I’m Southern by birth, upbringing, education, and choice. When I travel, I always give a little “I’m home” sigh when the restaurants I visit start serving grits for breakfast. Southern literature is my major academic field, and I drop quotes by William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and Eudora Welty at every opportunity.
So it’s hardly surprising then that I have high standards for romance fiction with Southern settings. I’m a peaceful lover of harmony by nature, but when I read a novel that purports to be Southern, but is as fake as the accent in too many Southern movies, I have been known to hurl a book across the room and mutter imprecations that would have scandalized my mama (see a similar post titled RIMBY: Romance in My Own Backyard). I crossed a former auto-buy author permanently off my list when she wrote a book in which the hero proved his roots were below the Mason-Dixon Line by using “y’all” every time he spoke.
But the authors who do Southern right earn a place among my keepers and in my heart. Not only does a rich sense of place pervade these novels, but they also show other conventions used to characterize the fiction of William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Lee Smith, and other Southern writers of literary fiction. The role of family, the emphasis on community, and the sense of a living past that intrudes on the present are part and parcel of the novels that I consider the best of Southern romance fiction.
1. A Place to Call Home (1998) by Deborah Smith
Five-year-old Claire Maloney is a cherished twig on the family trees of two of Dunderry, Georgia’s, leading families: the Maloneys and the Delaneys. Roan Sullivan, age ten, is the abused son of the town drunk; he’s neglected, unkempt, and half-starved. Despite their differences, Claire and Roan form a connection that survives adult betrayals and two decades of silence and separation. Dunderry is not a generic Southern place. It is a mountain town settled by Irish immigrants where the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade is a big deal and family names go back for generations, a town where people know who you are and who your family is, as James Dickey would say, a town where people know their cousins—including those several times removed. Family is central to the story: Claire’s ambivalence about hers and Roan’s longing to belong and his fierce loyalty to those he claims as family complicate the plot. Claire and Roan discover their reunion can be complete only when they accept the truth of Faulkner’s claim about the past: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
2. In the Midnight Rain (2000) by Ruth Wind (Barbara Samuel/Barbara O’Neal)
Pine Bend, the small East Texas town that serves as the setting for In the Midnight Rain is a slow-paced, Southern town filled with long memories, secrets, old and new, and loyalties as deeply rooted as a bur oak tree. Ellie Connor is a stranger to Pine Bend who brings her own secret to this place and she comes to uncover the secrets of the subject of her next book, Mabel Beauvais, a gifted blues singer who mysteriously disappeared four decades ago just as she was about to “get all the fame and fortune every musician dreamed of.” Blue Reynard, who offers Ellie a place to stay, is a handsome, intelligent, wealthy blues aficionado who raises orchids. He’s also lost and needy and anesthetizing his pain with the best Kentucky bourbon. ITMR is the story of Ellie and Blue finding the strength to mend their broken places so that they can build a future together. But this novel is not just a romance. It is also the story of a town and its people, a story of mysteries that must be solved, lessons that must be learned. There is much brokenness in this story and much need for earned strength. And beneath it all is the beat of the blues with all that music’s passion, pain, pity, and poetry.
3. Lover’s Knot (2006) by Emilie Richards
After Kendra Taylor, a Washington, D. C. investigative reporter, is shot during a car-jacking, she retreats to a cabin in Toms Brook, Virginia, to complete her rehabilitation and consider her life and her marriage. She is troubled by the emotional distance that separates her even from those closest to her. As she renovates the cabin that has been left to her husband by his maternal grandmother, she builds connections to the community and to the cabin’s owner who has left tantalizing glimpses of her life there. Kendra employs her investigative skills to reclaim her husband’s past and the forgotten stories of the mother who abandoned him and the grandmother who overcame tragedy to create a different life as a healer in Toms Brook. Flannery O’Connor wrote, “There is something in us, as storytellers and as listeners to stories, that demands the redemptive act, that demands that what falls at least be offered the chance to be restored.” Untangling the knots of the past leads to the redemption of a dead woman’s integrity and her descendant’s marriage.
4. The Goddess of Fried Okra (2010) by Jean Brashear
Eudora O’Brien is on a mission to find her sister. Her sister is dead, but a little thing like death doesn’t stop this six-foot redhead from her quest to find the one person who gave her life stability. With $607.83, a single photograph of Sister, and a tarnished bracelet that belonged to Mama, Pea (an abbreviated form of Sweetpea, Sister’s name for Eudora) sets out on her journey through central Texas in the July heat, determined to find Sister’s spirit, whatever that reincarnated spirit’s current home may be. By the story’s end, Pea, and the reader, have discovered the power among an unlikely assortment of women, which grows to include the women in the past, not only Sister and Mama but also Madame Eva the psychic, Big Lil (the mother bear of Pea’s cheating ex-boyfriend), and especially Dark Agnes, the fictional, sword-wielding, Medieval heroine from the imagination of Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan the Barbarian. The Goddess of Fried Okra is not a romance, although it has a sexy con man in the process of reform (and a great love scene); it’s women’s fiction with the requisite journey of self-discovery. But it is Southern in voice and in landscape that captures the reader’s imagination like an old photograph half-remembered. I’m not much for high concept descriptions, but I described TGOFO as Eudora Welty meets Sue Monk Kidd and they lunch with Fannie Flagg.
5. The Beach Trees (2011) by Karen White
Julie Holt’s life is shaped by an event in her past. Seventeen years ago, her younger sister, Chelsea, disappeared on the watch of twelve-year-old Julie, who watched her family splinter as her mother devoted her life to finding Chelsea. Since her mother’s death ten years ago, Julie has been consumed with doing what her mother could not do. But it is not her own past that brings her to Biloxi; it is rather the past of her friend Monica Guidry, dead of congenital heart defect at 28. Monica, who was estranged from her family, leaves Julie a beach house in Biloxi and the guardianship of Beau, Monica’s five-year-old son. Julie’s resources are thin when a mysterious painting leads her to Monica’s grandmother, Aimee, and brother, Trey. Aimee persuades Julie to stay at the family home to give Beau a chance to know his mother’s family and encourages Julie and the reluctant Trey to rebuild River Song, the beach house. From this point on, White seamlessly weaves together narratives of past and present. White’s descriptions of New Orleans and Biloxi are so richly evocative that the reader can almost feel the steamy heat, smell the water, and see the scars left by hurricanes and an oil spill. But place is more than mere setting in this novel; it is also a character, as tenacious and resilient as the people who call this region home.
Janga spent decades teaching literature and writing to groups ranging from twelve-year-olds to college students. She is currently a freelance writer, who sometimes writes about romance fiction, and an aspiring writer of contemporary romance, who sometimes thinks of writing an American historical romance. She can be found at her blog Just Janga and tweeting obscure bits about writers as @Janga724.