My favourite thing to read about is the American Deep South, preferably the Old South. I find the whole concept utterly fascinating and so starkly different to anything I have ever experienced. It is a place and era so entrenched in subtleties, customs, traditions and a rich culture that has weathered great change and has great pride, and contains some of the most fascinating people and stories. It has a very unique identity which lends itself to mystery, injustice and heartbreak yet also beauty, celebration and love. The books that have touched my soul most deeply are those that are set against the backdrop of this fascinating corner of the world, so treat this article as a beginner's guide to the best books of this sort that I have come across in my twenty three (roughly nine of which I've spent seeking out the best literary southern belles that bookshops have to offer) years on this earth.
To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Let's start with the obvious and work from there. To Kill A Mockingbird is the story of a young brother and sister and their would-be idyllic childhood in Southern Alabama, apart from their mother is dead and their father is the only lawyer in the deeply prejudiced and racist county who is willing to represent a black man who is standing trial for the rape of a white woman. Essentially this is the story of the children's struggle to learn right from wrong in a place and time that is deeply conflicted in its ideals. Their father wants his children to grow up understanding that there is not a fundamental difference in credibility between races, despite the efforts of some to make it seem like there is. This is a beautiful and poignant yet frank tale of life in the old Deep South as seen through the eyes of a little girl who is struggling to understand the complexities and conflict of the world in which she lives. In my very humble opinion this is something that every human being should read at least once in their life. Oh and it's set in the early '30s.
The Help by Kathryn Stockett
This absolute diamond of a book has really risen to prominence over the last year-ish due to the film adaptation's release. The Help is a magnificent depiction of life as a maid in Mississippi in the '60s. Until reading this book I never realised the horrors that were still going on in The South as late as the '60s, and what life was really like for the women who worked their whole lives serving white families and bringing up their children. The characters are lovable and relatable and the story can be as sweet and humorous as it is brutal and honest. We see great victories which will go on to reshape history, along with the tiny defeats of the daily lives of the women who still have little choice but to be the maids of white families. The film is a good adaptation as it does the book justice and I would highly recommend this to anyone who enjoys a story of friendship, empowerment and life in the Deep South as told by the help.
The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd
A lesser-known feature of this list, but no less good. I actually found myself reading it as it came free with a magazine one summer when I was about 14. It is the story of 14-year old Lily in 1964 South Carolina who goes on a journey of self-discovery and empowerment which takes her, along with her maid, to a farm owned by four sisters as she escapes her abusive father. There is a slight underlying theme of Civil Rights, but this is mostly a story of growth, discovery, love and loss for both Lily and the sisters she finds herself amongst. It is a heartwarming and mystical story which follows Lily's coming of age in difficult circumstances. This is a perfect substitute for a mindless summer read that is as touching a thought-provoking as it is relatable and entertaining.
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
Another obvious choice but again a worthy contender. The Color Purple (I'll spell 'color' this way just this once) is heart-wrenching and bloody in nature and in the beginning I did wonder why I was putting myself through such a depressing experience but it is surprisingly enlightening. Reading this as a teenager, I struggled with the language to begin with as it is epistolary in the form of the protagonist's letters to God which are written in the true style of a poor, uneducated teenager of the 1930s, making it largely phonetic and employs a dialect that I was not familiar with. However, once I'd got over this I was completely engrossed. The book follows this girl's life and the horrific treatment she is subjected to in a world where is is neither safe nor fair to be a black girl and is completely powerless over her own life. The book follows her over many years and we see the growth, love, loss, empowerment and discovery of a character who we are rooting for from the very beginning and whose victories and emotions we feel that we are sharing by the end. A must-read if you don't mind a little gritty frankness in the violence and injustice that it depicts.
The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood by Rebecca Wells
As far as I understand, I think that this book is actually the second part of a trilogy (preceded by Little Altars Everywhere and succeeded by Ya-Yas in Bloom) but this one is the one that really stands out to me. Everything that enthralls me about the Deep South is in this book and I could read it every day for the rest of my life. It gives us a snapshot of the deeply dysfunctional love that can be created by a society which has so many rules and expectations. We follow the story of four friends growing up in 1930s-40s Louisiana who are the daughters of rich plantation owners and are at the heart of Louisiana society, but are damaged products of their circumstances. The reader learns about their childhoods and the events that sculpted who they became, and then their struggles and experiences as they then become parents themselves. This is the book that fed my fascination with a moment in time in a place that seemed so exotic and thrilling to me. It is fundamentally a story of friendship and family and how intertwined those two things are, but also looks at mental health and how it is dealt with in a time and place in which such things were scarcely acknowledged. I truly urge you to read this book and tell me that it doesn't enthrall you one tiny bit.
Gods in Alabama by Joshilyn Jackson
The littlest-known item on this list, but definitely as worthy a contender. My dear friend Clare bought me this book after learning about my fascination with the Deep South, and boy did she do good. Set in the present day, this book tells the story of a girl who grew up in Alabama who has now escaped (as she puts it) to Chicago, after she vowed to never set foot in Alabama again, however the day has come that she must return. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn the intricacies of what this place-or rather the people in it- did to her for her to vow to never return. It is clever and compelling and I thoroughly enjoyed every second of this not-everything-is-as-it-seems coming-of-age story.
Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell
There's a reason that 'Gone with the wind fabulous' is an actual recognised saying, because anything as fabulous as Gone With The Wind must be very fabulous indeed. I can't even really begin to put in my humble words why you should take the time to read this, but I will try. It is an epic tale of one Southern Belle's experience of the American Civil War. We see the metamorphosis from insufferable spoiled brat to strong independent businesswoman of Scarlett O'Hara as she must do whatever it takes to survive the destruction that is going on around her. She sees her beloved childhood home of Tara begin to crumble under the drastic change that Georgia-and the whole of the south- is experiencing and it is down to Scarlett to lead the way and keep it going. We live through her various marriages- though there is one man who will always have her heart but will always be out of reach- and begin to understand the intricacies of southern life and the change that happens in Scarlett's lifetime. Read it, it might just change your life. Or at least entertain you for a few hours.
So if you are intrigued by the deep south and want an entertaining snapshot of what life as a southerner is like, then give this lot a try. You can learn about the civil rights movement, southern hospitality, love, loss, power, feminism, bravery, geography, history, friendship, childhood, coming of age, agriculture, climate and fashion. Most people can find something to relate to.
I understand that I have missed a few of the obvious here and this is simply because I haven't read them yet. I've got A Streetcar Named Desire (which I can't wait to get started on, I'm obsessed with New Orleans) and Huckleberry Finn lined up on my bookshelf waiting for me to get around to, and if you have any other recommendations, I'd love to hear them.
What are your favourites? Do you find the Deep South as fascinating as I do?