Andrea Reads America: Tennessee

Map of books set in Tennessee
Andrea Reads America: Tennessee

I traveled to Nashville recently for a conference. Driving through Smoky Mountain national park and the small towns along the way, and then the highlight of my trip — stopping in Ann Patchett’s book store — made me excited about reading Tennessee. I didn’t end up reading a book set in Nashville, but I did read a great novel set in the Appalachians, along with one set in the western part of the state, in Memphis, and one set in the eastern part, in Knoxville.

Bloodroot by Amy Greene Novel: Bloodroot
Author: Amy Greene, born Morristown, TN
Setting: Appalachian mountains, Tennessee, Great Depression to modern time

Set on Bloodroot Mountain in Tennessee, Bloodroot is the story of a cursed family who suffer generations of fiery love with bad men, each passionate beginning ending in death or abuse. There’s a wildness in the mountain folk, especially Myra, whose story is central to the novel, and with each generation the children come closer to being good, loveable, and loving. The final two chapters, from Myra’s point of view and from a an abuser’s point of view, are th emost compelling. They kept me up late reading to finish the book.

Bloodroot excels at putting us in the mountains of Tennessee, with dialect and descriptions of nature and housing.

Chickweed Holler was a wild place with the mountains with the mountains rising steep on both sides. From Grandmaw’s doorstep you could see a long ways, wildflower fields waving when the summer winds blowed.

The cave smelled of algae and minerals and wet stone. Within the sun’s reach the limestone walls were mottled with moss, shaggy near the top with russet-colored roots like the pelt of some mythical forest animal.

This Side of Eternity by Rosalyn McMillan book coverNovel: This Side of Eternity
Author: Rosalyn McMillan, lived in Memphis, TN
Setting: 1960s-1990s Memphis

Set in Memphis in the 1960s with the sanitation workers’ strikes and the killing of two workers in a garbage grinder accident, the novel follows the family of one of the killed workers, and particularly follows the women who were left behind.

I love the way the author weaves in the news of the decades — two of the characters are nwspaper women — and how it impacts Memphis and these women’s lives. I also love how it’s a universal women’s story, written by a woman, in the sense that it has all the elements that the majority of classics written by men and about men have — those novels accepted as universal human experiences even though they are men’s experience and are not universal to women. In This Side of Eternity, the women have thier own needs, their own sexuality, their own expectation for intellectual stimulation. They also have their caregiving responsibilities, and their experiences include abuse, harrassment, and disempowerment by men. It’s not the best written book I’ve ever read, but I appreciated the grounded realism of it.

I read this book in one day, really in less than 12 hours, starting in the Roanoke, Virginia airport and ending in Amsterdam.

A Death in the Family Jame Agee Novel: A Death in the Family
Author: James Agee, born Knoxville, Tennessee
Setting: 1950s Knoxville, TN

Set in the 1950s in Tennessee, this is the story of a “normal” white suburban family: a husband who works, a good housewife who is dedicated to God, and two kids, a boy and a girl. The dad is fun and sweet, and he also drinks too much and drives too fast.

A Death in the Family shows the mundane day-to-day of the afternmat of a death of someone in the prime of their adulthood — too young to be taken and too many people depending  on them. It shows the days after for a spouse, for children, and interestingly, who gets left out becuase of God, and really all the percieved roles God plays.

That – that butterfly has got more of God in him than Jackson [the priest] will ever see for the rest of eternity.

Unfortunately, it didn’t captivate me enough to really focus on what it all means, though. I know there is more depth to it than I absorbed. I got bored by some of the long italicized seqeuences I knew the editors plopped in because there weren’t sure where Agee intended them to go — the novel was published after Agee’s death — as those passages didn’t make sense to me. I could tell the book was good and literary, I just wasn’t that into it.

Andrea Reads America: South Dakota

Map of books set in South Dakota
Andrea Reads America: South Dakota

I grew up loving the Little House books, and when we lived in Minnesota, I didn’t realize how close we were to the prairies of South Dakota where Laura Ingalls Wilder settled. We took a weekend trip to the prairie in the western part of Minnesota when we lived there, near the South Dakota border, and the prairie was everything I’d hoped it’d be. We camped in summer at Blue Mounds state park in Minnesota.

The tall grasses were golden, as was the light at the end of the day, and the prairie rippled in wind like waves on the ocean. The land was flat, and we could see forever in that wide open space, where on the horizon grey-black clouds swept across the land full of fierce lightning. It was a wild and beautiful place, and I was eager to arrive in South Dakota on my reading tour so I could be a part of it again.

Dakota a spiritual geography by Kathleen Norris Nonfiction book: Dakota: A Spiritual Geography
Author: Kathleen Morris, born and raised in western South Dakota
Setting: modern farm near Lemmon, SD

Filled with essays on monastic life and its similarities to the ascetic quiet and harshness of western Dakota, this is a beautiful book about both living alone and living in a small community that depends on its members for survival.

It seems to me that especially in Western Dakota we live in tension between myth and truth. Are we cowboys are farmers? Are we fiercely independent frontier types or community builders?

The setting — the plains, the wind, the brutality of the weather —  is as much a character in the book as the people, if not more so. It is always a delight to read prose by poets for that reason. The way Norris describes the simple act of hanging laundry — and that there would be such a thing as a good laundry day — captured almost everything about the place to me, especially as I remembered the beauty of hanging laundry in Minnesota: the sunshine on it, the way it swung in the breeze, and its fresh air scent, like the sheets and shirts and pillowcases had gathered the essence of outside for us to bring in.

I get started early, before six. It promises to be a good laundry day: a steady wind but not too strong… Hanging up wet clothes gives me time alone under the sky to think, to grieve, and gathering the clean clothes in, smelling the sunlight on them, is victory.

Little Town on the Prairie book cover Novel: Little Town on the Prairie
Author: Laura Ingalls Wilder, settler in South Dakota
Setting: 1870s De Smet, SD

Laura Ingalls Wilder writes the beauty and wholesomeness of the pioneer life like no other. She leaves out the ugliness present in nearly every other pioneer or frontier book I’ve ever read. I appreciate that when I’m looking for light, pretty reading. As I age, though, it’s hard to ignore how whitewashed it is, and it’s disappointing to see the prejudices that exist even in Christian families like the Ingalls. It makes me sad to see how pervasive prejudice is, and I am weary with the struggle of constantly having to separate the art from the artist. Rather than go into all that, I’ll leave a pretty passage here that I loved.

The wind went by, and in the house the air stirred, pleasantly warmed by the cookstove and scented with prairie freshness and food and tea and a cleanness of soap and a faint lingering smell of the new boards that made the new bedrooms.

The Soul of the Indian book cover Nonfiction book: The Soul of the Indian
Author: Charles Alexander Eastman, Sioux doctor appointed to a SD Indian Reservation
Setting: late 1800s Dakota Indian territory

Published in 1911 by a Native American chief, The Soul of the Indian is a first-hand account of the Dakota Indians’ social structure, religion, and some of their ceremonies. It was a bit of a dry read, but given the misconceptions of native tribes and their rituals at the time, I don’t think it was intended to be entertaining. Instead it was intended to observe, inform, and educate.

Given my disappointment in the Ingalls above, I appreciated reading some of Eastman’s wise observations about Christianity, civilization, and their own spirituality,.

Even in those white men who professed religion we found much inconsistency of conduct. They spoke of spiritual things while seeking only the material. The bought and sold everything: time, labor, personal independence, the love of women, and even the ministrations of their holy faith!

Whenever, in the course of the daily hunt, the red hunter comes upon a scene that is strikingly beautiful or sublime — a black thundercloud with the rainbow’s glowing arch above the mountain; a white waterfall in the heart of a green gorge; a vast prairie tinged with the blood red of sunset — he pauses for an instant in the attitude of worship. He sees no need for setting apart one day in seven as a holy day, since to him all days are God’s.

New resource from Book Riot! Best Books Set in Every State 😍

I was drinking a martini on the back deck last night, scrolling through email on my phone, when a subject line from Book Riot caught my eye: “Books Around America 🇱🇷 The Best Books Set In Every State.” I thought they might share one of the existing resources I’ve listed here, like the Business Insider list or the one from Brooklyn Magazine, as I think Book Riot might be where I originally found those.

But they didn’t — they assembled an original list! Susie Dumond put together a list that is rich in author diversity and that includes multiple books from each state: Books Around America: The Best Books Set In Every State.

This is my new favorite resource. Book Riot is attentive to diversity, and that’s one of the things I love so much about them. I’m thrilled to be able to look to this list as I navigate New Hampshire through to the end in Wyoming.