Burnt Mountain

Do you have fond memories of summer camp?  Or did you write  letters like Allan Sherman’s “Hello, Mudder; hello, Fadder…” from Camp Granada?  Anne Rivers Siddons bases her latest Southern drama – Burnt Mountain – on camp experiences that change lives – and not as expected.

Siddons’ novels are usually full of elaborate descriptions of Southern living, with detailed attention to the Low Country landscape and the regional characterizations.  Burnt Mountain is no exception, offering a view of gracious living, with flawed personalities.  Thayer Wentworth, the daughter of a social climbing mother and old-moneyed father, finds refuge in a summer camp after her father suddenly dies in a car accident.  After a few summers, she becomes a counselor and meets the handsome young prince from the boys’ camp, Nick Abrams, and they fall in love.  After Thayer finds herself pregnant at seventeen, her mother tricks her into an abortion – with dire consequences.  Her wealthy grandmother subsidizes Thayer’s college education, and Thayer falls in love with Aengus, the handsome Irish professor of Celtic folklore.  They marry and move into Grandma’s house when she dies.

All seems relatively stable, except for Thayer’s haunting nightmares and her husband’s penchant for Celtic magic.   Looking for an audience for his storytelling, Aengus finds a receptive group at the local boys’ camp, Camp Forever, and also volunteers for the city’s upcoming Olympic hospitality committee.  As Aengus becomes immersed in his work and distances himself from Thayer, Nick Abrams reenters the narrative – now an architect, focused on building housing for the Olympic participants.

Siddons inserts her signature flair for family secrets that undo the best of them – with the theme of living your own life.  The resolution has strange otherworldly inferences with Aengus’s abrupt and disconnected descent into a forbidden world.   With the weird life-sucking witchcraft at Camp Forever, you may be reminded of Bette Midler in her Halloween role in Hocus Pocus.

Siddons novels are usually easy reads, following an expected formula.  Her strength lies in her captivating descriptions with doses of romance in an easy storytelling style that eventually ends in a happily ever after.  This ending, however, was not only contrived – it was unbelievable.

Saving CeeCee Honeycutt

When her crazed mother has embarrassed her again by prancing in public in her red heels and Miss Vidalia pageant dress and crown, twelve-year-old Cecelia wishes her mother would die.  And, suddenly, she does – hit by a truck.  With this tragedy, Beth Hoffman begins a new “Life Chapter” for her young heroine in Saving CeeCee Honeycutt – a Southern flavored novel that is more Steel Magnolias than The Help.

CeeCee’s saviours are a slew of old Southern Belles, led by her wealthy great Aunt Tootie, whose life passion is saving old Southern mansions; Oletta Jones, Tootie’s wise housekeeper and cook; assorted Georgia peaches, including the eccentric Miz Goodpepper, looking for nirvana; the scandalous Violene Hobbs, who cavorts with the local policeman; and Mrs. Odell, CeeCee’s elderly Ohio neighbor.  Fulfilling her mother’s dream to return home to the South, CeeCee leaves Ohio after her mother’s death, with her traveling salesman father’s blessing, to live in luxury in Savannah with her mother’s long-lost relatives.  Hoffman redeems the formula plot with likeable characters and dialogue that will make you laugh out loud – or cry.

CeeCee’s summer is a respite not only from her tortured life as the daughter of the town fool, but also from her life as her mother’s caretaker.  She reads voraciously to escape her real life, and observes the world from a distance.  Hoffman gives her character’s voice the angst of a young girl who would like to fit in, but has no one to help her…

‘This elderberry pie has been blessed…Now, don’t you worry about that broken latch on your screen door,’ Mr. Krick said {to Ida Mae}…’I’ll stop by tomorrow morning and get it all fixed up.’

I {CeeCee} made a mental note that if I ever needed help from a man, I would make him a pie.

The summer has CeeCee adapting to her new surroundings, and coping with her mother’s death.

“All I knew for sure was this: I had been plunked into a strange, perfumed world that, as far as I could tell, seemed to be run entirely by women.”

And CeeCee has adventures and fun, for the first time in her life – helping Miz Goodpepper revenge the killed magnolia tree, swimming in the forbidden pool with Oletta, stopping the wrecking ball from destroying a mansion.  Hoffman inserts a few short asides about racial tensions in the South, and old women in a nursing home, but glosses over them quickly with humor and convenient happy endings.  This story is about how life can change for the better in a New York minute (in this case Ohio), no matter how desperate and miserable.

A friend recommended this book, and I’m glad she did.  It was an enjoyable read, best savored in the summer at the beach, eating a ripe Georgia peach, if you can.