Styleblueprint asked me to write an article on Books Every Southerner Should Read. I went all the way down the rabbit hole on this one. It was the most fun I’ve ever had on an assignment!
As part of my research, I reached out to many of you, Bacon readers. You had opinions.
Side conversations included these questions: Are we losing our regional identity, or is it already lost? Is something new emerging?
The list I came up with offers some of the best stories written about the South, by Southerners. It’s a list for general readers and rainy days, featuring books you or a houseguest might actually want to read, not just look at on a shelf (sorry, Faulkner, I’m thinking of you). I’m dying to hear your responses!
Without further ado…
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Published in 1960 but set in 1930’s Alabama, To Kill a Mockingbird occupies pride of place in a region’s concept of itself, even now. Who doesn’t know the outline of this coming-of-age story? Scout worships her idealistic father, Atticus Finch, a lawyer who tries to ensure that a black man accused of raping a white woman receives a fair trial. The mysterious and frightening Boo Radley lives in the house next door, and he, too, has his role to play as things fall apart.
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
Its poetic dialect has secured Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) a place among the most beautiful and sensual novels about the South. Janie Crawford, growing up in small-town Florida in the early 1900s, does what she’s told in her first two marriages. As a more mature woman, she finds strength, independence, and the love of her life in a charismatic younger man, Tea Cake. She also finds a new kind of trouble.
Both Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou have cited Their Eyes Were Watching God as a formative influence.
You could give this novel to your 12-year-old nephew, 70-year-old mother, or best friend. Mattie Ross’s stubborn courage, resourcefulness, and inimitable voice give this suspenseful tale a broad and enduring appeal.
Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier
“Sorely wounded and fatally disillusioned in the fighting at Petersburg, a Confederate soldier named Inman decides to walk back to his home in the Blue Ridge mountains to Ada, the woman he loves … At the same time, the intrepid Ada is trying to revive her father’s derelict farm and learning to survive in a world where the old certainties have been swept away. As it interweaves their stories, Cold Mountain asserts itself as an authentic odyssey, hugely powerful, majestically lovely, and keenly moving” (from the inside flap, and also true). Cold Mountain won the National Book Award in 1997.
All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren
Jack Burden, a graduate student unsure of his path in the world, gets caught up in the wake of Willie Stark, the populist governor of an unnamed Southern state (it’s Louisiana, and he’s a stand-in for former Louisiana governor Huey Long). All the King’s Men has been widely recognized as one of the best novels ever written about American politics.
This Pulitzer Prize winner (1947) is a slow boil — then an explosion.
Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward
The approach of Hurricane Katrina is the least of their problems in this stunning novel about a family barely scraping by on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. That changes.
Winner of the National Book Award in 2011, Salvage the Bones has been called taut, wily, voluptuous, fresh, urgent, and mythic. “Salvage the Bones expands our understanding of Katrina’s devastation beyond the pictures of choked rooftops in New Orleans and toward the washed-out, feral landscapes elsewhere along the coast,” said The New Yorker.
The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy
Kirkus Review calls The Prince of Tides a “flabby, fervid melodrama of a high-strung Southern family.” That hasn’t prevented generations of readers from loving this emotionally charged family saga set in low country South Carolina and New York City. Published in 1986, it’s near the top of many Southerners’ lists of favorite books about the South.
Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver
In her latest novel, Barbara Kingsolver has reimagined the story of David Copperfield in the setting of small-town Appalachia. Young Demon Copperhead is born in a bathroom in a single-wide trailer, and things don’t get better from there. All around him, the opioid crisis ravages and rages. Copperhead — at the mercy of the foster care system — sometimes seems lost. In less capable hands, this “Dickensian” novel might feel contrived or too clever by half. Still, Kingsolver manages to pay homage to the great classic and simultaneously create her own suspenseful, moving, socially relevant story and cast of characters. Neither Dickens nor Kingsolver would leave us hopeless.
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil takes us to one of Savannah’s grandest homes in the wee hours of May 2, 1981. The home’s owner, a prominent antique dealer, has just killed a male prostitute who also happens to be his part-time caregiver. Was it murder or self-defense?
“Elegant and wicked … [This] might be the first true-crime book that makes the reader want to book a bed and breakfast for an extended weekend at the scene of the crime,” writes The New York Times Book Review.
A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor (novella included in the collection Three by Flannery O’Connor)
A family of six sets out on vacation to Florida. They’re packed in the station wagon, grandma in the backseat, worried about a convict known as “The Misfit” on the loose. Bad things happen in this iconic Southern Gothic story, first published in 1953.
The epigraph to O’Connor’s collection, a quotation from St. Cyril of Jerusalem, warns: “The dragon is by the side of the road, watching those who pass. Beware lest he devour you. We go to the father of souls, but it is necessary to pass by the dragon.”
O’Connor’s unsettling stories take us into the belly of the beast.
Swamplandia!, by Karen Russell
Russell inherits the Southern Gothic tradition, adding a tincture of magical realism in her Pulitzer Prize-nominated novel, Swamplandia!
Ava Bigtree, 13 years old, has been raised on a small island in the Everglades, where her family runs a low-budget amusement park. When her mother — the headliner of their main show — dies, the family falls apart. And Ava grows up.
“Dazzlingly original … Like the state itself, Swamplandia! is a crossroads where the wild and the tame, the spectacular and the mundane meet; underneath the hubbub of the fantastic lies a family of misfits at sea in their grief — theirs is a story that is as ordinary as it is heartbreaking,” wrote the Boston Globe in 2011.
The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty
“When I first read The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty, I thought she was a fabulist, a writer endowed with a superior imagination and love of tall tales. Those things are true, of course, but Welty, who spent most all of her life in Jackson, Mississippi, in the house her father built when she was a child, was also telling the truth,” Ann Patchett writes.
The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty won the National Book Award in 1982, and the compilation is available in a new-ish edition (2019) with a beautiful introduction by Patchett.
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
Not many books win the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award in the same year (1983, in this case) and also find their way to Hollywood and Broadway. An epistolary novel, The Color Purple begins with 14-year-old Celie writing letters to God about the sexual abuse she endures at home. Later married to an abusive man, she finds relief in her sister’s love and the unexpected support of her husband’s lover. The arc of the story bends towards redemption.
Tayari Jones writes in The New York Times that The Color Purple is her go-to comfort novel: “Even though it touches on difficult subject matter, … this story believes that human kindness, courage, and love can defeat any challenge. Its big, beautiful happy ending is heartfelt and hard-won. Every single time I read this book, I walk away as a slightly better person than I was when I picked it up.”
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
Maya Angelou wrote seven volumes of autobiographical reflections; the first, published in 1969, brought her international fame. In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou remembers being raised by her grandmother in small-town, Jim Crow Arkansas in the 1940s; her rape at age 8 by her mother’s boyfriend, and her subsequent retreat into silence; and the way one schoolteacher helped her find her voice and her way in the world through a love of books. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings offers excruciating pain alongside strength and hope.
All Over But the Shoutin’ by Rick Bragg
Rick Bragg grew up dirt-poor in Alabama with a hard-drinking father and a hard-working mother. He received a Pulitzer Prize in 1996 for his New York Times reporting, but his best-selling 1998 memoir made him a household name. “Bragg tells about the South with such power and bone-naked love … he will make you cry,” writes the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Dimestore: A Writer’s Life by Lee Smith
North Carolina author Lee Smith is best known for her many novels set in the South, including Fair and Tender Ladies, Saving Grace, and Oral History, but Dimestore: A Writer’s Life (2017) may be her most powerful work. In this slim volume, Smith recalls a somewhat idyllic childhood in the coal-mining town of Grundy, Virginia, in the 1950s. But her book is no mere hymn to a long-gone past. Smith also reflects on mental health struggles, divorce, and death as she considers her life’s journey.
“Because truth is often more powerful than fiction, and because the tale she has [lived to tell] is rendered keenly, irrepressibly and without self-pity, Lee Smith, the person, emerges as one of nonfiction’s great protagonists,” writes the Raleigh News & Observer.
Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss by Margaret Renkl
Margaret Renkl reaches a broad readership through her regular New York Times column on flora, fauna, politics, and culture in the South. Her debut work, Late Migrations, is a wonder and delight. From the publisher: “Growing up in Alabama, Renkl was a devoted reader, an explorer of riverbeds and red-dirt roads, and a fiercely loved daughter. Here, in brief essays, she traces a tender and honest portrait of her complicated parents … and the bittersweet moments accompanying a child’s transition to caregiver. And here, braided into the overall narrative, Renkl offers observations on the world surrounding her suburban Nashville home.”
“Late Migrations is a vivid and original essay collection that’s a little hard to characterize because — to borrow from the title of a novel by Jeannette Haien, another one-of-a-kind writer — Renkl’s subject here is ‘the all of it,’” writes Maureen Corrigan at NPR. Published in 2019, it was named Best Book of the Year by the New York and Chicago Public Public Libraries and was a Southern Book Prize finalist.
The Ladies Auxiliary by Tova Mirvis
It has been said that most great novels have one of two plots: someone goes on a journey, or a stranger comes to town. In The Ladies Auxiliary, the beautiful and free-spirited Batsheva moves to Memphis with her young daughter, shocking the orthodox Jewish community they join. Some would do anything to restore order. Jewish Week described it in 1999 as “a sparkling debut … A graceful novel with a strong sense of place, with vivid characters that are as Southern as the black-eyed peas they serve for Shabbat dinner, as Jewish as their homemade challah.”
Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry
The fictional town of Port William, Kentucky — the setting for many of Berry’s novels — has been called one of contemporary fiction’s most richly imagined communities. Jayber Crow, former orphan, outsider, and now the town barber, knows all its secrets. “Jayber’s hard-won acceptance of loss offers a compelling — and by contemporary standards — quite unusual climax,” notes Kirkus Review.
Berry has said he takes the Gospel seriously, reflected in this quietly transcendent novel published in 2000.
A Summons to Memphis by Peter Taylor
A middle-aged son living in New York is called back to Memphis by his two older sisters to help prevent their elderly father from remarrying. Taylor has said that the central question he considers in the novel is how successful we are in understanding what has happened to us. Taylor’s protagonist thinks about how his father’s business misfortune and the family’s move from Nashville to Memphis devastated and shaped them all. A Summons to Memphis won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1987.
Long Man by Amy Greene
It’s the summer of 1936, and the moment has come for the TVA to flood a valley in Eastern Tennessee as part of its rural electrification project. A few valley residents have been unwilling to leave their homes even as the countdown begins, including a mother and her young daughter. It’s a race against the clock to find them in a fierce storm before the floodletting.
“Greene’s enormous talent animates the voices and landscape of East Tennessee so vividly and creates such exquisite tension that the reader is left as exhausted and devastated as the characters in this unforgettable story,” writes Publisher’s Weekly.
Long Man won the Willie Morris Award for Southern Literature in 2014 and might be the best book (on this list) you’ve never heard of.
Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe
Thomas Wolfe’s sprawling autobiographical novel, published in 1929, remains a classic Southern tome about a young man growing up and leaving home. The fictional setting is “Altamont,” easily recognized as Asheville, North Carolina, and themes of loneliness, striving, ambition, and yearning infuse the story.
Southern Lady Code by Helen Ellis
Southern Lady Code is “a technique by which, if you don’t have something nice to say, you say something not so nice in a nice way,” Ellis explains. In these witty essays, Ellis reflects on essential things like how to be a good houseguest, what to do when a birthday party goes bad, and when to write a thank-you note. Of course, if you’re a Southerner, you already know these things, but a gentle and funny reminder never hurts. (“Thank you, Helen Ellis, for writing down the Southern Lady Code so that others may learn,” writes Ann Patchett.)
Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Cafe by Fannie Flagg
Southern bookshelves need their feel-good classics, and this ranks among the very best. A middle-aged woman finds her mojo after becoming close to the older Mrs. Threadgoode, who regales her with stories of the Whistlestop Cafe of her youth. It’s been called “folksy and fresh, endearing and affecting,” with a side dish of murder.
Where The Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
Set in coastal North Carolina and with a magnificent sense of place, Where The Crawdads Sing tells the story of Aya, “the marsh girl,” who grows up mostly alone on the outer edges of society. The plot thickens when she is accused of murdering the local high school’s star quarterback. Published in 2018, Where the Crawdads Sing has spent years on the New York Times bestseller list, and it’s almost certainly on your bookshelf already.
Disclaimer: A universe of important and/or entertaining Southern novels and memoirs were (tragically) not included on this concise list. If you have more room on your bookshelf or reading list, here are 37 more outstanding reads:
- As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner (probably his most accessible work)
- Suttree by Cormac McCarthy (possibly his most Southern)
- Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee
- Lanterns on the Levee by William Alexander Percy
- The Moviegoer by Walker Percy
- A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy O’Toole
- The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers
- Black Boy by Richard Wright
- Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
- Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison
- The Known World by Edward Jones
- The Sweetness of Water by Nathan Harris
- Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones
- The Help by Kathryn Stockett
- The Firm by John Grisham
- Deliverance by James Dickey
- Cold Sassy Tree by Olive Ann Burns
- The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd
- The Light at the Back Door by Elizabeth Spencer
- Christy by Catherine Marshall
- Run With the Horsemen by Ferrol Sams
- Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons
- The Divine Secrets of the YaYa Sisterhood by Rebecca Wells
- Raney by Clyde Edgerton
- Elvis Is Dead and I Don’t Feel So Good Myself by Lewis Grizzard
- Crackers by Roy Blount Jr.
- Carolina Moon by Jill McCorkle
- The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter
- Cathedrals of Kudzu by Hal Crowther
- Victory Over Japan by Ellen Gilchrist
- The Widow of the South by Robert Hicks
- Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All by Allan Gurganus
- Twilight by William Gay
- Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice
- Serena by Ron Rash
- Southernmost by Silas House
- A Short History of a Small Place by T.R. Pearson.