31 Books You Need To Read If You Want To Understand The American South
Preferably with a cool glass of sweet tea.
1. The Complete Stories of Flannery O'Connor
O'Conner's short stories are inimitable, and this is collection comprises all 31 — including "Everything That Rises Must Converge" and "A Good Man Is Hard to Find."
"I could read 'A Good Man is Hard to Find' any day. Flannery O'Conner masters Southern Gothic and makes that story an instant classic. Being from Savannah, and sharing the same hometown as Mrs. O'Conner makes me lover her even more." —Andy Christiansen, Facebook
"She draws so effortlessly on the grotesque, and her stories reveal the darkness that lies beneath the seeming normalcy of everyday southern life. 'A Good Man is Hard to Find' is obviously one of her best, but I'm particularly fond of 'Good Country People.'" —Marissa Comeau, Facebook
2. Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg
Fried Green Tomatoes shows Alabama through two timelines. In the 1980s, a woman in the midst of a midlife slump is revived by an unexpected friendship with the elderly Mrs. Threadgoode — who recounts stories of Whistle Stop in the 1930s, and the two women who built their lives around their little cafe.
"The movie was instrumental in my childhood, and when I read the novel, it was a revelation. It was the first time I'd ever read something so bittersweet — something where not all the loose ends were brought together in a neat, little, satisfying bundle. Not to mention, the format — the story-within-a-story, as well as the scraps of newspaper articles and announcements — fully immersed me in the little world of Whistle Stop, Alabama." —mercutio
3. The Known World by Edward P. Jones
In pre-Civil War Virginia, the recently freed Henry Townsend learns how to run his own estate under the guidance of his former master. When he dies young and unexpectedly, his widow Caledonia struggles to follow her late (and beloved) husband's example as master and slaveowner, and their estate and its surrounding county fall into chaos.
(Recommended by Susan Fitzgerald, Facebook)
4. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt
Berendt's deep dive into a 1981 Savannah murder (or was it self-defense?) reads like a novel but is true crime at its finest — haunting, gripping, and impossible to put down.
"I have read Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil upwards of 20 times. It is one of the best pieces of literature *about* the South (John Berendt is from NY) I've ever gotten my hands on, and I was an English major. You feel like you are right in the middle of Savannah; it's hot, it's humid... You can sense this place through this book." —Ansley Wimbish, Facebook
5. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
The book is one long flashback from the 40-something Janie Crawford, who remembers her life in three distinct sections based on three (very different) marriages. It's a coming-of-age story about a powerless teen who grows into a woman in charge of her own destiny.
"This book precisely details the difficulty of wanting to be a woman on your own terms. It helped me see that being independent comes with struggle but perseverance is the key to getting through any hardship or tragedy." —lemonsc
6. The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd
In South Carolina in 1964, Lily Owens and her caretaker Rosaleen run away to a small town connected to Lily's late mother, where they meet three beekeeping sisters who take them under their wings.
"The story is a lot of things — a story of sisterhood, of civil rights-era tensions, of mental health, of indomitable spirit — but more than anything else, it's a story that teaches you perspective. The way you perceive or remember your own past is colored by your having experienced it — there are other sides, other truths, other stories within your story." —Madonna Kilpatrick, Facebook
7. The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers
In 1930s Georgia, deaf-mute John Singer finds himself as confidant to all of the misfits in a small mill town. When his companion is forced into an insane asylum, he moves to the Kelly house, where he befriends Mick Kelly — a tomboyish, loner girl whose only solace comes from music and her dream of owning a piano.
"I love this book so much. It's about loneliness, love, and our need to connect. It's about small towns and growth. It's beautifully written. Such a classic." —TastyHAMTweets
8. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
Angelou's heartbreaking autobiography describes the abandonment of her parents, and the transition of moving with her brother to her devout grandmother's house in a small Arkansas town. Despite suffering the racism of locals and, years later, sexual assault, Maya finds it's still possible to love herself and others.
(Recommended by sarag4491e8e4a)
9. Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier
Confederate soldier Inman abandons the front and journeys back to his prewar love on foot, passing through a ravaged landscape and wrestling with its dangers (as well as the dangers of isolation) along the way.
"It gives a much bleaker (and probably more accurate) depiction of how the Civil War completely destroyed the South. The whole mood of the novel is exactly how I imagine that period of time would have felt: gritty, raw, graphic, heartbreaking, and hard to swallow." —bethanyg4e4e66702
"It takes place in the waning days of the Civil War and is unflinching in its frankness. It's a beautiful, brave, and ultimately devastating story." —jimmyd4f34172e5
10. Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver
In a rural Virginia mountain town, during one humid summer, three lives are interwoven — Deanna, the loner mountain ranger; Lusa, the recently widowed entomologist who's fighting with her late husband's family; and Garnett, the old man whose wish is to restore the now extinct American chestnut tree.
"Her books always make great use of location, but Prodigal Summer's rural Virginian setting has always stuck with me. Her characters are strong, usually women, and so well-integrated with the environment that they seem just another part of it." —Bell Nall, Facebook
11. The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
The Sound and the Fury follows the formerly aristocratic Compson family over the course of about 30 years, examining their descent into ruin — in faith, reputation, and finances — through multiple points of view.
"It tells such a beautiful and sad story about a fractured family that barely functions, which is representative of the south during Reconstruction. It questions ideas about the role of women, purity, and family, and the prose is stunning." —callim4bab58146
12. Black Boy by Richard Wright
Wright's memoir explores what it was like to grow up as a black young man in Jim Crow south — poor, scared, and facing hatred daily in small town Mississippi. His unflinching narrative is often disturbing, but an important and necessary account of injustice and perseverance.
(Recommended by Whitney Holiday, Facebook)
13. Cane River by Lalita Tademy
Tademy's epic debut traces the heritage of one Louisiana family, following four generations of black women (based partially on Tademy's own ancestors) as they ascend in a system built to keep them down.
"It's a really good book that examines different race issues throughout different generations." —Japhia Long, Facebook
14. Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison
Ruth Anne (nicknamed Bone) is the bastard child within a loud, brash, and otherwise close-knit family in rural South Carolina. Her mother tries desperately to give Bone a legitimate upbringing, but when Bone's stepfather sexually abuses her, she finds herself emotionally alienated and alone.
"Dorothy Allison's prose is remarkable in this novel and she perfectly encapsulates life in the south. Having grown up in South Carolina, I can say she's all kinds of accurate. Not only that, this is a particularly moving coming of age story about a little girl born into less than ideal circumstances. This book truly moved me — I still think about it." —camiller4c9971dc3
15. Child of God by Cormac McCarthy
In 1960s Appalachian Tennessee, the violent outcast Lester Ballard is released from prison, and haunts his town from the countryside. It's possibly McCarthy's darkest work.
"Child of God is pure Southern Gothic. Honestly, it immediately became one of my favorite books — it's a rumination on poverty, isolation, depravity, and human cruelty. The story of Lester Ballard is so raw and brooding that it took me weeks to get it out of my mind." —Marissa Comeau, Facebook
16. Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward
In a small Mississippi coastal town, 14-year-old Esch finds out she's pregnant — all in the midst of Hurricane Katrina's destruction. Though the odds are against her, she's determined to protect herself and her family in this story of sacrifice and survival.
(Recommended by Isaac Fitzgerald.)
17. Storming Heaven by Denise Giardina
Giardina's historical novel recounts the destruction of a small West Virginia mining town after the arrival of massive coal companies, culminating in a tragic battle between the US Army and the town's 10,000 unemployed, pro-union miners.
"It's a gorgeous piece of historical fiction that recounts the Battle of Blair Mountain — a much-forgotten, tragic piece of American history — and the events leading to it. Giardina grew up in a mining camp in West Virginia, so the dialect she uses — while a challenge for some readers — feels completely authentic to me, and her descriptions of the mining fields and towns are based on her own experiences. I may be biased as a proud West Virginian, but this book completely changed my life." —Chelsea LaRue via Facebook
18. Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady by Florence King
Florence King's hilarious and acerbic coming-of-age and coming-out memoir recounts all of the ways she's disappointed her grandmother — whose one wish was to raise a "perfect southern lady" — and how she herself wouldn't have it any other way.
"A favorite is Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady, a biography about an eccentric family and finding your place within the world." —Robs Wilson, Facebook
19. A Time To Kill by John Grisham
In a small Mississippi town, a young black girl is assaulted by two white men. After her father takes retribution into his own hands, the town erupts into chaos — and the whole nation is watching.
"I still cry every time I read this book. Even though racial tensions have gotten slightly better in the years since this book was released, things are still not great. And though it is pure fiction, similar stories probably did happen in Southern history." —brandicorn81
20. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor
In Depression-era Mississippi, 9-year-old Cassie Logan learns hard truths about racism, and comes to understand the great importance of land ownership to her family, and to black families throughout the south.
"It's a book that deals with racism, segregation, and bullying in the 1930s. The book is a good read for anyone, really, no matter what genre you like." —maddyn431c033a9
21. Natchez Burning by Greg Iles
The massive first novel (nearing 800 pages) in a trilogy, Natchez Burning centers on southern lawyer Penn Cage as he's thrust into a deep history of greed, murder, and conspiracy while working on a murder case that's close to home.
"Based on a reporter's work out of Louisiana just over the state line. Totally gripping. It comments on the rampant racism in the south back then, and how it's still very much alive today. Also, JFK and MLK assassination conspiracies — who doesn't love those? Do yourself a favor and pick this up. I promise you won't regret it." —Brittany Ann Oliver, Facebook
22. Beloved by Toni Morrison
Though Beloved's story unfolds in Ohio — where the slave Sethe runs to for her freedom — it's Sethe's past on a Kentucky plantation that looms over the narrative, haunting her (literally) and forcing her to face the impossible decisions she had to make in trying to survive.
(Recommended by Alexa Darche via Facebook and sarag4491e8e4a)
23. Strange Fruit by Lillian Smith
Smith's 1944 novel — which takes place in 1920s Georgia, following the forbidden interracial romance between the son of a prominent white family and a young black woman — was an immediate bestseller, despite being banned in both Boston and Detroit.
"I read it for the first time this year and I greatly regret not reading it sooner. Lillian Smith weaves a darkly beautiful, haunting tale about the 'business as usual' mentality of racism in the south. Smith does an incredible job of presenting and then deconstructing common racial tropes. The fact that the prejudices depicted in the novel were still prevalent at the time of publication (and, to a degree, persist today) makes it all the more powerful." —Marissa Comeau , Facebook
24. Beach Music by Pat Conroy
Told over the course of three generations, and spanning two continents, this is at its core a story about Jack McCall — a southern man who flees to Rome with his young daughter after his wife's suicide, and who's followed by a deep-seated family secret.
"A beautifully written book about a group of friends in South Carolina. There are so many beautiful stories within this book and such vivid imagery. It's funny and heartbreaking. Everyone I recommend this to falls in love with it." —tarac4c4473cdb
26. Zora and Nicky by Claudia Mair Burney
Zora's roots are with her grandfather's AME church and Nicky's father is a Southern Baptist preacher — but that doesn't stop the two from falling in love when they meet at a bible study group far away from either of their home churches.
"It's a love story about two deeply religious people, a white man and a black woman falling in love despite their backgrounds and religious families while in the south." —caireec
27. Run With the Horsemen by Ferrol Sams
Young Porter Osborne Jr. is living through the Depression in Georgia, learning life's toughest lessons at school, on a red-clay farm, and at home, among his large, flawed, but loving family.
"It's an underrated, under-appreciated coming of age story based in Depression-era Georgia. It has so many quirky personalities, and it tells a true southern tale." —naomim4f41eaa97
28. A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
Toole's tragicomic masterpiece earned him a posthumous Pulitzer, and understandably. In Ignatius J. Reilly — the surly 30-year-old who lives with (and bullies) his mother in New Orleans, and who would rather be writing his magnum opus than searching for a job — Toole created an unforgettable hero: bumbling, delusional, but surprisingly endearing.
29. All Over but the Shoutin' by Rick Bragg
Rick Bragg's childhood was spent in deep poverty in Alabama, and his memoir — about his violent father, his persevering and selfless mother, and the environment that shaped them all — is harrowing and poignant.
"Bragg's writing puts the reader in a small town in Alabama with his violent brother and a loving mother who would do anything for her boys. The stories go from heart wrenching to laugh-out-loud-alone funny. If you grew up in the south, or have heard countless old family stories, you'll find yourself in these pages." —wordstailor
31. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Who doesn't love this classic? The Finch family — six-year-old Scout, her brother Jeb, and their widowered lawyer father — have endeared themselves into the hearts of readers across generations, in a story about social injustices, racism, and loss of innocence.
"It's not only my favorite book about the south, but also my favorite book as a whole. No other book has shaped me the way that To Kill a Mockingbird has." —Megan Ashley via Facebook
"It really opened my eyes to racism, gender roles, and class differences that are just as relevant now as when it was written. It's one of the only books to really change the way I see the world." —Madison Greener via Facebook
(Recommended by over 30 readers.)