for the local law officers when she is reported missing by her mother. In an effort to get her friend back, and free her father before he gets lynched, Lee follows the monster into the brackish water, and finds herself in an alternate but parallel world. The inhabitants of this world are human-like, but their physical bodies have been replaced by various characters drawn from Southern myths. She meets Bayou, a swamp dweller who, despite his giant stature, is cowed into submission by the Bossman and his lackeys through their brutal enforcement of the law. Despite his fear, Bayou sees the need and determination of Lee to find her friend Lily and decides to help her, although not without trepidation.

Any story that starts with a lynching and exposes the varied responses of people to such brutality isn’t going to pull punches. But what is most chilling about its narrative is that Bayou doesn’t make the humans into caricatures. The people in the normal world are just that: normal. They are all believable products of their time and environments, and that is clearly reflected in the social interactions between the characters. Young and old, black and white, rich and poor, everyone seems to know who is in power and the potential consequences of any action that might upset the current balance. In the parallel world, characters are taken to their extreme with Jim Crows, Golliwogs, and Confederate officer hounds, but it’s the similarities rather than the differences between the two worlds that are most striking.

Bayou’s injections of race, religion, poverty, and the blues contribute to an important and uniquely Southern voice in fantasy and graphic novels. The storyline and imagery can be disturbing and unsettling, but these aspects give meaning and power to the book’s message. Both written and drawn by Jeremy Love, the use of color enhances the atmosphere, bathing the images in deep gold, dusky pink, and brownish-green. Recommended to readers of fantasy, graphic novels, and southern fiction.

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judasShell shock. Battle fatigueSoldier’s heart.  As early at the 1600’s it was known as Swiss Disease.  In the 1860’s some even called it “nostalgia,” thinking that simple homesickness could account for the disorientation, straggling, malingering, alcoholism, “cowardice,” and desertion that plagued the Union and Confederate armies.  In Howard Bahr’s novel of the Civil War, the debilitation follows a small group of comrades back to their Mississippi hometown, where they continue to relive their war experiences.  Those experiences gradually center on the heartbreak of the Battle of Franklin, Tennessee.

Cass Wakefield and Roger Lewellyn enlisted in the rebel army in those heady days when it appeared that the war would be over by the end of the summer of 1861.  Serving in the Army of Tennessee, they fought at Shiloh, Stones River, Chickamauga, and the Atlanta Campaign, along with the dozens of smaller actions and skirmishes throughout those years.  They saw men die in every conceivable way, from the gruesome to the mundane, losing comrades at each step of the long march that brought them to Franklin.  They also picked up a boy, a toughened orphan named Lucifer, who they promptly renamed Lucius.  On his own, Lucius would adopt the name Wakefield and become mascot, comrade, and fellow sufferer in the line of battle.

Now, twenty years after the war, Lucius is addicted to laudanum, Roger carries the deep psychic wounds of an artist confronted with butchery, and Cass uses alcohol to numb his pain.  All three, and most of the men of their town, wander the streets in the middle of the night like ghosts in search of a place to haunt.  But when Alison Sansing, daughter of their regimental commander and sister of the dashing Perry, asks Cass to help her recover the bodies of her beloved father and brother, he agrees to accompany her to Franklin.

What Alison, one of Cass’s oldest friends, doesn’t tell him is that she is dying of cancer and this trip is the final obligation of a life filled with her own pain and heartbreak.  As their train rolls through the Southern countryside, she begins to see the landscape through which the men of her acquaintance marched and fought.  And Cass begins to recall and relive both painful and humorous episodes from his soldiering life.  It isn’t until they reach Franklin that they discover that both Lucian and Roger have followed them, and their emotional journey becomes a volatile one.

Howard Bahr is a rare combination of historian and author, skilled at gently and gradually exposing details of the soldier’s life and their direct battle experiences at places like Franklin while exploring the deeper battles hidden in human memory.  His writing is both insightful and evocative, with a perfect balance between description and psychological depth, while his characters are fully realized in all their glory and agony.  It’s not for nothing that his novels have been named Notable Books by the New York Times.  (Hey, Pulitzer people: were you asleep?)

For a historical account of the Union’s commander at Franklin and Nashville, check out Benson Bobrick’s Master of War.  Robert Hicks’s Widow of the South is a fictional account which details the life of Carrie McGavock, whose house was a Confederate hospital and who almost singlehandedly dug up and reburied Confederate dead on her own land.

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PostmortemPostmortem is Patricia Cornwell’s first medical thriller featuring Dr. Kay Scarpetta and homicide detective Pete Marino, set in Richmond, Virginia. I tried to keep my reading confined to the audiobook in my car, but I found myself taking it to bed with me every night and not falling asleep until I’d listened through at least two CDs per night. I hadn’t read a “coroner” story or watched very many TV shows (no more than a few CSI episodes) on this topic of forensic pathology since one of my old favorites, Quincy, M.E., starring Jack Klugman, in the late 70s to early 80s, so I’m delighted to rekindle my odd fascination with the gory details of autopsies and forensic investigation. I don’t feel bad about this considering that Cornwell’s tales seem to have taken up permanent residence on the bestseller lists. I’m pretty stoked that I’ll now be able to read or listen to more than 20 books in the Kay Scarpetta series, and I’ve also now discovered a number of other writers of suspense-filled medical thrillers to add to my reading list.

Scarpetta is a strong, female leading character (Quince was quite the chauvinist, as I recall). In this first novel, she’s obviously up against male characters who think she does not belong in her position as Chief Medical Examiner for the Commonwealth of Virginia. She also has to gain the confidence and respect of her sidekick, detective Pete Marino, who reappears throughout the series. The pairing of a medical expert with a legal or police professional seems to be a very effective device in this style of literature, one that has proven successful in a number of series and TV shows. I really enjoyed the character development in Postmortem. Pete and Kay don’t get along well at first, but over time they recognize each other’s unique talents and slowly develop an awkward rapport tinged with sarcasm and a bit of humor that promises to develop further into the series. The ending was unpredictable and the inevitable dangerous situation the characters get themselves into could not have been resolved without their loyalty to each other and teamwork.

The medically fascinating details in these books showcase some of the latest technological advancements in forensic pathology through the years. Some might find it odd to deal with Cornwell’s older books and the now-obsolete computer technologies and medical practices, but others may enjoy it, sort of like opening a time capsule. Her latest novels continue to incorporate modern techniques and equipment being used in the real world of medicine, virtual autopsies for example.

This review is not for those who are already loyal fans of Patricia Cornwell. It’s to alert readers newly interested in fast-paced medical thrillers that we have her series of books in the library just waiting for your discovery! Check the WRL catalog for Postmortem, in print or in audiobook on CD.

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Pat Conroy is one of those novelists that I’ve always intended to read, but never quite made time for. I read his memoir The Water Is Wide years ago, a book I can heartily recommend, but I never made time for his fiction until now.

I saw the movie made of The Great Santini years ago. It’s a tour-de-force for Robert Duvall, who inhabits Marine pilot Bull Meecham perfectly, making him in turns terrifying, charismatic, and larger than life. It’s exactly as Conroy wrote him: the purest of Marines, living legend and sometimes embarrassment to the Corps, dedicated family man but bully and abuser to his relations. Bull runs on raw instinct, bravado, and Marine Corps tradition, and he has no doubt about how to act in any situation. Over the years, his wife and children have taken the fallout from his absolute rule, pressing the hair trigger of his temper, failing to live up to his expectations, or serving as verbal and sometimes physical punching bags when they or someone with power over Bull do anything to contradict his view of the world.

What the movie doesn’t get as well, are all of the other characters. In particular, firstborn son Ben, Bull’s most frequent target except for his wife,  Lillian, is just as important to the book as Bull himself. In many ways, the book is primarily about Ben’s coming of age and pursuing his own path despite Bull’s attempts to control him. Ben is a peacemaker, used to tolerating his father’s bluster and violence. His form of rebellion is to be kind and accepting where his father is bullying and never willing to admit wrongdoing. Over the course of the book, on the basketball court, in his interactions with the African-Americans of a small Georgia town, in school, and especially in his family, he learns that sometimes one has to do more than appease. Mother Lillian, a southern belle to the core, and oldest sister Mary Ann, a sarcastic, bright, and self-loathing girl, are memorable as well.

The other thing that is memorable about The Great Santini is its depiction of a particular time and place (the 50s, 60s, and 70s) in the American South. It’s a kind of community that may not exist anymore, and that’s both a good and a bad thing. Although it may have passed out of existence, it’s a kind of place worth knowing and remembering, and through this book you can do that.

Check the WRL catalog for The Great Santini

Or try The Great Santini as an audiobook on CD

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Today’s review is from Nancy in Circulation Services:

“There are gods in Alabama: Jack Daniel’s, high school quarterbacks, trucks, big tits, and also Jesus.”

Joshilyn Jackson grabs you with her opening line and has you chasing her words through a wonderfully funny, exciting, eye-opening, and suspenseful journey. Her frequent “Southernisms” will keep you in stitches no matter what part of the country you’re from, and for those of us born and bred below the Mason Dixon Line, you’ll catch yourself acknowledging your Southern Belle tendencies with an uncontrollable smiling nod.

Arlene Fleet has fled her home town of Possett, Alabama, for the big city of Chicago in hopes of escaping a tiny little mistake made in her sophomore year of high school… killing the senior star quarterback and dumping his body over a cliff. Her pact with God is that if he will let her get away with this small error in judgment by not letting the body be found, she will keep three promises: never tell a lie no matter the cost, stop fornicating with every boy that crosses her path, and never return to her hometown of Possett. Ten years later, fate steps in as her African American boyfriend declares “I want to meet your family or it’s over.” One by one her promises are challenged, leading her back to Possett and the array of special family and friends. This good-hearted group includes her Southern Baptist, Bible toting Aunt Florence, her slightly “touched” crazy mother, a family tree of happy racists, and her unconditionally loving best friend Cousin Clarice. With her past catching up with her, the future seems too scary to face. Arlene remembers and reveals the events of her life that tell the story of the murder but keep the reader guessing until the end as to what really happened that night.

The story covers tough issues such as sexual abuse, teenage promiscuity, and a bit of racism mixed with denial, and in the same light expresses the strong bond between best friends and family. It’s a story of self awareness, soul searching, and acceptance of differences that will make you sad, angry, and relieved, while allowing you to laugh out loud at the antics and expressions of the eclectic characters you will come to love.

The audiobook, read by Catherine Tabor, a Georgia native, captures the diction and accent of the Alabama southerner. gods in Alabama is truly brought to life!

I recommend this first work of Joshilyn Jackson as well as her next book, Between Georgia. Another great read or listen!

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Check the WRL catalog for gods in Alabama in audiobook format.


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I really enjoyed this debut novel by Lynda Rutledge.  The title is certainly a mouth-full, but the story is a wonderfully delivered family drama that easily slides from present to past.

Faith Bass Darling wakes up on New Year’s Eve certain that this last day of 1999 will be her last.  As part of her deal with God, she starts the day by clearing out her mansion of all the beautiful antiques her family has collected over decades.

I thought it was clever how some of the chapters start with the provenance of one of Faith’s antiques and a short description of how that piece played a role in her family history.

Within a few pages of the story, we learn that Faith suffers from dementia and has blank spells where she doesn’t remember anything.  The doctor has told her to try to stay away from clutter, so that’s part of the reason she’s bringing her family treasures to her front lawn, she’s having a garage sale.

Soon people all around town know that the lady who lives  on the hill is selling things really cheap — “pay what you can” is Faith’s mantra.  It drives the local antiques dealer nuts that she can’t “save” all of these possessions from being sold so far beneath their value — but that doesn’t stop her from loading up her van with as much as she can manage!

When Faith’s estranged daughter, Claudia Jean, shows up, Faith thinks that she’s another figment of her faulty mind.    There’s a reason Faith hasn’t seen her daughter in years, a lot of which has to do with an heirloom wedding ring that Claudia supposedly stole the night she ran away.  Claudia thinks finding that ring would be the key to repairing her relationship with her mother, but the $8,000 desk it was hidden in was sold earlier that day.

During the course of the day, Faith reflects on her life from her idyllic childhood, through her unhappy marriage to Claude, to the accidental death of her son and her falling out with Claudia Jean.  But it isn’t just Faith who uses this New Year’s Eve to recall the past — others lend their voice to recounting how their story intertwines with Faith’s.

I liked the layers in the story and how the antiques played a role in people’s lives.  There were humorous elements to break up what could have been maudlin.  This will stay with you long after you turn the last page.

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A young pregnant woman is drowned.  An ambitious young man is accused of killing her to clear the way for an advantageous marriage.  Sounds an awful lot like An American Tragedy (or its film counterpart, A Place in the Sun), right?  And like Theodore Dreiser, John Milliken Thompson based his story on a true story.  But where Dreiser used the circumstances to explore the American drive for advancement, Thompson focuses more on the psychology of the event’s key players, making this a more intimate and personal story.

In 1885, the year Lillian Madison was found dead in the Richmond city reservoir, Virginia was overshadowed by the Civil War but beginning to make the painful transition towards a more modern society.  Still, the divisions between rich and poor, educated and illiterate, black and white, and rural and urban are evident in Thompson’s rendering of this complicated time.  But one element has not changed: Bible-based morality still publicly governed society, and inevitably the lowest person on the social ladder is the unmarried pregnant woman.

There is a sort of foursome at the heart of this story – brothers Tommie and Willie Cluverius, Lillian Madison, and Nola Bray.  Willie and Lillian have had a playfully romantic relationship, but free-spirited Lillie wants more than the staid Willie is going to give her.  Willie isn’t certain whether Lillie is trustworthy, wondering if the dark stories she’s told him about her father are true.  Nola is the daughter of one of the wealthiest and best connected families in the community, an asset for Tommie’s ambitions.  However, “her beauty was the kind that would not last much beyond her youth,” a trait that keeps the libidinous Tommie from pursuing Nola with ardor.   Tommie also has a wild streak that both young women recognize, even if he himself doesn’t.  Nola wants to control it; Lillie responds to it, and the foursome is reduced to two people who eventually give in to their desire for each other.

When Lillie tells Tommie she is pregnant, he dithers and delays until eight months have gone by.  At an appointed time, he meets Lillie, accompanies her to the reservoir and is present when she dies.  While we know from the start that Tommie was at the reservoir, we, along with the public, must wait to discover how Lillie drowned.  We do know that Tommie lies throughout his trial, taking the tack that he didn’t know Lillie was in Richmond that night, but his conviction – built on the flimsiest of evidence – is still a surprise.  Like most of the onlookers, commentators, and prosecutors, we know he is guilty.  The difference is that readers aren’t sure of what.  Tommie even offers competing versions of the night’s events to his brother, but the stories don’t add up to a definite answer.  After Tommie’s death, with so many loose ends left, Willie has a revelation – “that it doesn’t matter what he believes, that the only thing you can count on in faith, as in love, is that the ground is going to shift under you.”  Readers of this book are well advised to keep that in mind.

Thompson also evokes the feel of a definite time and place while constructing this tragedy.  In a rural community, the arresting officers sit down for dinner with the accused and his family.  People gather on a street corner to listen to a fire-breathing preacher.  Two young couples drowse in innocent familiarity on the banks of a river, listening to poetry and cicadas humming in the trees.  And refined alcoholism, brothels, discreet indiscretions, and child abuse are all kept well beneath the surface of public appearance.  We might think those were simpler times, but Thompson has found a way to remind us that the human heart is never simple.

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Hang down your head, Tom Dooley,
Hang down your head and cry.
Hang down your head, Tom Dooley,
Poor boy, you’re bound to die.

If you don’t recognize the words to the folksong as recorded by The Kingston Trio you have seriously misspent your life.  A #1 hit in 1958, it sold 6 million copies, has been added to the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress, and been credited with starting the folk music revival of the early Sixties.  That revival gave rise to people like Harry Belafonte, Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul and Mary, Joan Baez, and other staples of the Civil Rights and anti-war movements.  In turn, they led the way to the singer-songwriters like (brace yourselves) The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Grateful Dead, John Denver, Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne, Sheryl Crow and Alanis Morrisette.  Quite a legacy for one song recounting the true story of a post-Civil War murder.

Except it wasn’t true, or at least the song isn’t accurate.  As a ballad it has the necessary elements – one murderer, one victim, one crime.  Real life is so much messier, as I learned when I accidentally heard a pair of folksingers at the National Folk Festival in Richmond.  They had a completely different take on the story, which involved multiple lovers, syphilis, and a corrupt sheriff.  Not so easy to sing about in three minutes, but closer to the story the people of Wilkes County, NC, still remember.  They’ll also correct another important aspect – the man’s name was Tom Dula, not Dooley.

Sharyn McCrumb has taken the seeds of that story, added important details from the trial transcripts, and reflected upon the human nature of the community affected by the murder.   She has also given a central place to a formerly minor character who drives the tragedy forward.  In doing so, she has not given us a traditional mystery but, as she calls it, a close parallel to Wuthering Heights.  (She also tells us that careful readers will find echoes of Emily Bronte’s language – I don’t know enough to spot those.  Sorry.)

Pauline Foster, a servant girl, becomes the new voice of the story, reciting a tale of love, jealousy, infidelity, and prejudice.  The community is overshadowed by the intense poverty of Appalachia in the 1860s, and by the aftereffects of the Civil War.  In that time of uncertainty and continued fear, she uses people’s emotions to manipulate them into conflict and confrontation.  Since she herself is not afflicted by those emotions, she does not care about the consequences.

Interestingly, McCrumb intersperses Pauline’s narrative about events leading to the murder with the recollections of former North Carolina governor Zebulon Vance, who defended Tom Dula in two trials.  Like the people surrounding Tom and Pauline, Vance is scarred by the South’s loss of the Civil War, and is trying to rebuild his reputation by taking on the high profile case.  The contrast between Vance, the ambitious mountain boy who grew to the halls of power, and the squalid lives of his former neighbors is especially telling, and in some ways Vance’s ambitions make him sound like Pauline.  I wonder if he would be offended if he knew that the name of his defendant would live on even as his own receded into history.

This is neither a mystery nor infused with the sense of the supernatural that many of McCrumb’s other books have brought to readers.  It does have that powerful sense of place that characterizes her Appalachian writing, and the clear-eyed view of the good and bad in the people who reside there.  This atmospheric and character-driven book is a great complement to her other stories.

Check the WRL catalog for The Ballad of Tom Dooley


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In the prologue to Silas House’s 2001 debut novel, Clay’s Quilt, the reader is privy to the conversation of a carload of riders on an icy Appalachian mountain. The conditions are dangerous, but beyond that, there’s clearly something else causing tension.

We jump forward fifteen years, and meet our protagonist, Clay Sizemore. He’s a young miner, trying to find his place in the world, and he lost his mother on that icy mountain night when he was just four years old. Despite his limited time with her, Clay has grown up much like his mother Anneth: He’s a little wild, but he’s good with people. He’s spiritual, but doesn’t respond to his family’s organized religion. He’s a passionate young man, responding deeply to music and the land. He still feels rootless because of the mysteries that still envelop his past.

The novel deals with Clay’s coming of age, particularly in terms of his relationships. He has to form adult relationships with his aunts and uncles, help his pregnant cousin Dreama negotiate her young marriage, and figure out how his friendship with his best friend Cake should progress as they outgrow weekends of wild partying. Most importantly, he falls for Alma, a gifted young fiddler who’s married to an abusive man. Divorce is frowned upon by her family, and her husband is a dangerous man to cross. As if all this weren’t enough to figure out, he also slowly pieces together the mystery of what happened to his mother, the identity of his father, and how he can reconcile past and present.

You’ll feel the suspense as Clay does, trying to figure out how he’s going to navigate life’s puzzle. But even better, Silas House creates likable characters with believable flaws. His understanding and love for his Appalachian home is obvious on every page. These aren’t anybody’s stereotypical hillbillies, but their lives do move to different rhythms, and through this novel, even a city reader can begin to understand those rhythms. House  shows how powerful influences like substance abuse, a love of music, complicated family ties, or connection with home lands change people, both for better and for worse. The people of this book are grounded, and only a writer who is grounded himself could capture this so effectively.

Anyone who loves literature about the South, about country people, or about human relationships should make a beeline to one of House’s three novels. The others are called A Parchment of Leaves and The Coal Tattoo.

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Author John Milliken Thompson created a captivating novel, The Reservoir, after researching an old court case involving the death of a woman in Richmond. On the morning of March 14, 1885, the body of a young, pregnant woman was found floating in the Richmond reservoir. Investigators first thought the woman had committed suicide, but evidence suggested that a second person had been with her the night before, when she had drowned. The body was eventually found to be that of Fannie Lillian Madison, known to her family and friends as Lillie. The Richmond Dispatch followed the case from the discovery of Lillie’s body through the trial of a distant cousin of hers, Tommie Cluverius, charged with first degree murder. Lillie had been involved with both Tommie and his older brother, Willie, when she was living with her aunt in King and Queen County. It was not known for sure whose baby she was carrying—one of the brothers’, or perhaps someone else’s. The case was a sensation at the time, with front-page headlines in Richmond and even in the New York Times.

Thompson writes chapters that take place after Lillie’s death in the present tense and chapters up to her death in the past tense. This was a little uncomfortable at first, but it only took a few chapters to get used to it. Then I found that the change in tense helped clarify the time period I was reading about.

I read The Reservoir twice, and both times I was absorbed in it. I thought about the book all day as I was doing other things and wanted to get back to it as soon as possible, even the second time I read it. There is a real sense of the nineteenth century, and of a very Southern Richmond, only a couple decades after the Civil War. From my memories of older Virginia relatives, the dialect Thompson uses seems just right.

Thompson posted images from the sources he used on his website, including images of articles in the Richmond Dispatch and the New York Times, photos of Richmond from the time, a photo of Lillie’s grave, and a map of Richmond showing where the reservoir and other key places were. Viewing these images further helped me feel I was immersed in the period about which I was reading.

As I read, I had to remind myself that this was a novel. Thompson didn’t really know what transpired between the brothers and their cousin, but he created such realistic characters that I felt I knew their motivations and emotions. By the end of the novel, the reader still isn’t sure what happened, but it doesn’t matter. A pat ending wouldn’t make this novel any better. It would, in fact, be disingenuous to what happened. We know what the jury decided; we don’t know what really took place.

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Arkansas: They tell me I was born there, but I really don’t remember.

What I do remember is the place where I grew up, the intoxicating confluence of the Appalachians, the Smokies, and the Blue Ridge Mountains. Though a transplant to western North Carolina, I think of this area as home– and no one describes it better than Sharyn McCrumb, not even Adriana Trigiani. Set in the rural landscape of eastern Tennessee, McCrumb’s Ballad series evokes the landscape, the people, and the lifestyle of the area. Beyond that, however, the series is hard to describe: The books have a crime element and a mystery, but they’re not whodunnits; they are sometimes set in the present, sometimes in the past; they are beautifully written but not usually marketed as Literary Fiction; and they have recurring characters, but each book works on its own.

The second book in the series, The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, weaves together several stories. Four members of the Underhill family die in a murder/suicide, and the remaining two members are suddenly orphaned. Laura Bruce, though pregnant with her own child, wants to take in the orphans. The contemplative Sheriff Spencer Arrowood delves into the story behind the suicide and murders, and the elderly clairvoyant Nora Bonesteel observes a lot but says little, though she does predict that Laura Bruce will experience a tragedy.

Another sub-plot centers around Tavy Amis, a farmer who is dying of cancer after too many years of living near a polluted river. Though the carcinogens come from a paper mill in a neighboring state, the pollution is taking its toll on the people and the land in Tennessee. Tavy’s medical fate is sealed, but perhaps he can extract his revenge in his remaining days.

There is little in the way of strong language or sex, but be warned: in the tradition of the best Southern fiction, this is a dark book. Themes of poverty, environmental degradation, and death are explored through the lives of realistic and sympathetic characters. This is not a romanticized portrait of life in the mountains, but rather a beautiful and haunting portrait that cements McCrumb’s place as a talented observer of human lives.

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In 1813, Theodosia Burr Alston disappeared, along with the crew of the Patriot, the ship that was carrying her from South Carolina to New York. Why should anyone have paid attention? Well, Theodosia was the daughter of Aaron Burr, and the wife of South Carolina Governor Joseph Alston.  Theodosia was well-known in her own right as an accomplished young woman educated far above the standards for women of her time.

Rumors and legends abounded that the Patriot was lured ashore by Bankers (no, not the kind that created subprime mortgages–these were the civilized ones) or boarded by pirates who put everyone to the sword. Michael Parker has taken one of those rumors–that Theodosia survived and lived out her life on the remote Outer Banks –and turned it into a meditation on the web of human relationships that sustain each of us.

Considered mad by the island’s residents, Theodosia is protected by their superstitious leader but eventually escapes with the help of Whaley, a man suffered to live by that same leader. The two manage to eke out a living on another island by scavenging the beach (known as progging) for raw materials, laboriously cultivating a garden, fishing the Currituck Sound and eventually starting a family.

The remains of that family become the basis for a second narrative set nearly two hundred years later on the same island.  The twentieth century and the constant threat of the island’s erosion has whittled the population down to three.  Sisters Maggie and Theodosia Whaley are elderly white women who refuse to leave their homes despite the constant reminder that they have become relics of a much earlier time. The island’s electricity and telephone service have been cut, boats are the only means of contact with the outside world, and newspaper advertising their window to the world just over the horizon. Of the two, only Maggie has had much contact with the outside world in the form of a much younger man who begged her to marry him and live on the mainland. Her adventurous nature notwithstanding (she was the island’s bad girl), Maggie could not bring herself to slip the cable that tied her to the island.

The third character, Woodrow Thornton, is a stolid black man whose taciturn nature belies his deeply felt emotions.  The complexity of his relationship with the Whaley sisters is gradually revealed when he loses his outspoken and independent wife Sarah in a hurricane and a stable foursome becomes a fragile trio. Woodrow is the ethical heart of the story, and his viewpoint ties together the 150-year history of the two mutually dependent families.

The landscape of the island and the Outer Banks is as much a character in the story as any of the humans. Like all the Outer Banks, it is swept by constant winds, lashed by fierce storms, and subject to erosion that strips or adds land to it. Plants are stunted by the sandy soil and shaped by the wind, and clouds of mosquitoes make life miserable for off-islanders. Parker perfectly captures the island and the water that surrounds it, and readers come to understand how the elements also shape the people.

This is not a novel for people who crave action. The language is deliberate, aimed at crafting images that come together to form a near-complete portrait of a timeless place. It is the kind of book to immerse yourself in, to read and re-read passages for their beauty, and to wonder at Parker’s understanding of the intricacies of human relationships.

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Fred Chappell is a wonderful storyteller whose novels of life in the North Carolina Piedmont can elicit both laughter and tears, often in the same paragraph. I have been rereading some of my favorite Chappell books and in doing so am reminded of why I love them so.

Farewell I’m Bound to Leave You is wonderful place for readers new to Chappell to start. Jess Kirkman and his father sit in the living room of their house, while in the back bedroom, Jess’s grandmother is dying, attended by her daughter, Jess’s mother. The book that follows is a series of short, interconnected pieces that all deal with the stories of women whose lives have touched and illuminated the lives of the Kirkmans.

Jess and his father relive these stories, which often have at their center Jess’s grandmother, whose death will leave an unbearable gap in the family’s lives. Chappell’s writing style is lyrical, and there is a thread of things outside reality that weaves through the stories. He eloquently captures the speech patterns of rural North Carolina, and his grasp of myth and legend make his characters come alive for the reader. Chappell reminds us of the importance of story to our lives in a thoughtful and moving way.

For more Southern authors and the stories they tell, be sure to see our list of Great Southern Fiction

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Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter

“M, I, crooked letter, crooked letter, I, crooked letter, crooked letter, I, humpback, humpback, I.” One of the main characters in Tom Franklin’s atmospherically dark novel refers to Mississippi as “the crooked letter,” from the jump rope chant that spells the name of the state. “Welcome back to the crooked letter,” he leaves on an old friend’s answering machine when he learns the friend has moved back to the rural hamlet of Chabot after more than twenty years away. The novel is as much about isolation, the tenuous friendships of children, family dysfunction, adolescent awkwardness, suspicious rumors, and race relations in the 1970s in the South as it is about the mystery of two missing girls. It is a deep, rich novel about two characters, Larry Ott, a lower-middle-class white boy, and poor African-American Silas Jones, now nicknamed “32” from his college baseball uniform.

In the present day, Larry Ott still lives in the house where he grew up. His father is dead and his mother, suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s, is in a nursing home. Larry owns the auto garage his father once owned— Ottomotive Repair—but rarely gets any business, as the townspeople steer clear of him. He reads books that he gets from his book clubs, mostly horror novels. He tends his chickens and visits his mother when she’s having “a good day.” He drives his father’s 1970’s model red Ford pickup, with an umbrella in the gun rack. He can’t own a gun “because of his past.” A local girl has been missing for eight days now, and a county investigator, familiar to Larry, stops by his house with a warrant. “You understand,” the investigator says. Larry does understand, and lets him in. Larry sits outside while the investigator searches through every room of his house, looking for any sign of the missing Rutherford girl.

Twenty-five years ago, another girl, Cindy Walker, went missing, and Larry was the last one known to see her alive. He had taken her to the drive-in, or at least that’s what everyone thought. That Larry had a date was big news in the high school rumor mill. It was the only date Larry would ever have. When Cindy disappears after that night, Larry is fingered as guilty even though there is no evidence linking him to a crime, and Cindy’s body is never found. Small town rumors run rampant, and “Scary Larry” is shunned.

As a child, Larry is peculiar, asthmatic and weak. His father, who loves his bourbon, taunts him, calls him a Momma’s boy and laughs at him for reading books all the time. He says Larry will never amount to anything, will never learn how to fix cars. “[Y]ou can’t unscrew a god dang bolt to save your life, can’t charge a dad blame battery.” His mother prays for Larry. “Please take that stuttering away, and please help him breathe right, and please send him a special friend, Lord, one just for him.”

Silas Jones becomes his friend, but only for a short while, and not when people can see them together at school. It’s an awkward friendship, but the only one Larry has as a child. Larry tells Silas fascinating things about nature and the woods around his property, and lends him a hunting rifle he’s taken from his father. He tries to interest Silas in reading, but Silas doesn’t care about books. Silas gets to know other kids at school, and by the time the two are in high school, Silas rejects Larry the way the more popular kids do.

After Cindy Walker disappears and Larry is blamed, the break between the Larry and Silas is complete. Silas moves out of town, goes to college, enrolls in the Navy, and then the police academy, and eventually moves back to Chabot to become a constable. Larry tries to get in touch with his old friend, but Silas ignores his calls. It isn’t until the Rutherford girl is missing for over a week and the town again begins to blame Larry that Silas realizes he has to confront memories from the past. He knew Larry better than anyone twenty-five years ago, but he stayed silent when people were pointing the finger at him for Cindy Walker’s disappearance. Silas doesn’t want to let that happen again.

This is much more than a mystery novel. When I think about the book, it’s not the mystery of the missing girls I recall, but the awkward friendship between Larry and Silas “32” Jones. The sense of place is strong. Franklin’s description of the small, Southern town and its characters is vivid. It’s a mystery novel I’ll remember for a long time.

Check the WRL catalog for Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter.


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