Classic & Contemporary Southern Fiction

This is the moving story of three generations of a struggling Mississippi family, set in the present day. Ward's evocative prose imbues even the family's most painful moments with tenderness and beauty. Previous National Book Award winner Ward has already received a slew of nominations and awards for her latest novel, among them the Bailey’s Prize longlist, PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction finalist, LA Times Award for Fiction honoree, and Aspen Words longlist.
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From the publisher: "In the aftermath of a flood that washes away much of a small Tennessee town, evangelical preacher Asher Sharp offers shelter to two gay men. In doing so, he starts to see his life anew—and risks losing everything: his wife, locked into her religious prejudices; his congregation, which shuns Asher after he delivers a passionate sermon in defense of tolerance; and his young son, Justin, caught in the middle of what turns into a bitter custody battle. With no way out but ahead, Asher takes Justin and flees to Key West, where he hopes to find his brother, Luke, whom he’d turned against years ago after Luke came out. And it is there, at the southernmost point of the country, that Asher and Justin discover a new way of thinking about the world, and a new way of understanding love."
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Jayber Crow returns to his native Port William, Kentucky after the 1937 flood to become the town’s barber. There he learns about the deep meaning of community, the discipline of place, and what it truly means to love. This is a gorgeous novel.
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This weird and wonderful story focuses on a powerful Southern political family with one tiny problem: when their kids get mad, they spontaneously combust. The husband is angling to become Secretary of State, and may even run for president one day—but if the truth gets out, his career is over. And so the family calls on an unlikely candidate to step in as a nanny-of-sorts: an estranged old friend with a troubled past who has no idea what she’s in for. A surprisingly poignant meditation on friendship and motherhood, hopes and dreams, triumph and defeat, and a story about becoming your own person, and forming your own family—whether that’s the one you’re given, or the one you find. This is a SHORT book, so if you need some momentum in your reading life, this could be the ticket.
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What happens when we get the thing we desire most in life—only to find that it might destroy us? That's the question Margaret faces at the opening of Evensong. This tale, set in the mountains of North Carolina, faithfully examines marriage and vocation and calling through the eyes of Margaret, a thirtysomething Episcopal priest, who is forced to finally confront matters when three unexpected and—let's face it—unwelcome guests arrive in her sleepy North Carolina mountain town of High Balsam. This book, first published in 1999, has the fingerprints of the millennium all over it. If you love it, go back and read its predecessor, Father Melancholy's Daughter.
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From the publisher: "The bestselling classic about a mixed-race child in the Civil War-era South that 'chronicles the triumph of a free spirit over many kinds of bondage' (The New York Times Book Review). Jubilee tells the true story of Vyry, the child of a white plantation owner and his black mistress. Vyry bears witness to the antebellum South in both its opulence and its brutality, its wartime ruin, and the promises of Reconstruction. Weaving her own family’s oral history with thirty years of research, Margaret Walker brings the everyday experiences of slaves to light in a novel that churns with the hunger, the hymns, the struggles, and the very breath of American history."
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Sweet 21-year-old Shandi "fell in love with William Ashe at gunpoint, in a Circle K” when he steps between a gunman who's high on drugs and her 3-year-old son. When the crisis is over, Shandi hurls herself into a new mission: getting him to love her back. Her blond god Thor that she fell in love with so quickly turns out to be a brilliant geneticist, whose genetic makeup contains some “specific duplications and deletions.” What Shandi doesn't realize is she's stepped into the middle of someone else's love story, not her own—but that story proves to be far more interesting than she ever could have dreamed. This was a runner-up for the post about the best summer reading for your Myers-Briggs personality type.
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Pushcart Prize-nominated poet and former attorney Stringfellow draws on her own family’s rich history to pen a stunning debut. Stringfellow’s grandfather was a World War II veteran who served as the first Black homicide detective in Memphis—before being lynched by his own all-white police squad. Her grandmother was among the first Black nurses in Memphis. This dual legacy of excellence and injustice permeates the novel as it traces a legacy of violence and matriarchal strength through three generations of Black women living in this historic city from 1937 to 2003. It unflinchingly portrays both its strong communities and grim history of racism and violence, illuminating the secrets each generation kept and the traumas they endured. Readers should know this novel depicts horrifying events (content warnings apply), yet it also lovingly and fiercely conveys the resilience, grit, love, and even joy of these women and their community. This is a stunner. For fans of Brit Bennett’s The Mothers and Dolen Perkins-Valdez’s Take My Hand.
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Sparkly Southern women, screwed-up family relationships, and magical realism mark this novel. One woman's unique magic is that the specific book she needs in her life right then mysteriously appears—on her bedside table, on her desk at work, in her handbag. That's enough to win me over.
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From my husband Will, who loved it: This gritty crime novel shows the many dichotomies a place (and its people) can hold. Appalachian Virginia versus big city Richmond, Black and White, gay and straight, upstanding citizen or lawless criminal. Ike and Buddy Lee aren't friends but they become partners because they share an unfortunate bond–their sons were murdered. In fact the only thing they have in common prior to this tragedy is a strained relationship with a son they couldn't understand—or perhaps chose not to understand. Part vigilante story, part therapy session for the two fathers. This story is illuminating without being preachy.
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The plot of Kingsolver's 2012 novel revolves around climate change, and a young Tennessee woman and a butterfly colony who both stray from their typical flight paths. When Dellarobia sees something inexplicable in nature, her experience stokes tension between religious leaders, scientists, politicians, and climate change experts with different views on what exactly she witnessed. Suspenseful and page-turning, I thought this finely crafted novel had many wonderful moments and an unsatisfying ending—which would make it perfect for a book club discussion. Though it's unusual for novelists to read their own work, Kingsolver's lyrical voice perfectly suits her prose.
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Opening line: "My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist." In her third novel, Jones writes about the link between two African-American half sisters, one legitimate and one secret, only one of whom knows the other exists. That is, until the secret of their father's second marriage starts to force its way into the open. Rather than writing back-and-forth between two perspectives, the reader encounters almost all of one sister's point of view in the first half, followed by the other's. The result is an absorbing coming-of-age narrative wrapped in a complicated family novel. I already loved this book, but when we discussed it with author Tayari Jones in the MMD Book Club, my appreciation and enjoyment skyrocketed, as so often happens. I love to peel back all the layers of a good book.
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Hurston's classic is written in dialect, which is tricky for some readers—unless they choose the audio version. This atmospheric story about expectations, marriage, and unexpected love is richly atmospheric, set in the deep South's Florida Everglades in the 1920s. A classic for a reason, with well-developed characters and a thought-provoking story line.
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From the publisher: "Folksy and fresh, endearing and affecting, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café is a now-classic novel about two women: Evelyn, who's in the sad slump of middle age, and gray-headed Mrs. Threadgoode, who's telling her life story. Her tale includes two more women—the irrepressibly daredevilish tomboy Idgie and her friend Ruth—who back in the thirties ran a little place in Whistle Stop, Alabama, offering good coffee, southern barbecue, and all kinds of love and laughter—even an occasional murder. And as the past unfolds, the present will never be quite the same again."
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Christina Baker Kline, author of A Piece of the World and Orphan Train recommends this. From the publisher: "The New York Times bestselling author of the celebrated A Land More Kind Than Home returns with this eagerly awaited new novel, inspired by actual events. While the dirty, hazardous job at the mill earns Ella May a paltry nine dollars for seventy-two hours of work each week, it’s the only opportunity she has. When the union leaflets begin circulating, Ella May has a taste of hope, a yearning for the better life the organizers promise. Seventy-five years later, Ella May’s daughter Lilly, now an elderly woman, tells her nephew about his grandmother and the events that transformed their family. Intertwining myriad voices, Wiley Cash brings to life the heartbreak and bravery of the now forgotten struggle of the labor movement in early twentieth-century America."
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