Like An Old Sweet Song… I grew up steeped in Southern writers, cutting my adolescent reading teeth on Truman Capote, Harper Lee, Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Connor, Tennessee Williams, William Faulkner, and, of course, good old Mark Twain. From my Manitoba home, with its geographical isolation and long, long winters, I learned about an environment opposite from mine. It wasn’t just the weather, but the mind-set that was so different and intriguing.
In those younger days I dreamed of travelling the Southern Literary Trail, which includes thirty sites of famous Southern authors who lived and wrote in Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi. Although that didn’t happen, when I had the opportunity to spend some time in Georgia in September, I thought I’d see what I could find on some of my old literary gurus in that state.
My timing in Georgia was perfect to take in the Decatur Book Festival in DeKalb County. Decatur has the most amazing children’s bookstore, Little Shop of Stories, its name a cute twist on the horror-comedy film and musical. To see a small, independent bookstore crammed with kids sitting on the floor reading, adults and teenagers lined up at the counter buying real books, and a long row of children waiting to have their book signed by a local author was absolutely heart-warming – it’s hard to find such personal “book” interaction these days.
In Atlanta I toured Margaret Mitchell’s tiny apartment, where she spent most of ten years writing Gone With the Wind. She started writing it while bored at home after breaking her ankle and unable to get to her job at The Atlantic Journal, and there are lots of amusing anecdotes about Mitchell’s lack of interest in publishing her only novel. Gone With the Wind became the second most widely bought book by American readers, surpassed only by the Bible. Mind-boggling.
I spent time in Savannah, lovely Savannah, with Spanish moss hanging from trees lining the quiet streets, gracious old graveyards that are part of nightly ghoulish tours, and the Savannah River with its cargo ships heading to every part of the world. Sitting on a balcony overlooking the river, I watched ships destined for Panama and Japan and Malta as I ate a dinner featuring one of Savannah’s specialities, catfish, and taste-testing the city’s wide assortment of craft beer.
The powerful Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil was set in and around Savannah, and I mentally revisited John Berendt’s highly successful work. Holding a place on the New York Times Best-Seller list for 216 weeks gave it the distinction of being among the most popular non-fiction releases of all times. Based on true events, somehow it reads like a novel, with its southern Gothic tone and cast of bizarre personalities. I love that the title alludes to the notion of midnight as the period between the time for good magic and the time for evil magic. The Bonaventure Cemetery in Savannah is what Berendt used as the actual “garden of good and evil.” Feeling a little spooked, I decided to visit it in bright sunlight.
And I also made time to visit Flannery O’Connor’s Savannah childhood home; next time I’m in Georgia I’ll head to Andalusia Farm in Millegeville, where she lived and wrote as an adult until her untimely death at 39. She’s been hailed as one of American’s best short story writers. With my much younger and naïve take on the world, her grotesque characters, struggling with morality and ethics, made for mesmerizing and at times disturbing reading. And speaking of grotesque characters, she said: “Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one.” Good one, Flannery.
Also an important reason to head to the Milledgeville area is to visit Alice Walker’s childhood home. Walker has long been one of my literary heroes. I was initially introduced to the struggle of black women in racist, sexist and violent societies while reading Walker’s The Colour Purple, Possessing the Secret of Joy, and The Temple of My Familiar, to name only a few.
Last but not least: Carson McCullers explored the isolation of misfits and outcasts in novels like The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and Reflections in a Golden Eye, and Erskin Caldwell’s Tobacco Road and God’s Little Acre created earthy and candid depictions about America’s rural poor I’ve never forgotten. Both these writers taught me not only about the south, but also about writing “real”.
Georgia has so much to offer besides lazy, steamy weather, Spanish moss, and, of course, peaches. It’s a playground of all things literary, and I had a great time playing. Thanks, Georgia!