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.

Georgia Bottoms

Mark Childress mixes Southern humor with small town bigotry and the survival instincts of his main character in Georgia Bottoms.   At first, Georgia seems to be the stereotypical gorgeous Southern Belle from Alabama, but like the characters in Stockett’s The Help, she is much more.

As the sole support of her dysfunctional family – a mother leaning into dementia and a brother in and out of jail, Georgia does her best to keep everyone happy.  She goes to church every Sunday, dressed in her best appealing outfits, to keep up appearances – trying to stay awake by daydreaming of manicures and planning her annual luncheon.  Through her rotation of  “favors” for the prominent locals, including the Baptist preacher, the town doctor, judge, sheriff, and banker, she manages to make a living, with each man thinking he is her one and only.  Not even the secrets of her past catching up with her can deter Georgia, and when she is threatened – watch out.

Childress sparks the dialogue with cutting humor that reveals the truth.  His characters fit into Southern stereotypes; at the same time, they are surprisingly true to human weakness and failings.

A quick read, Georgia Bottoms has an adventurous heroine determined and unrestrained – a funny, likeable bad girl who gets herself in a mess, but is always hopeful for the good life.  You may find yourself cheering for her – I did.

Unfinished Desires

Priests and nuns who fail in their promises to be perfect models of morality are more than disappointing. When they fall short in living up to their feigned image, the revelation can be more devastating than if they had not taken religious vows – you expect better of them.

Mix this with teenage girls, confined in an all girls’ Catholic boarding school, and you have ignition. In her latest novel, Unfinished Desires, Gail Godwin mixes volatile teenage girls with nuns still wearing those restrictive habits, a metaphor for promoting the hide-everything habits of the nineteen fifties.

Suzanne Ravenel tells the story as an aged resident of the convent home where old nuns go to die. As she tapes her recollections of the Mount St. Gabriel’s School where she started as a student and ended as the Mother Superior, her sins of pride, manipulation, jealousy and vengeance slowly unravel. Even sex becomes a whispered intention. The energetic Mother Ravenel’s motives were not always holy.

Godwin uses Tildy Stratton and Chloe Starnes as the freshmen students under the raving Ravenel, who stir the pot. Tildy is distantly related to the Mother Superior; she and Chloe are cousins. But then, the story takes place in the South – and “everyone is related in the South.”

The story ambles along slowly, repeating scenes and reiterating the relationships among the characters – their familial as well as vindictive ties. At times, you will think you have read the paragraphs before in a previous chapter, and you probably have. As Ravenel writes her history of the school, the tease is the promise of a horrid plot enacted by the class of ’52 (Tildy and Chloe) that caused Mother Ravenel to take a year off to recuperate.

Godwin inserts the infamous 9/11 news as Ravenel reaches a breakthrough in her writing; amazingly, the news warrants only a page – possibly a comment that Ravenel’s personal trauma holds more weight for her than the tragedy of strangers.

The story line is trite and overwrought with petty drama. But Godwin expertly captures teenage girls with their inner angst at a time when thirteen year-olds are struggling with hormones and rebellion – yet still quavering on the edge of submitting to adult authority. Godwin clearly examines how the breakthrough from authority can be ugly, and how girls at that age can be cruel – mostly to each other.

As the story reaches its climax, embellished legends are stripped to reality; saints become sinners, and the metaphor for the false mask of religiosity in the Catholic Church is hard to ignore. The reputation of the devout patron saint on which the school was founded has conveniently been doctored. On the other hand, you might just enjoy the juicy melodrama, and keep the faith.

The ending never seems to come; Godwin is determined to take each character to completion – all the way into old age. In this case, following teenagers into old age is overkill – more than you want to know, but every single thread is tied at the end.

If you suffered through Catholic school and had the distinction of surviving indoctrination by the nuns, you will mostly appreciate the portraits of the women behind the veil. They are, after all, just human – but it is disappointing to find that out.

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Where were you when JFK got shot? Younger women look dazed when you ask that question – they were not yet alive – but those of us who do remember know the impact of the question.

Stockett takes us back to that time in her first novel, The Help, but uniquely tailors her story to the South. This is the South of segregation, of white women who do lunch, bridge, and junior league – with fundraisers for “the poor starving children of Africa”  while their black maids  – treated one step above slavery – run the white women’s homes, cook their meals, and raise their children.

The help carry the story as strong, determined, underappreciated, and underestimated.   Close friends, Aibileen and Minny, put up with a lot from their respective employers. They progress from living in fear of losing their jobs, going to jail, or even being killed by the white man (or their husbands)  – to the strength and courage of convictions that led the civil rights movement.

Of course, they know a lot about what goes on inside those homes and country clubs – noone would imagine they would ever tell or retaliate for being treated so horribly – but… when opportunity presents itself…

Stockett uses a fictionalized version of herself as the white catalyst, Skeeter, who mobilizes the troops – surreptiously helping the maids tell their stories in a book, and begin the road to freedom.   In her appendix “Too Little, Too Late,” Stockett confesses her own vulnerability as a young white Southern woman.

You can’t help wonder if the character Hilly is that demented girl from high school who always looked perfect, led the clique that ruled opinions of everyone else, and never seemed to get what was coming to her.   Just like in the movies, Stockett pays her back nicely in her book. “I heard Miss Hilly’s scream” is the funniest yet most terrifying line in the book.

The plot is riveting and you will keep reading to get the next installment.    Stockett’s attempt at writing/speaking like a black woman doesn’t measure up to Mark Twain; unless you are Mark Twain,  it’s probably not a good idea to try.

Book groups should love this book for discussion, but its message can be easily lost in the literal translation of  insipid Southern white women being brought up by selfless black women, or perhaps focusing on the coming-of-age of Skeeter.

Stockett says her favorite line in the novel is “Wasn’t that the point of the book?  We are just two people.  Not that much separates us.  Not as much as I’d thought.”

Daily survival is hard, but it’s always amazing to see what women do  – to – and sometimes for – each other.