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Friday, June 19, 2015

Southern Gothic

Under Magnolia, A Southern Memoir, was a great surprise. I wasn't sure if I'd enjoy reading yet another novel about growing up in the South. But Frances Mayes (known for her Tuscany books) used poetic images and elegant prose to describe growing up in Georgia in the fifties. Passages like this one "…Listening to women - playing bridge, shelling peas, visiting the dressmaker - those who were dead seemed present…" - evoked the women of my own childhood in Mississippi in the sixties. But like all Southern families I know, this  story was not without its damaged characters and twists in the plot line.   Her parents, unhappy with each other and small town life, drank and fought in the background and sometimes foreground of her childhood.  Her father died while she was in high school and her feelings about him were even more complicated after his passing.  His death left her alone in the house with her mother throughout her difficult teen years and their relationship was fraught with emotion. But her tribute to her mother later in the book is one of the most beautiful I've ever read.
Mayes' mother, Frankye 

"She will never lean toward the light, moisten the thread between her lips, and thread the needle. She'll never throw one sheet on the floor and pile on the dirty laundry. Brush her hair a hundred strokes….no more - placing blue hydrangeas in a glass bowl, scraping her rings on the inside of the black mailbox, boiling jars for peach pickles, dabbing a bath powder puff under her arms, refusing catfish because they're bottom feeders, bidding grand slams, pulling meat off the bone for chicken divan, hand washing a peach silk slip, surrounding the birthday cake with pink camellias…" This describes my mother and probably some of your mothers as well, if you grew up in the South. 

Mayes never directly says why she has never written about her family of origin and her place of origin. Her beloved Tuscan books certainly evoke a strong sense of place and identification of the culture of that place. Yet, I, for one never knew about her Southern upbringing.  Once Mayes moved to California with her first husband in her early twenties, she never looked back on her past.  California is a place of re-invention and Mayes did just that.  She says, "When I left the South at age twenty-two, the force that pushed me west was a powerful as the magnet that held me."  She went on to later buy the home in Tuscany and began to write her many books about Tuscany. Her genre is memoir and essay, so this book at age 75 is a long-awaited remembrance for her fans.  She did write a novel, set in Georgia, called Swan, published in 2002, but I think this memoir is Mayes at her finest with strong imagery and boldly accurate descriptions of small town Southern life.

In the preface, Mayes shares what made her decide to write a book about her childhood. She was in Oxford, Mississippi, one of my favorite places, for a reading at Square Books, one of my favorite bookstores, and the feeling of being in a small town in the South brought back memories she had avoided for years. In fact, she said, "For years when I went back home to visit, I broke out in hives." As she wanders through Oxford and even visits Faulkner's house, the smells and sounds of the South that she had ignoring for years drew Mayes back in. She had long known the resemblances of Tuscany and the South - "the complex interconnections of family and friends, the real caring for one another, the incessant talk, emphasis on ancestors, the raucous humor, the appreciation of the bizarre, the storytelling, the fatalism, the visiting, the grand occasions…"  Now she realized that she wanted to go back to the South, to re-look at her past and to even live in the South. At the end of that visit to Oxford, Mayes called her husband and told him, "I want to move back South."  They did indeed move to rural North Carolina and Mayes wrote this lovely memoir about the South. Thank you Oxford and Square Books!  I was pleased to receive this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

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