Andrea Reads America: Mississippi

Andrea Reads America map of Mississippi books
Andrea Reads America map of Mississippi

That’s quite a set of authors: Donna Tartt, Pulitzer winner for The Goldfinch; William Faulkner, Nobel  laureate; and Jesmyn Ward, two-time National Book Award winner, first for Salvage the Bones and second for Sing, Unburied, Sing, which I’m reading now. I’ve read multiple books by all of these authors, all of whom are expert at weaving a compelling story while making the setting a character in the book. Mississippi is hot and humid, filled with racial tension and poverty, and has that deep South mystery and darkness that spawns great literature. It was a pleasure to read this state.

salvage the bones book cover Novel: Salvage the Bones
Author: Jesmyn Ward, born 1977, DeLisle, Mississippi
Setting: coastal Mississippi at the time of Hurricane Katrina
Categories: Literary Fiction, African-American Fiction, Southern Fiction

Wow. Talk about setting being a character in a book. The Mississippi portrayed in this book is the bayou life of an African-American family filled with men, boys, and one girl, for the mother has died. Despite the poorness of the family, the scenes are rich. I was able to feel the sweltering heat, smell the sweat and mud, hear the barks and the slobbery panting of the story’s pit bull, China, raised and loved by Skeetah to fight in dog fights.

In the novel, Hurricane Katrina is making its way towards Louisiana and Mississippi. Our narrator, Esch, is the only female in the entire book, except for girls and women mentioned in passing, and she portrays the experience through that lens: the perspective of one girl in a sea of men.

There is deep love in this book. There is tenderness. The are also harsh realities, of poverty, of the strange conflicted world of pit bull fighting, of hunger, of a need to protect, of loss, and of aftermath. It is a beautiful book, and I am happily devouring Ward’s next one.

the sound and the fury book cover Novel: The Sound and the Fury
Author: William Faulkner, born New Albany, MS 1897
Setting: 1910 and 1928 Mississippi
Categories: Southern Gothic, Literary Fiction

Set in Mississippi in the early 1900s (1900-1928), The Sound and the Fury is the story of the Comspon family, and secondarily, the Bascoms who, according to the mother’s complaints, are not seen as being as high-born as the Compsons. There’s Benjy, the 33-year old who someone described on his birthday as being 3 for 30 years. There are Quentin the brother and Quentin the niece. There’s the mother closeted in her room because, as she says, “I am not one of those women who can stand things.” There are Jason the alcoholic father and Jason the ferocious brother, and there’s incest, and suicide, and swimming, and a wedding, and who knows what all else that I still haven’t figured out.

This is a difficult book to read, not because of the content (though if you are able to figure out the content, it is difficult, too), but because of the jumping back and forth through time, because multiple characters have the same name, and because the narrators are mentally unstable. Surprisingly, the difficulty of this book did not frustrate me or make me want to throw it against a wall, though that would be a valid reaction to it. Instead it made me want to know, what the hell is going on?

I read this book twice within the space of a week. I wrote more about the experience on my main blog, in The Sounds and the Fury: wut, so I don’t want to repeat myself here, but this book got into me. Two weeks after reading and re-reading it, I’m still thinking about it. It might be my favorite read of the year.

the little friend book cover Novel: The Little Friend
Author: Donna Tartt, born Greenwood, Mississippi,1963
Setting: 1960s Alexandria, Mississippi
Categories: Literary Fiction, Southern Fiction

I had no idea what to expect of this book. It began quickly with the murder of a child: a white boy hanged from a tree in the yard on Mother’s Day, like a lynching. Set in Mississippi in the 1960s, the book leads us through small town dramas of race and class that make you wonder, “Who did it?”

Then after a while, the story winds this way and that, like the snakes the young protagonist, Harriet, steals from a snake-handling wannabe preacher, who is brother to the most dangerous men in town — hard, rough, violent men who are amped on meth, and who cook and deal meth from their booby-trapped lab in the middle of the Mississippi woods, and who shoot at black folks for sport.  As the reader, I first wondered, “Wow, is Donna Tartt serving up a murder mystery?” as the murdered boy’s sister seeks revenge on his killers, who she must first find. Then, as the stories unfold, I wondered, “Maybe this isn’t about who did it after all.”

There are many layers in this novel, and as with all of her books, I find myself afterwards trying to figure it all out. The racial commentary is very clear, as is the class commentary, but I’m not sure what it all means in the end, or if it means anything at all.

What I do know is that Donna Tartt nailed the oppressive swampy heat and mosquito, snake-infested landscape of the low country of Mississippi. As the novel progresses, she nails the characters of the deep South as well: the dialect, the prejudices, the pride, and the oblivion.

This one was a page turner, and a brain-prodder as well. At the end I wanted to start at the beginning again, but I didn’t. Instead I kept a list of questions I want to ask when I come across someone who’s read it recently.

For Further Reading in Mississippi

Books I’ve read:
– As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner
The Optimist’s Daughter, Eudora Welty
Sing, Unburied, Sing, Jesmyn Ward

Books I want to read:
Long Division, Kiese Laymon


I am reading America: 3 books from each state in the US with the following authorships represented – women, men, and non-Caucasian writers. Follow along on Goodreads and here at

The cunning woman of the village becomes a witch only when her powers to heal do not work. Before that, she is everyone’s good sorceress, and there is nary the slightest talk of devils.

The Witching Hour by Anne Rice

Andrea Reads America: Louisiana

Andrea Reads America Lousiana book map
Andrea Reads America: Lousiana

Louisiana. What a great state for literature. Home to jazz and voodoo, swamp and plantations, artists, writers, drifters, and lost souls, Louisiana is fertile ground for novels rich with setting, mystique, and a search for truth. I had a hard time selecting from the several books I read, and I ultimately chose to highlight the books that provided the best sense of place for the cemetaries, Cajun and Creole culture, and steamy bayou of the Lousiana and New Orleans I know. Even though I am not writing up The Awakening, A Streetcar Named Desire, or A Confederacy of Dunces, I highly recommend all three in addition to the books below.

the-witching-hour Novel: The Witching Hour
Author: Anne Rice, born New Orleans, LA
Setting: 1980s New Orleans
Category: Dark Fantasy/Horror, Southern Gothic

The Witching Hour captures the allure of New Orleans in exactly the way I wanted: dark, sultry, mysterious, haunted, Gothic. There are voodoo and ghosts and the Garden District, live oaks and wrought iron fences, and Victorian mansions with personalities and spirits. There are voodoo dolls and heads in jars, possessions and witches, honeysuckle, jasmine, cicadas, and French Creole names.

The Witching Hour follows the history of the Mayfair family, back 300 years to when Suzanne Mayfair, a commoner in Scotland, dabbled in witchcraft and called forth the spirit of Lasher,  a dark-eyed, brown-haired man who is seen to this day at the Mayfair house on First Street in the Garden District of New Orleans. Throughout the generations, over 300 years, Lasher associated himself with the descendents of Suzanne, bringing both wealth and (seeming) insanity to the Mayfair family.

I hate to describe the plot because it doesn’t do the weaving of it justice.

Swamp this must have been once. A breeding place of evil.

This book is like a narcotic: the characters, the setting, the entanglement of the Mayfairs and a secret order who watches them, the occult, and the gauzy veil that falls over you while you read it. It is seductive and repulsive, beautiful and ugly, impossible to believe yet deliciously fun to imagine. The veil between worlds is thin in this book. The Witching Hour captures the dark undercurrents of New Orleans masterfully.

the-missing Novel: The Missing
Author: Tim Gautreaux, born Morgan City, LA
Setting: 1920s New Orleans and Mississippi River
Category: Historical Fiction

Set in the 1920s on a steamboat that travels up and down on the Mississippi River, The Missing took me into the jazz age of the deep New Orleans South. I loved the French interspersed throughout the novel, and the characters range from city-dwellers to folks who live so deep in the scrub and bayou you can’t even get to them — there are no roads.

In the story, a child is kidnapped under our Sam Simoneaux’s watch, and the novel is his search for her: he wants to make it right with the family she belongs to. This story is woven in with the loss of the Sam’s own family when he was a baby, and then his shelling a French girl’s home in WWI and her resulting orphaning because of his cannon fire.

The scenery is vivid: the bend of the steamboat’s dance floor under the pounding of 1000 feet two-stepping, the descriptions of the scrub forest, the accents and dialect of the characters, the feel of Louisiana through Sam’s story, family, and the novel’s characters.

My uncle never raised me to be big on revenge, you know? Most French people on the bayou are like that. Too poor to afford a grudge.

The Missing encompasses all sorts of missing things: missing children, missing family, the feeling you get when you miss those people, the missing (empty) parts of folks whose loved ones are missing. It is a story of being responsible for our actions, of justice verses revenge, and of all the things that are missing when the people in our lives are gone.

a-lesson-before-dying Novel: A Lesson Before Dying
Author: Ernest J. Gaines, born Pointe Coupee Parish (Louisiana)
Setting: 1940s fictitious Bayonne, LA
Categories: African-American literature, Historical Fiction

This book was an unexpected gem. I had never heard of it and added it at the last-minute despite having already read five books set in Louisiana, and I’m so glad I did.

Despite a story line that is hard to read, that makes me ashamed of our history and continued racism, of a black man wrongly accused, presumed guilty, and treated like an animal, this book has hope, pride, and a sense of goodness and dignity.

The story is of Jefferson, a black man who was in the wrong place at the wrong time when two other black men killed a white liquor store owner. Jefferson was the only person left alive at the scene, and despite being an innocent bystander he was promptly arrested and sentenced to death by electric chair. During his trial, Jefferson’s attorney defended him not on his innocence, but on the premise that he didn’t know any better because, as a black man, he was too ignorant to even know what he was doing at the liquor store.

Why, I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this.

The sentencing happens in the first chapter, and Jefferson, upon hearing he will be sentenced to death, loses all hope. He sees no point in believing himself to be any more than a farm animal, given how little control he has over his life.

The remainder of the novel is the protagonist, Grant Wiggins, the teacher at the black school, visiting Jefferson in jail, trying to convince Jefferson of his humanity. Wiggins does not want to do this. He want to run away from this awful, uncomfortable situation. But he does it because his aunt and Jefferson’s naanan pressure him to do so.

Miss Emma knows that the state of Louisiana is about to take his life, but before that happens she wants something to remember him by… She wants memories, memories of him standing like a man.

The treatment of blacks by whites in this book is shameful, and it was only 60-70 years ago. In this situation it seems there can be no hope. But Gaines writes this beautifully, and with great dignity. I felt strengthened at the end rather than defeated.

For Further Reading in Louisiana

Books I’ve read and recommend:
The Awakening by Kate Chopin
A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams
Books that have been recommended to me that I’ve not yet read:
The Moviegoer by Walker Percy
All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren

I am reading America: 3 books from each state in the US with the following authorships represented – women, men, and non-Caucasian writers. Follow along on Goodreads and here at