South Carolina is close to where I grew up in Georgia, and reading it was like going back in time to when I could see Hilton Head, SC from the beach at Tybee Island, GA. I read a lot of Pat Conroy in my early years, and then Sue Monk Kidd a little later, so it was fun to go back and re-read some of these books and pick up a new one along the way. Reading South Carolina made me crave the brackish water of the salt marsh and the sound of cicadas on hot summer mornings.
Novel: The Prince of Tides
Author: Pat Conroy, born and raised in South Carolina
Setting: 1960s and 1980s coastal South Carolina
There is no doubt whatsoever that Pat Conroy knows the low country: tides, marshways, shrimp, oysters, odors and aromas, light, and the essence of the liquid and mud landscape. The first time I read this, as a teenager, I think, I was gutted by how accurately he described the marshes and the tidal creeks that run through them.
As I moved the boat through the breakwaters, with James Island on my starboard side, moonlight infused the tassels of sea oats shimmering on the tide-stuck dunes. The waves, inlaid with phosphorous and plankton, fell in soft wings against the bow.
It is a sadder book to me reading it as an adult. Though it was plenty sad the first time for obvious reasons once you know the story, this time I couldn’t help but see how obsessed The South can be with being The South, and the damage that obsession does to its people. All the unwritten rules, the expectations for men, women, blacks, whites. This isn’t unique. Many places are obsessed with being themselves and wave their provincial norms like a banner, ever perpetuating them even if they don’t believe in them, even when they recognize the harm those norms do. Something about this book just called it to my attention in a way it did not in my first reading when I was probably too young to notice something like that.
After a second reading, The Prince of Tides still stands as the best book I’ve read in capturing what the coastal lands and waters of the low country of Georgia and South Carolina look, smell, taste, and feel like: how deep in the bones and a part of the blood they are for many people who live among them.
Author: Dori Sanders, born York County, SC 1934
Setting: rural South Carolina
Clover, a 10 year-old black girl, has lost her mother and the grandfather who raised her while her father was away earning money. When her father moves back home and becomes principal of her school, and then dies in a car accident the day he marries a white woman, Sarah Kate, Clover is left to be raised by a woman who is a stranger to her.
Clover lives in a small South Carolina community, among her aunts, uncles, and community friends, and nobody understands why Gaten (Clover’s father) would marry a white woman. Nobody trusts Sarah Kate to do right by Clover.
It’s still kind of hard getting used to someone like Sarah Kate. She just doesn’t seem to fit in anyplace.
Clover is the story of Clover, Sarah Kate, and all of the community grieving together, helping one another, coming to love each other, and Sarah Kate becoming a part of the community nobody ever believed she’d belong to.
I appreciated the grace in this book, and the descriptions of summer in inland South Carolina — at the peach stand the family ran, in the hot living rooms, and the sounds that make you feel it even when you’re reading in the mountains of Virginia in late winter.
Anytime you have them old cicadas singing so strong this early in the day, you know it’s gonna be a scorcher.
Novel: The Mermaid Chair
Author: Sue Monk Kidd, lived in Charleston and Mt. Pleasant, SC
Setting: a South Carolina barrier island
Set on a fictitious island off the coast of South Carolina, accessible only by boat, The Mermaid Chair is Jessie Sullivan’s dive into the deep waters of herself after putting herself into the box of her marriage of 20 years. In those 20 years she did not grow: she did not explore her needs, passions, or deep loves.
Early in the book she travels from her safe and routine life to her childhood home of Egret Island to tend to her mother, who has chopped off her own finger with a meat cleaver. While there, Jessie falls in love with the marshes of her island home, and also with a doubting monk who tends the rookery for the monastery on the island.
The descriptions of Egret Island were more of a tackified tourist village of a coastal town, with knick-knacks and brightly colored buildings, than I expected. It felt a shallow description of the coastal world when compared with Pat Conroy’s deep knowing of the marshes, so I wasn’t surprised to read in the author’s notes that she’d researched barrier islands of South Carolina — she hadn’t grown up there. The small towns of Secret Life of Bees seemed more authentic (though I’ve never lived in a small town in SC, so what do I know?), but I loved The Mermaid Chair anyway.