On the way to my cousin Rachel’s wedding this past Saturday, I typed the destination — Island House, Johns Island SC — into my iPhone GPS just for kicks. It was a good thing we knew where we were going, because the phone started directing us to the Johns Island Church of Prayer, which is also off River Road but past Maybank Highway. Even though I hadn’t been on the curving two-lane in years, I knew our turn-off was to the left a ways before Maybank, marked by a giant propeller at the entrance of a boatyard. The lowcountry landscape in the late afternoon sun was both strange and achingly familiar, the way places in the heart are after a long absence. Big trees and hanging moss gave way to a wide expanse of green lawn and a field of wildflowers on the banks of the Stono River, where the wind ruffled the water and snapped the top flaps of the white wedding tent. We had arrived where we were supposed to be.
I had something of the same feeling on reading three recent Southern novels. They differ in story, setting and style, but all have the definite sense of place and people that are recognizably Southern, and thus “known.” With The Cove (HarperCollins, paperback ARC), Ron Rash returns to the backwoods of the North Carolina mountains, this time during World War I. Laurel Shelton lives with her injured war veteran brother, “waiting for her life to begin.” Then she finds love with the stranger known as Walter, a mute who plays a silver flute, but their possible future is threatened by local Army recruiter Chauncey, whose xenophobia plays into the local community’s superstitions and fears. The result is a haunting, sorrowful ballad, true mountain music.
The Southern Gothic trappings are more overt in Wiley Cash’s debut, A Land More Kind Than Home (Morrow, paperback galley), which explores love and violence, faith and redemption after a mute boy dies during a “healing” service at a local church. The three narrators — the dead boy’s younger brother Jess; sympathetic sheriff Clem Barefield; elderly church member and midwife Adelaide — have distinct voices and perspectives. But the most compelling — and repellent – character remains Pastor Carson Chambliss, a scarred ex-con who stirs his congregation to a frenzy by speaking in tongues and handling snakes.
Cash writes lyric lean, while Marly Youmans writes lyric lush in A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage (Mercer University Press; digital galley). It’s a picaresque journey through the Great Depression as the aptly-named Pip Tatnall leaves a Georgia farm after the murder of his brother Otto. His thirst for knowledge of the wider world leads him to ride the rails, and Youmans details his adventures in a series of poetically rendered set pieces.
My favorite may be 12-year-old Pip’s sojourn at Roseville, a minature metropolis of junk where Pip finds a makeshift family of lovable eccentrics who encourage his dreams. “This was a place worth staying in, he decided. Both of the old people were lunatics and might be fetched and locked away in the looney bin at Milledgeville any day now, but there was no harm in them, or Bill and Clemmie. It seemed to him that Georgia and probably the whole country had its share of the squirrelly, and maybe this part no more than most. . .perhaps madness was essential.”