Two lanterns for the South (and humanity) – a reprise

I wrote this article over four years ago, I felt we needed to escape politics of the day.

Two of my favorite authors have died in the past weeks – Harper Lee and Pat Conroy. They both were lanterns into southern life, showing the world our love, anguish, bigotry, eccentricity, manners and eccentricities. Yet, they showed all of humanity these same attributes and asked us why must we have these barriers to each other?

Harper Lee wrote the best and most impactful novel I have ever read about the south in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” She created through Scout’s eyes a hero in her father, Atticus Finch, that she had to learn how great and brave a man could be. She had written a previous manuscript, which was initially not accepted, but it was released this past year as “Go set the Watchman.” I have this book, but have not read it, as it paints a different version of Atticus, a journey I do not want to take.

In her Pulitzer Prize winning Mockingbird, we learn what racism under Jim Crow looks like. She sneaks it up on you, so by the time the reader understands what is going on, they are hooked and ready to take up for Atticus and Tom Robinson, just like Scout and Jem did. I have written before about the novel and movie, but let me repeat my favorite parts. First, when Atticus leaves the court room after losing the case, the minister admonishes Scout to stand like everyone else is because “Your father is passing.”

The other is when the female neighbor is consoling Jem after the loss. She notes “There are people who are put on this earth to do our unpleasant tasks. Your father is one of them.” Yet, that is what makes the book so marvelous, we are seeing Atticus and racism through a child’s lens. And, it also confirms what is noted in the Rogers and Hammerstein “South Pacific” that bigotry has to be carefully taught. Scout and Jem have been taught not to be bigoted.

As for Conroy, he put in words stories and characters who make the south live. Critics have noted that he has written novels around his father being a very abusive man. It is true that many of his novels, like “The Great Santini,”  “The Prince of Tides,” of “South of Broad,” have elements of his father therein, with Santini being a thinly veiled biography. Yet, his books are much more than that.

My first Conroy book was “The Lords of Discipline” which is about a young cadet being asked to look after the first black cadet at a southern military school, which looks and smells like The Citadel, where he went to college. I normally like to read the book before seeing the movie, but the latter lead me to the book. The Bear was the grandfatherly mentor at the school referring to his mentees as “his lambs.” And, he called the lead character Bubba, which is a nickname for brother, usually because a younger sibling could not pronounce brother.

“The Water is Wide” is great auto-biographical read and was made into a movie called “Conrack,” which is how the Daufuskie Island children, who spoke Gullah, pronounced Conroy’s name. He set out to teach these kids how to read and expose them to new things, rather than just shepherd them along. Eventually, he was fired for being rebellious, as the principal did not want these kids getting aspirations.

He also penned “My Losing Season,” which is a true story of his basketball playing days for a very poor and inconsistent coach. Reading this book led me to a realization that I actually saw Conroy play basketball in the mid-1960s, when The Citadel played Jacksonville University. He spoke of the players I saw for the Jacksonville team, as my father would take us to the games and this is where I learned what The Citadel was.

Yet, my favorite is “The Prince of Tides,” which also was made into a movie with Barbra Streisand, Blythe Danner and Nick Nolte. The movie was good, but left out the best example of a character in a Conroy novel. The grandfather was so religious, every Easter he would drag a cross around town to suffer like Jesus did. When he got too old to do this, the family put the cross on roller skates, so he could wheel it around. That is classic eccentricity.

If you have not read them, please give them a chance. The movies are excellent, but the books have so much more to offer. These two will be missed.

Where the crawdads sing – a terrific page turner

A few weeks ago, I asked my wife if I would enjoy Delia Owens novel “Where the crawdads sing.” I had given it to her for Christmas a few years ago and was looking for a good fiction read. I had bought it for her as it was #1 on the New York Times bestseller list and recommended by Reese’s Book Club (that is Reese Witherspoon). She said I would and she was correct.

For those who have read the book, I look forward to your comments below. If you have not, please avoid the comments, as my wife did a great job of not telling me things I did not know yet as I read. Plus, it won’t take you long to read, as the story, main character, and setting are very intriguing. I will not give anything away here.

Owens does a great job of toggling between two time periods, one that ages with Kya, the main character, and the other one set in 1969, when a body is discovered beneath an abandoned Fire Tower on a coastal region of North Carolina. We meet Kya in 1952 when she is only six and her mother leaves her family to get away from an abusive, drinking husband. As this occurs very early in the book, her older siblings also leave as they experienced verbal and physical abuse.

They lived in the marsh of this coastal area and we begin to learn about the differences between marshes, swamps and inlets, through this girl’s eyes. This “Marsh Girl,” as she will become known as to the small town of Barkley Cove, cannot read or count above 29, but she is very resourceful, knows the area, and briefly learns a few useful things from her father during his nicer periods. She also befriends a boy older than she, named Tate (who had been friends with her closest sibling Jodie) and a Black man named Jumper (who has a coastal filling station for boats) who are helpful to her journey.

The book is told largely in first person through Kya’s eyes, but we do get the occasional thoughts of other key characters, that help shape the story. They also offer a glimpse of the bias toward Kya as evidenced by the nickname, plus why those who help her, do so.

I highly recommend this book. The story and characters will intrigue you. You will also learn things that Kya learns or be amazed at what she had gleaned by age six, about the marsh, animals, birds, and fireflies. The title will also reveal its origins along the way. And, you will also learn through Kya’s eyes how people in different classes are treated or made to feel inferior.

Let me know your thoughts. Do your best not to give too much away for those who have not read the book, but they have been forewarned.

Book recommendations for the holidays

If you are looking for a last minute gift for the holidays, here are six suggestions for consideration.

A Man called Ove
by Fredrik Backman

Ove is a great read, but tough start as you get full on curmudgeon in Ove from the outset. Through memories and interaction with new neighbors, you get to peel away the layers and better understand him.

Flat Broke with Two Goats
by Jennifer McGaha

Based on her own story, the author wife discovers the hard way they are flat broke with the IRS wanting even more. Getting back to nature in a run down cabin was a crazy, but interesting path forward for her family.

Where the Crawdads Sing
by Delia Owens

This is a book about a woman who grew up on her own in the rustic North Carolina inlets. She is accused of a crime she did not commit. I am in the middle of this best seller and it is an enjoyable read.

The Only Woman in the Room
by Marie Benedict

This is a non-fiction novel about the actress (and scientist) Hedy LaMarr who escaped Austria and her domineering husband just prior to WWII. Her husband sold munitions to the Nazis and Italians, so she witnessed conversations as the only woman in the room including one with Mussolini and eavesdropping on Hitler berating her husband.

The Road to Character
by David Brooks

Brooks has written several good books. This non-fiction book defines the importance character plays. How we conduct ourselves matters. On this day, the president’s lack of character and common decency is underlying context to the impeachment subject.

Quiet: Introverts in a World that can’t stop talking
by Susan Cain

This is a very informational read. At one time, introversion was thought to be a deficiency that must be remedied. The book highlights how introversion finds it way into many surprising places of leadership and even with people who seem to be extroverted.

All are worth the effort, in my view.