I’ve never been much of a fan of Southern Literature. Partly because I was force-fed too much of it in school (though I don’t include To Kill A Mockingbird in that), but partly because, well, you know that whole ‘Eden lost’ ethos that flavours so much of it? Yeah, spare me. That may not be a mature response, but it runs deep and strong. Which makes it all the more amazing that I’ll drop just about anything to read a new book by Deborah Smith, who is Capital S Southern.
It wasn’t always that way. I’d known Smith’s name for years, as the author of a number of category novels for the now defunct Bantam Loveswept line. Smith wrote adventurous, enjoyable tales set mostly, thought not always or exclusively, in the South. I liked them enough to finish, but rarely thought about them after the last page was turned. All that changed when I discovered A Place to Call Home.
A Place to Call Home is the story of Claire Maloney and Roan Sullivan. Much of the book is about their childhood, lived within the hills surrounding Dunderry, their small Georgia town. Claire is the youngest, much-loved child of decently well-off – though not rich – farmers while Roan is the only son of the town drunk. And despite the immense barriers of class, wealth and upbringing that separate them, they keep finding their way to one another.
What makes it work so well is that Smith spares nothing in the telling. Their childhood is full of humour, and love and generosity. It’s also replete with poverty, unthinking prejudice, and violence. And it illustrates the kind of damage family can do, to themselves and to others, in the name of love. In the end, the adults around them prove too strong, and Claire and Roan are forcibly separated, and lost to one another for decades. The second part of the book deals with their reunion as adults, as they try to work through, around, and beyond the tragedies of their past.
Several years ago, I read an interview with Smith, in which she spoke candidly about how difficult she had found the editorial process with A Place to Call Home. She said writing Claire and Roan’s childhood was the easiest thing she’s ever done. It certainly reads easily; I gulped it down like sweet tea on a hot day. The finish is also deftly handled, never crossing the line from emotion to angst: Claire and Roan darn well earn their happy ending. But during the brief transition scene between past and present the book gets oddly awkward. It loses stride, and you can feel the gears grinding. But thought the story lurches, it never loses speed, and the ending is utterly and perfectly satisfying.
Place took Smith out of the midlist and onto the NYT list. She published several more novels with large, mainstream publishers: one, Sweet Hush, was optioned by Disney. But at the same time, and possibly spurred by the frustration she suffered with Place, she also turned publisher. She is one of the co-founders, and the editor, of Belle Books, a small press dedicated to the stories of the women of the South. They’ve published several anthologies and collective novels, single-author novels, children’s books, and even a non-fiction book on the fine art of bra-fitting (hey, lingerie is important). Belle Books maintains an active homespun website at www.bellebooks.com, with sections devoted to readers, writers, and book clubs.
Although she worked in her earlier years as a newspaper editor in Atlanta, Deborah Smith’s heart has always been in the North Georgian hills where she lives. Her understanding of the regional sights and sounds, the scents and speech, is complete. And delightful. Charming Grace, a more recent novel about a widow determined to keep a Hollywood star from making a movie about her husband’s death, begins thus: “It’s possible to both pity and fear a mourner who’s gone just a little bit funny and more than a little bit dangerous. I qualified on both counts. In the South, the dreaded BHH is attached to your name with admiring sympathy, but also a dollop of fear. You are no longer a dependably entertaining person, and may even stoop to becoming an embarrassment. Be afraid, Dahlonegans whispered. Be very afraid. Bless her heart.”
Bless her heart, indeed.