“I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.”
“What it do when it pissed off?” I ast.
“Oh, it make something else. People think pleasing God is all God care about. But any fool living in the world can see it always trying to please us back.”
– Alice Walker, The Color Purple
Earlier last year, I was stumped by a Facebook request to name favorite Southern women writers. Since then, I have binged on women from the American South. I read Flannery O’Connor for the first time, and Carson McCuller’s The Ballad of the Sad Café. I reread Gone with the Wind, and The Color Purple, and Their Eyes Were Watching God. I made lists of books I’ve read in the past that were written by Southern American women. If you are a fan of powerful writing, rich language, languid scenery, human complexity, colorful humor, and emotional depth, read these women. Any of them. All of them. You won’t be sorry.
Alice Walker: (1944- ) Born in Eatonton, Georgia, a tiny town in middle Georgia where I grew up eating scuppernongs on my Grandaddy and Nannie’s farm, Alice Walker was the first African American woman to win a Pulitzer prize. She won it with The Color Purple, and if you read it, you will see why. A story that could be devastating, she makes funny and hopeful, deep and spiritual. The dialect, the characters, the beauty, the humor, the equanimity in the face of hardship and abuse that would break most of us, and the wisdom Walker writes into these pages is a wonder and a gift. If I had one book on this list that I thought everyone should read, it would be The Color Purple. It is a masterpiece.
Maya Angelou: (1928-2014) Angelou was born in Missouri and was raised in St. Louis and Arkansas. The list of prizes she’s been nominated for or awarded for her work is long, and includes a Pulitzer nomination and three Grammys for her spoken albums. She writes the South, and womanhood, and the African American experience, and the civil rights movement with poise and deep soul. I read I know Why the Caged Bird Sings many, many years ago, and I highly recommend it. But what I remember most about Maya Angelou is her poems. Read them. Or better yet, listen to the poet herself, here reading “Still I Rise.”
Fanny Flagg: (1944- ) Born in Birmingham, Alabama, Flagg is best known for Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe. With Whistle Stop, Flagg delivers a fun (and funny) read that sets you squarely in the small town South with parallel stories of a pair of 1980’s middle-aged women, and another set of friends, Idgie and Ruth, who ran The Whistle Stop cafe in the 30s. It’s a page-turner, and the characters are irresistible – Harper Lee, author of To Kill A Mockingbird, remarked “Idgie Threadgoode is a true original: Huckleberry Finn would have tried to marry her!”
Zora Neale Hurston: (1891-1960) Hurston was born in Alabama, but was raised in Eatonville, Florida, the first incorporated black township in the nation. In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston tells the story of the town’s origins, of it being built from the ground up by the black community, but more importantly, it tells the story of Janie, who wanted life and living, not riches and sitting idle on a porch. It is a deeply moving novel about love and what makes it real, and damning the “shoulds,” and how everyone needs something different in life to make them feel alive. This was one of my favorite reads of the year. Hurston also wrote a book about voodoo, Tell My Horse, that I may have to read for a Halloween capsule.
Harper Lee: (1926- ) Lee was born in Alabama, the setting for her Pulitzer prize winning novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. She only had one novel in her, but thank God for that one. Lee studied law before changing paths to pursue a career in literature, and that background prepared her for the iconic courtroom scenes of Atticus Finch who, with grace and eloquence, defends Tom Robinson, a black man who is falsely accused of raping a white woman. One of the many beauties of To Kill a Mockingbird is that is told in the voice of a child, Scout, who innately knows justice – “that’s not fair!” – but who is also susceptible to buying into other peoples’ prejudices (think Boo Radley). To Kill a Mockingbird is one to read and reread, as you age, as you mature. Scout is a funny and refreshing character who gives us an innocent yet wise perspective on the issues of what is right and what is wrong. To Kill a Mockingbird is considered to be a work of Southern Gothic† literature.
Carson McCullers: (1917-1967) McCullers, also known for Southern Gothic fiction, was born in Columbus, Georgia. McCullers felt “other” as a young woman growing up in the South, and with outcast characters, she explores that isolation and deep desire for connection in her fiction. I read The Ballad of the Sad Café this year, a beautiful, haunting novella of unrequited love involving a huge manly woman, a hunchbacked midget, and an ex-con, and which climaxes in a small-town brawl. This story, and particularly its characters, will stick with me for a long time. McCullers also wrote The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, which I have not read, but I plan to.
Margaret Mitchell: (1900-1949) Born in 1900 in Atlanta, Georgia, Margaret Mitchell was a flapper who, according to her biography on the Margaret Mitchell House website, “scandalized Atlanta society by performing a provocative dance at a debutante ball.” Mitchell was also, obviously, a writer. And a Pulitzer prize winner. She wrote and published Gone With the Wind over a period of 12 years, beginning at the young age of 24. As a Georgia native, I have read and reread Gone With the Wind and credit this book with helping me understand the often frustrating paradoxes of Southern culture. It is a novel that will teach you about the South, about its ways, its people, its stubbornness, its charm, its beauty, its old and its new, its prejudices, its weaknesses, its strengths, and its land. Always, the land.
Flannery O’Connor: (1925-1964) Ah, Flannery. I’m so glad to have found you. You have converted me on short stories. Flannery O’Connor was born in Savannah, Georgia, and like Carson McCullers, is considered a Southern Gothic writer. Her fiction is sharp, witty, and full of dark humor, and I am constantly amazed by her titles – “The Violent Bear it Away” – and her ability to punch in the space of a very short story. My favorites so far have been “The Crop” (read it – it’s only 9 pages), “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” and “The Barber.” I look forward to reading more of her work.
Janisse Ray: (1962- ) Ray, born in Baxley, Georgia, is the only nonfiction author on my list (I know – shame on me!). Her book, Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, was one of those treasures in memoir that made me realize that truth can be as well-written, and as fascinating, as fiction. Ecology of a Cracker Childhood tells Ray’s story of growing up in an evangelical household in a junkyard along Highway 1 in south Georgia. In the book, she weaves the stories of the vanishing Cracker population with that of a dying ecosystem: the vanishing longleaf pine forests. A powerful read.
Eudora Welty: (1909-2001) Welty, yet another Pulitzer winner, and another Southern Gothic writer, was born in Jackson, Mississippi. She was awarded the Pulitzer for her novella, The Optimist’s Daughter. I think I was in a tired place in my life when I read the novella this year, and I had a hard time gaining traction with it. Either that or I just didn’t like it. Welty also writes short stories about the American South.
Sarah Addison Allen, (1971- ) born in Asheville, North Carolina. Allen is a modern writer who sprinkles magic and light into her Southern set novels. I enjoyed Garden Spells and The Peach Keeper for quick, bright reads, and I have The Sugar Queen on my To Be Read (TBR) list.
Mary Kay Andrews, (1954- ) born in St. Petersburg, Florida. Andrews was a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and covered for the AJC the events in Savannah, GA that inspired John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. She writes fun beach reads like Savannah Breeze and Deep Dish which are set in and around Savannah.
Olive Ann Burns, (1924-1990) born in Banks County, Georgia. Burns is the author of Cold Sassy Tree.
Susan Gregg Gilmore born Nashville, TN. Listen here as she discusses the Southern Literature genre: Books on the Nightstand episode #245: What is Southern Fiction?
Sue Monk Kidd, (1948- ) born in Sylvester, GA. Best known for The Secret Life of Bees, which I loved and need to reread now that I have a daughter.
Barbara Kingsolver, (1955- ) born in Annapolis, Maryland, raised in rural Kentucky. Kingsolver writes the natural world beautifully (and manages to weave evocative stories as well.) Her novels generally address issues of biodiversity, social justice, and ecology (including the human role in it). My favorite Kingsolver titles are Prodigal Summer, The Bean Trees, and The Poisonwood Bible.
Katherine Anne Porter, (1890-1980) born in Indian Creek, Texas. I have not read any of Porter’s work but kept coming across her name in conjunction with Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, and William Faulkner as a Southern Gothic writer, so I’m thinking I should read her. Oh, and also, she won a Pulitzer.
Eugenia Price, (1916-1996) born in Charleston, West Virginia. Price wrote historical fiction romance novels, and I read her St. Simons Lighthouse trilogy years ago. I couldn’t tell you anything about it now, only that I enjoyed it, probably in large part because of the setting (I lived the first five years of my life on St. Simons Island.)
Anne Rivers Siddons, (1936- ) born in Atlanta, Georgia. I have not read any of Siddons’ work yet, but in the space of a week, I was gifted two of her books by two separate people. My Uncle Syd recommends Peachtree Road, which tells a story of the city of Atlanta.
Kathryn Stockett, (1969- ) born in Jackson, Mississippi. So far, Stockett has published one book: The Help. She is young – we will likely see more from her.
Edited to include suggestions from readers:
Adrian Blevins (Abingdon, VA), Carrie Brown (Blue Ridge Mountains, VA), Kate Chopin (Louisiana), Moira Crone (Goldsboro, NC), Ellen Douglas (Mississippi), Claudia Emerson (Chatham, VA), Dorothea Benton Frank (Sullivan’s Island, SC), Kaye Gibbons (Rocky Mount, NC), Shirley Ann Grau (New Orleans, LA), Melissa Fay Green (Macon, GA), Beth Henley (Jackson, MS), Mary Hood (Brunswick, GA), Joshilyn Jackson (Georgia), Gayl Jones (Lexington, KY), Holly Goddard Jones (Russellville, KY), Tayari Jones (Atlanta, GA), Mary Karr (Groves, Texas), Bobbie Ann Mason (western Kentucky), Sharyn McCrumb (Wilmington, NC), Ann Patchett (Tennessee), Dolen Perkins-Valdez (Memphis, TN), Sherri Reynolds (rural South Carolina), Anne Rice (duh! how could I forget?! New Orleans, LA), Lee Smith (Grundy, VA), Ruth Stone (Roanoke, VA), Donna Tartt (Greenwood, MS), Natasha Trethewey (Gulfport, MS), Adriana Trigiani (Big Stone Gap, VA – see Appalachian Capsule), Olympia Vernon (Bogalusa, LA), Margaret Walker (Birmingham, AL), Jesmyn Ward (DeLisle, MS), Stephanie Powell Watts (Rebecca Wells (Alexandria, LA ), Bailey White (Thomasville, GA), Crystal Wilkinson (Kentucky)
†According to Wikipedia:
Southern Gothic is a subgenre of Gothic fiction unique to American literature that takes place exclusively in the American South. Common themes in Southern Gothic literature include deeply flawed, disturbing or eccentric characters who may or may not dabble in hoodoo, decayed or derelict settings, grotesque situations, and other sinister events relating to or coming from poverty, alienation, racism, crime, and violence. It is unlike its parent genre in that it uses these tools not solely for the sake of suspense, but to explore social issues and reveal the cultural character of the American South.
This is a follow up to Reading Southern Women, published March 26, 2013.