This list of southern historical novels is sponsored by Visible Empire by Hannah Pittard.
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We hear all the time how location is “such a character,” but we usually hear that about NYC, and in regards to television. But the American South is its own character in the world of the novel. If you’re like me, you love reading about the South and its history to see how it became the way that it is today. Here are eight Great Southern Historical Novels that compel a sense of place as a character based on a past era.
Mississippi, Louisiana, Virginia: We can’t really talk about Southern literature without at least mentioning William Faulkner. I’m going to be honest with y’all, though, this is the hardest book that I’ve ever actually finished—sure, I’ve started some more difficult ones, but this one pushed me through to its finish. One cool thing about this book is that it doesn’t ignore the South’s main historical problem, slavery, which most Southern Gothic literature does ignore, or at least pays attention only to its aftermath without acknowledging the original problem. The whole plot of Absalom, Absalom focuses on a current generation’s horror at a past generation’s normality.
Kentucky to Ohio: A friend said to me once about this Pulitzer-prize winner, “I wish I would have known ahead of time that it was horror,” so I’m telling you now: this is horror. Technically, it’s a historical southern novel, as well, but Sethe, the protagonist, escapes slavery in Kentucky while pregnant, delivers her baby on the trip to the Free State, Ohio, and then mercy kills her daughter when she thinks the family will be re-enslaved. Then, her infant daughter haunts her. So, yes: horror. And, yes: historical, since this plot could never happen at any other time and place. It’s also amazing, and it really shows a side of the south’s history that (because of slavery) is often left out of history.
Alabama: Last summer, I played a drinking game called Re-read To Kill a Mockingbird As An Adult: by that, I mean this novel is required reading in most 8th-grade classrooms in the South, but because I read it in the early ’00s, as a child, I did not realize that although the book is set in the early-1960s rural Alabama, so very little has changed about the culture’s problems. Essentially, many issues that Scout and Jem face in this novel are still very, very relevant despite the decades that have passed. One other important thing to note is that this book and Absalom, Absalom address similar issues, but the tone in which they’re told is totally different. Most folks consider To Kill a Mockingbird the first young adult novel, but it’s also one of the great southern historical novels.
Georgia: If you want your heart broken to smithereens, you need to read The Color Purple. This book takes place in rural Georgia from 1910 to 1940, and our protagonist is a physically and emotionally abused young black woman. One of the most interesting aspects of this southern historical novel, to me—aside from its protagonist, and how unlikely it is that we would hear her story—is that it’s epistolary in form: the book in its entirety is written in letters. It begins with Celie’s letters to God, her prayers, and merges with letters to her family. This book addresses issues of race, class, marriage, and sexual orientation in ways that are totally different from today’s, and it novelizes a time and place in such a way that it’s been immortalized.
Texas: Depending on whom you ask, Texas may or may not be included geographically in the South, but because No Country for Old Men focuses on the topic of change among generations (which is where the geographical issue normally lies), I’m counting it. And to quote the novel itself, No, “I don’t have some way of putting it…that’s the way it is.” This book is so great because it’s a southern-western-gangster hybrid, and its minimalist writing style makes it very cinematic. Our conflict lies between a Good Ol’ Boy, the Old Sheriff, the Mexican Cartel, and the Prophet of Destruction. This crossover of demographics is super compelling, and for that reason, it definitely qualifies as a great southern historical novel.
North Carolina: Here’s our one Civil War book. You may know about it as a retelling of Homer’s Odyssey, which I don’t disagree with. Our protagonist is a Confederate deserter who gets consistently waylaid from returning to his love. Unlike some other Civil War books (you know which one I’m talking about), this southern historical novel does not romanticize the war nor its causes. It shows instead the southern perspective of those non–one-percenters, the economic class whom the war devastated, the working-class soldiers who fought because they had to, because any illusion of choice ultimately led to their doom. You thought the actual love letters from the Civil War were enthralling? They barely hold a candle to this novel.
Mississippi: This great southern novel takes place later in time than many of the others. It tells the story of black women who worked as maids, servants, and nannies in the segregated south of the early 1960s. This economic and racial divide is one that everyone in the south experienced—and this was just a generation ago. (My grandmama is the one who brought this book to me, who told me to read it so that she could see “how it was when she was coming up.”) Although the Civil Rights Movement is present in many novels and nonfiction works, The Help is one of the great southern historical novels because it, too, encapsulates the microcosm of the south both in its characterization and in its narrative voice.
Louisiana: Granted, Interview with the Vampire may typically fall under the category of fantasy novel, but because the immortals live in the south—in this case on a plantation in Louisiana—I think it counts as a southern historical novel, too. What’s also interesting about this novel is that while Louis becomes a vampire in the antebellum era, because he never dies, we see epochs pass, and we get to see the “new” histories through they eyes of an old southerner. If you think the south is resistant to change now, wait until you meet Louis, the 200+ year old vampire!
So, what do you think? What are some of your favorite southern historical novels?