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Posts Tagged ‘South Carolina lowcountry’

palmettodoveThis was going to be a different post when I started writing it last week. It was called “Summer Lowdown,” and it was about how I was homesick for the South Carolina Lowcountry — family, friends, food — after reading four beach books set in my favorite part of the world. But that was before nine people were shot in a downtown Charleston church, leaving me heartsick that such a hate crime could happen in this day and age in the United States, especially in a city I hold dear.

Many people have written many things about Charleston in the week since the tragedy, and I’ve read news accounts, blog posts, editorials and essays in an attempt at understanding. I’ve heard the powerful words of forgiveness from the victims’ families. I’ve talked with friends who are as surprised and saddened as I am about the ignorance and racial antagonism still showing up on social media. I grew up in the Carolinas and have lived in the South most of my life. My grandmother told me how her mother remembered being a child and her daddy — my great-great grandfather — coming home from the Civil War, walking down the dirt road to their lowcountry farm. I went to college with classmates who had Confederate flag beach towels.

I’m not posting the reviews of the four books today. They’re all good escapist fiction, and I’ll wrap them up with other summer reading picks in the weeks ahead. But if you want something good to read and think about, I’ll make two recommendations. One is something Josephine Humphreys wrote about growing up in the segregated South and posted to Facebook last night. You can use this link to where I shared it on my timeline: Charleston

Humphreys writes about what changed her. To Kill a Mockingbird started the change in me. My aunt gave me Harper Lee’s novel when I was in the fifth grade, and it’s been a favorite ever since, read so many times I know passages by heart. I was planning on a reread before Go Set a Watchman comes out next month. I think I’ll start now.

 

 

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beachtownSun, sand, salt air. All of Mary Kay Andrews’ beach-worthy novels — from Savannah Blues to Summer Rental — have a sure sense of place. But setting is absolutely essential in Beach Town (St. Martin’s Press, advance review copy) because location scout/manager Greer Hennessey needs a picture-perfect coastal hideaway for a bullying Hollywood director’s next big film. No planned communities or condo high-rises need apply, which pretty much rules out Florida’s panhandle. Then Greer finds Cypress Key, the beach town time forgot after the toxic paper plant left town. It has the requisite beach and palm trees, as well as a shabby fishing pier, an aging motel and crumbling casino/dance hall. Greer figures the locals will love having a movie crew in town, but she hasn’t counted on Cypress Key’s mayor and jack-of-all trades Eben Thibadeaux, who wants to revitalize his hometown without exploiting it.

The sparks between Greer and Eben and the ensuing fireworks when the production hits town could be entertainment enough, but Andrews turns Beach Town into a summer blockbuster with a colorful supporting cast and complications galore. Greer’s long-estranged dad, a former Hollywood stunt driver, now lives in Florida. Eben’s rebellious teenage niece is enamored with movies and with this film’s star, a spoiled bad-boy rapper right out of rehab. A local heiress could be friend or foe, depending on how much money is involved. Add in paparazzi, palmetto bugs and portable potties, and you’ve got a hot mess that Andrews sorts out with her usual flair. Beach Town is a whole lot of fun with a side of serious. Bring it on.

summersendSeeing that Mary Alice Monroe’s The Summer’s End (Gallery, digital galley) is the concluding volume of her Lowcountry Summer trilogy about three half-sisters, a little catching up is in order.  In the first book, The Summer Girls, middle sister Carson returned to her grandmother’s home on Sullivan’s Island, S.C., and confronted her wild-child ways and drinking problem. In the second, The Summer Wind, older sister Dora needed the family as she coped with divorce and her autistic son. But both her grandmother, Mamaw, and housekeeper Lucille were keeping life-changing secrets revealed at book’s end.

Now in the third entry, younger sister Harper moves to the forefront as she tries to write a novel and separate herself from her controlling mother. A former Marine with PTSD  captures her heart, but the fate of the family home, Sea Breeze, hangs in the balance and all three sisters face decisions about their respective futures. Monroe’s environmental subplots about wild dolphins, a depressed shrimping industry and the threat posed by development give the books substance, but her characters give them heart. The verbal duel between feisty Mamaw and Harper’s snobbish English grandmother is an entertaining battle between two strong women who want the same thing — family happiness.

guestcottageSophie Anderson and Trevor Black meet cute in Nancy Thayer’s The Guest Cottage (Ballantine, digital galley) when both single parents accidentally rent the same beach house on picturesque Nantucket Island. Still, what follows is as much about family as romance. Sensible Sophie, blindsided by her architect husband’s request for divorce so he can marry a younger colleague, is more worried about her kids — Lacey, 10, and Jonah, 15 — than the demise of her marriage. She isn’t looking for a fling with a younger man like Trevor, the widower father of 3-year-old Leo, who misses his actress mom. It’s really for the kids’ sake that Sophie and Trevor decide to share the conveniently large cottage, and after some initial missteps, the arrangement proves comfortable and comforting. As for the grown-ups’ mutual attraction, it’s tested by romantic opportunities with other interesting parties and some thoughtless behavior. Sure, it’s all as predictable as the tides and light as a beach ball, but hey, it is summer.

 

 

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edistopigNo more Pig chicken. It’s true — come Saturday, the Edisto Beach Piggly Wiggly is closing its doors and the grocery store that has prided itself on being “local since forever” will be gone forever.  Oh, the building will reopen later in November as a Bi-Lo, but it won’t be the same. Several staff members say they’re staying on, but we haven’t heard yet if the deli  will return with fried chicken on the menu. Bi-Lo would be smart to continue the tradition because the Pig has been serving “Mrs. Mac’s fried chicken” since 1967 when former school lunch lady Nel McNaughton took over the deli at a West Ashley Piggly-Wiggly in Charleston. Mrs. Mac passed in 2008 at age 92, and that West Ashley store at Dupont Crossing is gone as well, but the Lowcountry is still eating up her chicken by the 8-piece box full at family dinners and church suppers, club meetings and beach picnics.

When word went out in early September that Bi-Lo and Harris-Teeter had bought a bunch — or should that be herd? — of Pigs in South Carolina, Twitter and Facebook lit up. I was in Florida and called my sister-in-law to hustle down to the  Edisto Pig and pick me up a Pig T-shirt before they all disappeared. By the time she got there that afternoon, the size selection was limited to tiny tots or football players. So now I am the proud owner of a pink T-shirt, XX-L, “Piggly Wiggly Edisto Beach,” on the front, and “I’m Big on the Pig”  on the back.  Makes a great nightshirt.

I am trying to be sanguine about the Pig closing. Some folks say they can’t imagine the beach without the Pig. Well, I can. I remember when that location, years ago, was an IGA, and before that, when Marion Whaley’s little filling station/store a block off Palmetto comprised the beach’s “business district.” Now it’s a restaurant, joining the half-dozen or so dining establishments that have appeared since I was a kid and we fried our own chicken and shrimp.

edistopowellAs I was packing to come up here in September, I got an e-mail from a publicist at Open Road Integrated Media that it was publishing an e-book of an acclaimed 1984 Southern novel. Was I familiar with Edisto by Padgett Powell?

Oh, yes. When Edisto was first published, I was nearing the end of a 5-year sojourn in the Midwest and homesick for the South. But the novel confused me. I liked the wry coming-of-age of 12-year-old narrator Simons Manigault, but his late 1960s Edisto wasn’t the one I knew.  The geography was all cock-eyed. Simons (pronounced Simmons) lives in an isolated house on the beach at Edisto with his mother — the literary “Doctor” — while she’s temporarily separated from his father, but he goes to school in Bluffton? Impossible. Bluffton’s way too far away, practically to Georgia.  Then, at one point, Simons goes to church in Savannah, “the closest place you can find an Episcopal layout.” Not so. Trinity Episcopal has been on Edisto Island since 1744. Then, near book’s end, the Manigaults move to Hilton Head, like it’s just a shortish drive. Uh, no. Most of Beaufort County and St. Helena Sound are in the way.

edistonovelIt is possible that I was just a teeny bit jealous of Powell; he wasn’t much older than me and he was getting these great reviews for a first novel named after the place I loved most in the world. So I became used to explaining that Edisto the book wasn’t really like Edisto the island/or beach. Powell could just as well have called it some other Lowcountry name like Dawhoo or Fenwick or Fripp. And yet the colloquial dialogue rang true, as did Simon’s memory of the old Charleston market before it was prettyfied, and how fiddler crabs look like they’re brandishing little ivory swords.  I recognized the dusty dirt roads and rundown juke joints, the palmettos crackling in a stiff wind, the salt-smelling air, summer heat, mosquitoes.

edistorevisitBy the time Powell’s Edisto Revisited came out in 1996, I was long reconciled to his vision and discursive voice, what Simons himself refers to as “boyish, untethered locution.” The second book is something of a picaresque romp, with the house at Edisto a jumping-off point for an aimless, post-college Simons to roam the South. I love it.

It’s being published as an e-book, too, although this poses a problem for the Edisto Bookstore, where the print versions have been steady sellers for years.  Owner Karen Carter recently tried to order more copies for the store, only to have publisher FS&G say the rights have reverted to the author. Unless Open Road or another publisher decides to release paperback editions, Edisto will soon be out of print, so to speak, unless you have an e-reader. I’m happy I still have my original hardcover copies. Happier still that I have my Edisto past and present. Also the laminated PFC card in my wallet that identifies me as “Pig’s Favorite Customer.”

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moonoverI had the perfect excuse to put off packing this weekend to go back to Edisto — I was reading Beth Webb Hart’s engaging new novel, Moon Over Edisto (Thomas Nelson, purchased e-book), which is set on the South Carolina lowcountry island I call home about half the year.

Happily, Hart is not what I call a “drive-by” author, one who chances on a picturesque setting and decides to write a book about it. Hart knows Edisto and the territory in and around Charleston, and has written about it in previous novels such as Grace at Low Tide. Unlike one famous novelist, she’s not about to put a Wal-Mart on an island that doesn’t have a single stoplight. Better still, she understands how landscape shapes lives, how place imprints on memory.

A successful New York artist, 39-year-old Julia Bennett put Edisto in her rearview mirror when she was 19 after an unbearable betrayal. But now, just as she’s preparing to spend a fellowship summer in Budapest and planning her December wedding, she’s plunged back into the “Southern gothic dysfunction” of her family. There’s no one else to look after her three young half-siblings while their mother Marney — Julia’s late father’s second wife — is in the hospital. Certainly not Mary Ellen, Julia’s mother and the first wife, who is still striving to create a life for her divorced self in Charleston. Nor will Meg (“call me Margaret”), Julia’s younger sister, be of any help, what with three kids of her own in Mount Pleasant, a jam-packed schedule and a grudge that won’t go away.

The story shifts among the perspectives of Julia, Mary Ellen and Meg, along with a few interspersed narratives from Etta, a prenaturally wise 9-year-old. Julia does return to Edisto, but only for a week, and a lot happens then and in the following months. There are also storylines involving Jed, the first boy Julia ever kissed, now a Charleston surgeon, and Nate, Mary Ellen’s gruff dog-loving neighbor, and a fisherman named Skipper.

Moon Over Edisto is  family and friends, regret and forgiveness, sweet tea and blue crabs. Things are messy and lovely and real, even if Julia is a little too-good-to-be-true and Jed a whole lot so. Hart can really write, and she gets it right, from the spotty cell service on Edisto to the way it looks from the air.

“As the plane took off, she peered out of the window at the waterways and rivers and salt marsh creeks like enormous snakes winding their way out to sea. The sunlight was almost blinding and the creeks themselves looked like little rivers of gold reflecting the light on their moving surfaces. The thought occurred to Julia that it might not be so easy to put this visit out of her mind, to tuck it away like she had her childhood and seal it closed like so many places in her heart.”

Oh, I’m homesick. Time to pack.

Open Book: Yes, the Caroline Cousins books are set on Edisto, although we called it Indigo Island and fictionalized it quite a bit so as to be more like Edisto when we were kids and the drawbridge still connected us to the mainland. Also, I want to recommend two more new novels about family and place, The End of the Point by Elizabeth Graver (HarperCollins, digital galley),  and Three Sisters by Susan Mallery (Harlequin Mira, digital galley).

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