“Trails in the Sand is Southern drama on the scale of Anne Rivers Siddons, where family secrets lie as deep as a mangrove swamp, skeletons molder in the woodwork, and the honeyed smiles of Southern belles mask seething resentment. -Clare Chu, Amazon top 100 reviewer”
When I received this review for my novel, I beamed for days because Anne Rivers Siddons sits at the top of my list of favorite Southern authors with Downtown and Outer Banks holding status as my favorites. However, several years ago, after reading five books of her books in a row, I reached my saturation point for her fiction steeped in Georgia and South Carolina sweet tea, so I took a break. In the meantime, she continued writing. After I received the review, I decided to go back and catch up with Siddons. She’s still producing books—nearly twenty.
Homeplace, published in 2009, is available for the unbelievably low price of .99 cents on Kindle. I just checked, and it’s still at that price. Set in the fictional town of Lytton, Georgia, Homeplace hits on some very controversial subjects for Siddons. She goes back to the Civil Rights era where the main character Mike meets the wrath of her father when she skips school to attend a rally in Atlanta. This turning point in the novel becomes the pivoting event. Mike leaves home and attempts to find her way on her own, and she’s a successful journalist. But, as all things that are swept under carpets, the dust eventually rises and must be banished.
Siddons still has the remarkable ability to use language in a way that loses me in the writing. I find myself settling in with the characters, despite much of the predictability of the story. As Mike (Micah) begins her first foray into the center of the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi, Siddons describes the surroundings many of the white young college students experienced.
“What they did encounter was a wet, relentless, juggernaut heat, a vast and feral army of mosquitoes, and empty, sleepy, one-gas-pump towns where they alit stickily from the buses long after dark and trudge wearily into identical rural Negro shanties at the end of dirt roads in cotton fields and pasture, to sleep on pallets and quilts in the endless heat, wash at hand pumps, use privies, and eat greens and grits and pork gravy for days on end.”
Whew—that’s all one sentence. Siddons’ dramatic flair in her prose creates the sense of the long and oppressive sense of the experience by the use of a long and almost oppressive sentence. But once the reader allows the words to wash over and around, the experience of reading Siddons becomes a journey into the world of the South. Sometimes a harsh place to be; sometimes a fake place to be; but sometimes a heavenly place to be.
I enjoyed the story for Siddons’ ability to create a sense of poetry in her fiction although I expect more from her in the plot she contrives in Homeplace. All the bad guys are easy to spot even when disguised with a fancy house. And all the confused folks are similar to other characters in her other novels. Perhaps this is the reason I took a hiatus from reading her books.
Burnt Mountain, published in 2011, is another enjoyable read. It captured me, although again the characters are somewhat predictable. The main character holds a place of disfavor with the mother, and ends up exacting a revenge of sorts by living the life her mother wanted. Set outside Atlanta in the fictional Lython, Georgia, Burnt Mountain is once again a vehicle for Siddons’ prose to shine on the pages. Here’s a passage as she describes the book’s namesake, Burnt Mountain.
“These are old mountains, among the oldest on earth, and they have been gentled by aeons of weather so that their peaks, though high, are rounded, voluptuous, instead of jagged like the newer, more savage, and often still-smoking mountains of the West. You will not drive long before you come to Burnt Mountain, the last of that dying chain, a great, wild excrescence that did not go gentle into the good night as its sister hills did but raged against the dying of the light.”
I simply love her prose even though again, I was slightly perturbed by the sameness of the Southern mother and Good Old Boy men. The main character Thayer has two major relationships during the course of the novel and in each of those relationships, the men give her a shower when she’s too depressed or distraught to do it for herself. They both scrub her down lovingly and wash her hair. How can one woman be so fortunate to have this kind of care twice in her life? Maybe I’m just jealous that it’s never happened to me. One time would have been sufficient in the novel. In fact, I found it endearing. But when it happened the second time with a different man, I found myself rolling my eyes.
I was also bothered by the mention of a cell phone being readily available in 1994. That seems rather early to have a cell phone. We might have had those big shoe-size car phones in 1994, but a regular old cell phone? That’s something an editor should have caught at her big publishing house. These may be picky things, but when an author is published by a big house with editors at the ready, more attention should be paid to the details and to the plot devices.
Both of these books are worth reading. Siddons is right up there with Pat Conroy in creating the troubled families of the modern South. I can only aspire to their stature. I also can learn from both of them. Repetitive characterizations and personality quirks can become annoying. Along with the poetry of prose created by Siddons in all her books, diverse plot and characterizations would keep me riveted to her writing and asking for more. For now, I’ve had my fix, even though I haven’t read all of her books yet.
Who are your favorite authors? Does it bother you when you start to see them writing in a formulaic way?