We Southerners have earned a reputation as great storytellers – and rightly so. From the earliest days of the region, Southerners have held readers and listeners spellbound. The stories can be true – witness the real-life yarns spun by the late Lewis Grizzard, or listen to Jeanne Robertson tell a hilarious tale about an event that really happened – but the most compelling Southern stories stem from fictional accounts. From Joel Chandler Harris to Mark Twain to Flannery O’Connor to Cormac McCarthy, Southern fiction carries on this great storytelling tradition from generation to generation.
Southern writers have produced memorable novels over the years, many of which have turned into genuine classics. Novels like William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, and Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind have struck chords with readers all over the world, and readers and critics alike acknowledge them as great works of literature.
Yet for every classic Southern novel dozens fly under the radar. They don’t get the notice that the famous books get – in fact, they don’t receive the accolades they deserve. Here are three of those hidden novels. Enjoy!
1. Julie L. Cannon, Twang (2012)
The country music industry abounds with stories of heartache, dreams, and dark pasts; and the lives of country artists are often full of the stuff of the songs. Twang tells the story of Jennifer Clodfelter, a young country singer whose spiritual journey takes as many twists and turns as her career.
Twang was the final book by Julie L. Cannon before her untimely death of an aneurysm shortly after the book’s publication. (In the interest of full disclosure, Julie was my cousin, and though we didn’t get to know each other until she had become a published author, I’ve been a champion of her career ever since.)
Jennifer Clodfelter arrives in Nashville with little more than her guitar and the cash in her pocket. As she makes it in the music industry she continues to bury the secrets of her past. Her hairdresser, Tonilynn, recognizes the spiritual void in Jenny’s life, and she encourages the singer to satisfy it as well as to come to terms with her past.
In Twang, we meet a broad cross-section of Tennessee life: the industry movers and shakers, the hardworking up-and-coming musicians, the poor folk living on the periphery of modern life. In fact, Jennifer Clodfelter fits in each category at different points in the story.
Cannon writes Jenny’s story with a vivid voice and a true sense of place – the characters and site of Nashville come alive in Twang. Fans of the ABC series Nashville may recognize a bit of the shows to main protagonists in the book – Jenny makes it to the top of the country music world much like Rayna James and desperately tries to escape and deny her past in the way Juliette Barnes did in the first season.
Jenny’s tale of religious awakening, family catharsis, and artistic fulfillment make Twang such a rich story. I can’t help but imagine that Julie L. Cannon would be satisfied had she known it would be her final work.
2. Anne Rivers Siddons, Peachtree Road (1988)
The South underwent drastic changes in the middle of the 20th century, yet for one segment of its population – wealthy, white urban families – maintaining proper appearances and reputations meant more than anything else. In her best-selling novel Peachtree Road, Anne Rivers Siddons tells the story of two young, upper-class Atlantans coming of age during this period in history.
Life turns upside down for bookish Sheppard Gibbs “Shep” Bondurant when his cousin Lucy comes to live with the family. The two become fast friends, and they become each others’ rock when they both realize they will never quite fit in with the upper crust Atlanta society in which they live. Lucy’s tragic life and Shep’s desperate attempts to create a sense of normalcy in the world around him drive the story, but the backdrop of Atlanta from the ’40s through the ’80s becomes a character in and of itself.
Siddons’ Atlanta upbringing allows her to create vivid details that are true to life – from streets and neighborhoods to events to accurate descriptions of people. She does justice to this unique city, weaving the history of a crucial time in Atlanta’s history into the tapestry of this expansive family story. Peachtree Road, in fact, feels like a love letter to Atlanta in many ways.
While on the surface, Peachtree Road comes across as a soap opera, it deals as much with the coming of age of a particular generation of Southerners as it does with two misfit children in high class society. It may be a long read, but it’s worth every page.
3. Lee Smith, Family Linen (1985)
In her 11 novels (including her latest, Guests on Earth, just published this month) and four short story collections, Lee Smith has written about Southerners in all walks of life and from throughout several eras of history. The stories she weaves come alive with humor, keen observation, and style. As much as I’ve enjoyed nearly everything she has written, the one I keep coming back to over and over again is Family Linen.
When Sybill Hess visits a hypnotist to cure her headaches, the therapist conjures up repressed memories of her father’s murder. When Sybill’s mother falls ill, she returns to her hometown where the other members of her family reunite. The death of the family matriarch eventually brings out dark secrets long hidden in the family history.
As Southern Gothic as Family Linen sounds, Smith tells the story with empathetic humor. The events unfold in such a way that the reader discovers the family’s scandalous dirty laundry in between laughs. Smith shifts perspectives throughout the novel, relating each character’s experience in a unique voice.
Lee Smith creates the perfect combination of family mystery, impeccable comedy, and ensemble drama in Family Linen (I can’t help but think it would make a terrific movie). Like a meal from the covered-dish table at a family reunion, Family Linen satisfies, even with repeated visits.
Even though distinct Southern voices have produced these three great stories, you don’t have to be a Southerner to enjoy them. And, like the classics of Southern literature, these three novels just scratch the surface. There’s plenty to explore in the literature of the South. What are your favorites?