There’s no denying a checkered and dark history precedes the American South I love so much. Built on the backs of slaves, Ground Zero of the U.S.’s Civil Rights Movement, the stigma of racism, poverty, and ignorance remains. The region also has a staggering number of intellectuals and some of our most beloved stories and storytellers hail from the area. The South should not be defined only by its failings and the ugliness; there is as much spiritual, intellectual, and creative beauty as deep as roots of giant oak trees.
Humid Southern summers bring afternoon thunderheads, mockingbird and yellowhammer concertos, peaches bigger than a fist and watermelons as big as your torso, and in my case, very large hair that refuses to be tamed in the intensity of this moisture. One can very easily fall into the seduction of the season, primed and lulled by the heat. Shaded porches are a must, as is, also in my case, Benadryl and cortisone for my growing collection of bug bites on my feet and ankles I get from walking barefoot in the sod fields and wooded trails on the farm.
Lazy summer days are meant for relaxing in literature. While I count down my final weeks in this quiet, little town in the middle of Alabama, here are some of the best Southern novels you can add to your reading list.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
“If you tell the truth you do not need a good memory!”
Not without controversy, Huck and Jim’s saga has been banned in some schools and libraries. The story of Jim’s plight as an escaped slave is hard to handle, for some, but it stands on its own as an example of American literature in its finest form and is a window to the past reminding us of once was. Rediscovering this book as an adult was one of my highlights of the year.
Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café by Fannie Flagg
“You know, a heart can be broken, but it still keeps a-beating just the same.”
Weaving together past and present (1980’s) and examining the different layers and forms of female friendship, Fried Green Tomatoes gives representation to women in middle age, and told with so much wit and rich details in characters. Don’t read on an empty stomach, but if you do, not to worry. A solid recipe for the namesake tomatoes, along with other Whistlestop Café features, can be found at the back of the book.
All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren
“For whatever you live is life.”
Warren received a Pulitzer Prize for this novel and the film version earned an Best Picture Oscar, so plainly put, this is American storytelling at the highest level. All actions have consequences. A person cannot stand as a mere, emotionally detached observer but must take action in life.
The Awakening by Kate Chopin
“To be an artist includes much; one must possess many gift -absolute gifts- which have not been acquired by one’s effort. And, moreover, to succeed, the artist must possess the courageous soul.”
Edna Pontellier is possibly the first liberated woman in American literature. A New Orleans housewife falls in love when on a vacation and realizes, upon her return home, she cannot devote herself to the social expectations of her. A moving chronicle of her embracing independence and self discovery, this is a must for any #YesSheCan minded thinker.
Big Fish by Daniel Wallace
“You’re not necessarily supposed to believe it…You’re just supposed to believe in it.”
Tim Burton did a fantastic job translating the book into the film, but like many movies, the book stands alone! This classic father-son relationship study is imaginative and, yes, includes a very big fish.
Beloved by Toni Morrison
“You are your best thing”
Okay, so this is cheating a little bit but I’m including because the story features the aftermath and terrifying consequences of slavery in a post-war (yes, the “War of Northern Aggression” AKA the Civil War). I’ll not even go into the plot beyond this is haunting and stirring, and it’s going to stay with you after you turn that final page. This book is also, for me, a pivotal point in my young adult life when I first discovered my voice for empathy and representation.
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
“I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it. People think pleasing God is all God cares about. But any fool living in the world can see it always trying to please us back.”
A Pulitzer Prize winner, the National Book Aware for Fiction winner, and close to two dozen combined Oscar and Tony nominations for the respective film and musical adaptations, The Color of Purple is as controversial as it is loved. Heavily depicting violence that, at moments, is hard to face, it is an honest, and beautiful portrayal of the life of a young, poor, black girl living in the South in the 1930’s following her through her adulthood.
Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
“Until you’ve lost your reputation, you never realize what a burden it was or what freedom really is.”
Mitchell won a Pulitzer Prize and should we dare to count the Oscars? Yes, the story is known – so known – but if you haven’t read the novel that was once condemned by the Vaticam, well then, you don’t know the saga of Scarlett or the plight of Melanie, or the dignified scallywag, Rhett Butler.
Fun and unrelated fact: when my friend referred to her new boyfriend (now husband) as Rhett Butler, I thought it was her code name for an exceptionally dreamy suiter. Well, he was, and that is his name.
Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice
“And I realized that I’d tolerated him this long because of self-doubt.”
The queen of Southern Gothic and vampire stories, Rice has numerous series set in and around New Orleans. Interview with the Vampire was the world’s introduction to “The Brat Prince,” the antihero we all are going to fall in love with, sooner or later.
The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy
“You get a little moody sometimes but I think that’s because you like to read. People that like to read are always a little fucked up.”
You know when Barbara Streisand takes on a role to portray a character in a film that there is a story worth seeing. In this case, the story is also, very much, worth reading. Conroy’s story about the lives of a South Carolinan family is the original claim of Lowcountry setting. A story of sibling love, family trauma, and recovery. It’s so lovely.
More to come of the best Southern novels to inspire your daydream south of the Mason-Dixon line. What’s your favorite Southern title feature?