by Mandy Shunnarah
There’s no place like the South. This is an especially hard truth for homesick Southerners living outside the region. If you’re singing the homesick blues, these three books are full of passages with vivid descriptions that will make you feel right at home between their pages.
This One and Magic Life by Anne Carroll George
Anne Carroll George knows how to make you swoon over her words. From the first page, where she says, “The moon is a cup spilling out stars … Stars drop from the sky, burning, into the bay,” it’s impossible not to fall headlong into the story. In This One and Magic Life, family members return to Mobile Bay, Alabama, where they come to mourn their aunt and sister. As the family carries out the deceased’s last wish, they will finally be able to heal from past wounds — or they will be wrenched further apart.
If you’ve ever been to Mobile Bay, there are passages where the memory will tug gently on your heart, calling you.
After you cross the Mississippi line, any exit along I-10 will take you into bayou country. It stretches the width of the state, swampy, fertile. Hektor turns just past Pascagoula and heads inland through swamp grass almost as high as the truck. He crosses dozens of small bridges that span dark, unmoving streams.”
And what would the bay be without those audacious seagulls?
Delmore Ricketts, in spite of living so close to Mobile Bay, has never seen it. He is amazed at the gnarled live oak trees, the magnolias and the pines that soar a hundred feet into the air. The beach is not wide, and the sand is pinkish, unlike any he has ever seen. Birds are everywhere, still enjoying the bounty of the jubilee. They move aside impatiently as he and May approach, and then they come right back to their meal. Some gulls actually refuse to move. Delmore Ricketts could reach over and pick them up. Probably he would be pecked for his impertinence. He does, however, touch one lightly on the back to see if it will fly away. It doesn’t, merely squawks a warning.”
George’s fiction is a siren song to those whose hearts belong to South Alabama.
Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky by David Connerley Nahm
The bays of Kentucky don’t abut the ocean, they’re more of the swampy variety. Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky follows Leah, who is haunted by the disappearance of her brother Jacob when he was only 5 years old. As an adult, Leah directs a nonprofit for victims of domestic abuse, where memories of Jacob frequently boil to the surface. When a man claiming to be Jacob shows up at the nonprofit, she has to confront her memories on a deeper level.
David Connerley Nahm doesn’t just write a few good descriptions. His stunning depictions of rural Kentucky permeate the entire novel:
One of the houses on the road Leah drove each morning to work had a small dogwood tree out front. From the branches of the tree hung blue glass bottles. They were tied with graying string and spun slightly in the breeze. An elderly woman sitting outside with a black dog by her side. She had a green kerchief on her head and waved at cars as they passed. One day, she was gone, but the bottles remained.”
Nahm knows how to say just enough, without over-saturating the reader with details, even about the storms Southerners know all too well.
Everything would be closed come morning. Schools closed and warehouses emptied and stores shuttered. Only the faint glow emitted by the tanning parlors that lined Fourth Street remained — bronzed attendants sitting idly behind the counter, listening to the crackling radio, flipping through months-old magazines. The storm shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone as bunions and hunting accidents across Harrod County had felt this coming for months.”
Nahm writes the kinds of sentences you have to stop and read several times over, not because they’re difficult to understand but because you didn’t know language about things you’ve seen a hundred times in your Southern childhood could be made so dazzling.
New Orleans Sketches by William Faulkner
One of Faulkner’s lesser-known works, New Orleans Sketches is a compilation of short stories and observations written in 1925 while staying in New Orleans after his infamous resignation from his job at the Mississippi post office where he worked. Sketches is Faulkner’s first foray into fiction and is rich with details that hint at a great American author in the making.
Faulkner’s descriptions of the Quarter speak to his keen eye and attention to detail:
Evening like a nun shod with silence, evening like a girl slipping along the wall to meet her lover … The twilight is like the breath of contented kine, stirring among the lilacs and shaking spikes of bloom, ringing the soundless bells of hyacinths.”
Despite his hardened facade, Faulkner was not immune to mesmerization at the hands of street musicians either.
A man sat on the curb. In his hands were a carpenter’s saw and a violin bow. The saw he held like a violin and from the bow there rose a sound, a resonant singing, half string and half pipe, which the very atmosphere, which silence itself, seemed to find strange and hard to digest: toying with it when the bow ceased — a lilting provencal air played in a virgin tonal scale, and somehow ambiguously martial.”
In a way, New Orleans Sketches is to New Orleans what Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast is to Paris.
Mandy Shunnarah was born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama, where she lived until this past November. Living outside the South has given her an intense craving for Southern literature, and she writes about books twice a week on her blog Off the Beaten Shelf. Some of her favorite modern Southern books include The Well and the Mine by Gin Phillips, Man in the Blue Moon by Michael Morris and the classic Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt.