The end of summer always presents book lovers with a daunting choice—deciding which of the new fall titles to read. Publishers don’t make it easy when they line up the hottest authors they can find to launch their fall and winter books, and this year is no exception.
But before you reach for the big names, take a look at these titles. It’s a diverse collection of fiction and nonfiction—some by authors you’ll recognize, some you won’t—that celebrate the South in all its damaged glory and resilience. And they don’t sugarcoat it.
This is the real “Help.” The real war in Iraq you never saw on TV. A yellow fever epidemic in Memphis back when a plague was a plague, not a threat. You’ll get a look at the darkest side of our antebellum past and an unflinching look at climate change. You’ll read (in a colorful new format) the true story of the Carter family and their long journey out of the hills of Virginia to become the first musical superstars. And in a collection of memoir and fiction that’s as potent as a Mason jar of white lightning, you’re going to find some of the hardest-hitting writing to ever come out of the South.
In The Maid Narratives: Black Domestics and White Families in the Jim Crow South (Louisiana State University Press), the real ‘Help’ talk to authors Jan van Wormer, David W. Jackson III, Charletta Sudduth about what it was like to work for white families, during that same era, in Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi. Of the 17 women interviewed, the oldest was born in 1906; the youngest in 1953. None of them hold back.
Backdoor entrances, separate eating quarters, outside bathrooms, sexual overtures from their male employers—it’s all here, as well as memories of the murder of Emmett Till, visits from the Ku Klux Klan, and the dawn of the civil rights movement. They talk of walking miles to school, of sharecropping and cooking and cleaning from the age of seven.
Read this fairminded study for the reasons the maid themselves give: “… kids need to hear it. They need to know that the struggles that black people have gone through to get to the point where we are today because our children are a lost generation. They don’t know the history of the struggle and they need a better appreciation of what they have so they don’t take it for granted.” The book also includes narratives about the help from 15 white women whose contributions, the authors say, “inform in both what they say and in what they do not.”
Even if you don’t usually read war novels, make an exception for Kevin Powers’ searing, evocative debut, Yellow Birds (Little, Brown). In a story as focused on the war that soldiers bring home with them as they one they fought in, Powers asks haunting questions that reconnect us with the reality of combat and its aftermath.
Private John Bartle, an army machine-gunner stationed in Al Tafar, Iraq in 2004, has been warned by his drill sergeant to protect the less experienced Murphy, a tender-hearted boy from Bartle’s homestate of Virginia. But what happens when his promise comes up against one more powerful than Bartle can understand?
By the time the book opens with a flashback that introduces Murphy, he has long been dead, and Bartle, the narrator, struggles to explain how it happened. His fragmented but lyrical account shuttles back and forth in time, from Iraq to Germany to his post-combat years in Virginia, a remembrance that gradually reveals the full extent of the toll taken by a war in which trying to stay sane will get you killed.
Paradise turns nightmarish in Laird Hunt’s spellbinding new novel, Kind One (Coffee House Press). The story unfolds in the 1850s, when a 14-year-old Indiana girl leaves home for a promising life in Kentucky as the wife of her second cousin. His slaves—two girls almost her age and a young gardener—are her only companions on the isolated pig farm he calls Paradise. But Ginny’s new husband is a cruel and perverse master, and as his cowed young wife joins him in mistreating the slaves, neither can imagine that a chilling reprisal awaits.
In taut, hypnotic chapters that loop forward and back in time, Hunt interweaves dreams, African folktales, and elements of Shakespeare to deliver half-seen glimpses of the past, narrated by Ginny and several characters whose lives have intersected in the past. Toward the end, a handful of stuttering, ghostly photographs add another dimension to the story. The reader, left to assemble the pieces, finds that slavery doesn’t end when the shackles come off.
The stories in Grit Lit: A Rough South Reader (University of South Carolina Press) are a lot like drinking moonshine—you will not be the same person you were after taking a couple of swigs.
Editors Brian Carpenter and Tom Frankliin (“Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter”) assembled some of the most well-known connoisseurs of the art of the dirty South—Harry Crews, Lee Smith, William Gay, Larry Brown, Ron Rash, Rick Bragg, Barry Hannah, and Dorothy Allison—then tossed in a few more: Breece D’j Pancake, Chris Offutt, Lewis Nordan, Ann Pancake (no relation to Breece), Brad Watson, Daniel Woodrell and Tim Gautreaux.
Be forewarned: There are snakes and liquor and chewing tobacco. There are fights between dogs and roosters and over women and fences. There are threats: “If you and that boy come out here for me and Ray, have your boxes built and ready. You gone need’m before you git out again.” Throw in some Baptist churches, a few Bibles, a singlewide, some jailhouse tattoos and pass the whoop-ass, please.
Not long ago, a cookbook came out that told us how to cook “deceptively” nutritious food for kids, mostly by pureeing vegetables and hiding them in the recipes. Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior (HarperCollins) employs a similar technique, dovetailing need-to-know information about climate change and mountain-top removal into an engaging tale of a young wife and mother who witnesses a phenomena that rocks her insular world.
Everything in Dellarobia Turnbow’s life has been an accident—an early marriage to a man she didn’t love, a life spent on a sheep farm, even her name. On the day she decides to walk away from it all, she has a vision that transforms her dull existence and gives her something to fight for. But when a scientific group arrives to study the miracle taking place in Dellarobia’s rural Tennessee community, a phrase she has heard all her life—“the Lord works in mysterious ways”—comes true in more ways than one.
Could the economic aftermath of the worst yellow fever outbreak ever seen in Memphis, Tennessee, have laid the foundations for the city to become “the home of the blues and the cradle of rock n’ roll”? So says Jeanette Keith, author of Fever Season: The Story of a Terrifying Epidemic and the People Who Saved a City (Bloomsbury Press). Blame it all on a mosquito that liked fresh water, preferably from the cisterns people once kept in their back yards.
By the time the September 1878 outbreak of yellow fever was over, it would leave 18,000 Memphians dead. Then, as now, an epidemic wasn’t something you stuck around for. Yellow Jack, as it was called, had a 60% mortality rate, and those who could leave town, did—30,000 of them nearly overnight. The heroes, of course, were among the ones who stayed behind.
Later accounts have whitewashed the events to make upstanding Memphians who fled the fever look less cowardly. But Keith uses newspaper accounts, letters and diaries of the time to tell “the story of character” and uncover the truth: “Neither heroism nor villainy could be predicted by public standing, gender or race. Upstanding U.S. citizens abandoned their families, and prostitutes and sporting men stepped up to care for the sick. White elected officials deserted their posts, but black militiamen stood fast as guardians of the city.”
Who could disagree with Frank M. Young and David Lasky, the authors of The Carter Family: Don’t Forget That Song (Abrams ComicArt), when they ask what better medium than the American comic to tell the story of one of America’s most famous musical families?
With careful attention to historical details and using the lively dialect of southwestern Virginia, this full-color graphic biography lovingly chronicles the daily, hardscrabble lives of A.P. Carter, his wife Sara, of Maybelle and Janette and even little June, a family whose recordings and performances built the foundation upon which commercial country music (and, by extension, rock n’ roll) rests, and who helped shape pop music as we know it today. No Carter Family, no Elvis. No Elvis, no Beatles. Etc.
A bonus CD includes rare radio versions of the Carter Family’s early tunes, including “Hello Stranger,” “Single Girl, Married Girl,” and “Oh Death,” among others. As you read and listen, consider this: had A.P. Carter not driven all over creation neglecting his wife and kids to collect the 300+ songs he then arranged and recorded, the vast canon of music we now know—including “Will The Circle Be Unbroken,” “Wabash Cannonball,” and “Keep On the Sunnyside”— might have otherwise been lost.
A version of this review originally ran in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.