Andrea Reads America: Virginia

Andrea Reads America map of books set in Virginia
Andrea Reads America: Virginia

Virginia. The state I now live in, and the state where this whole reading adventure began. As I mention in the About page for this Andrea Reads America project, my husband and I have moved many times: from Georgia to Maryland, to Florida and Maine, to Minnesota, and finally, to Virginia. Each time we relocated, I researched our new home not in welcome bureaus or newcomer guides, but through fiction. Well-set novels taught me about the land and its people, its culture, its history, and its idiosyncrasies.

After our family moved from Minnesota to Virginia in 2012, I read several novels set here, including Adriana Trigiani’s entire Big Stone Gap series, David Baldacci’s Wish You Well, and Tara Conklin’s The House Girl with my Virginia-based book club. Then, as now, I tried to read Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and abandoned it.

It was settling in Virginia — settling someplace for the first time in our married lives — that made me start reading my way across the US. We were putting down roots, and I still had wanderlust. Now, 6 years later, I’ve almost completed the reading journey. It was nice to come (almost) full circle and read this state again, now that I live here and know it well.

The Known World book coverNovel: The Known World
Author: Edward P. Jones
Setting: 1840s and 50s Virginia

Set in fictitious Manchester County in Virginia in the 1840s and 1850s, The Known World is about a black slave owner, his slaves, and the world of slavery in Virginia. Shockingly, black slave owners are not fictitious — it did actually happen, though it was rare. The Known World explores what that was like for the owner, his slaves, and his former slave parents who saved for years to free him from slavery. As if slavery weren’t awful enough already, the betrayal of “owning your own” was immense.

The book jumps around a lot in time and sometimes it was hard to keep track of the characters. Overall it was an eye-opening glimpse into a world that would have never occurred to me existed.

Flowers in the Attic book coverNovel: Flowers in the Attic
Author: V.C. Andrews, born Portsmouth, VA
Setting: 1970s mansion in the Virginia mountains

I first read Flowers in the Attic in middle or high school, and it seemed so forbidden at the time. Now that I’ve read it again, I see why! Children locked hidden in an attic while their widowed mother waits for her rich father to die so she can inherit his wealth, an adolescent brother and sister developing sexually with only each other to turn their attention to, a wicked grandmother who only sees sin, not love, in the world. And all set against the backdrop of Virginia mountains a short train ride to Charlottesville, the children bearing the beauty of the seasons from behind windows, never to be outdoors, only seeing the sun and stars and leaves and flowers through glass.

At points it was terrible to read, not because of the story but because of the writing — so! many! exclamation! points! — but it was still a page-turner in its twisted terrible way.

Wish You Well book coverNovel: Wish You Well
Author: David Baldacci, born Richmond, VA
Setting: 1940s southwest Virginia: coal country

Set in the Appalachian mountains of southwest Virginia, Wish You Well is fiction that pulls from Baldacci’s childhood experiences in that region. It is an account of a 1940s family whose lives are isolated from any world off the mountain, who do not earn money to provide for themselves, but who work the land to survive.

Baldacci nailed the dialect – he wrote it masterfully, so that you can hear the characters’ speech, without the dialect being distracting or tiring. And he captured a way of life on the mountain that most of us will never know. Somehow, though, there wasn’t enough depth for me. Or maybe complexity. I can’t pinpoint what it was that had my mind wandering at times, or that kept me from getting truly engaged, but Wish You Well is worth a shot if you want to disappear into the mountains for a while, and particularly if you are interested in the coal mining issues currently going on in the Appalachians (blowing up the mountains to empty them of their coal and then abandon them, piles of rubble, barren and stripped of life).

Big Stone Gap book cover Novel: Big Stone Gap
Author: Adriana Trigiani, born and raised in VA
Setting: 1990s Blue Ridge Mountains, Virginia

The Big Stone Gap series is a fun, beach or poolside race-through-the-story and the characters type of read. While there are certainly tensions and conflict, the overall memory I have of these books is that they were lighthearted, and I loved the characters.  The scenery is lovely as well. I’m pretty sure I read the entire series like a chain smoker smokes cigarettes, lighting the beginning of one off the end of another, in the space of a couple of weeks.

We love to declare that God made us in his image, but even so, he’s three billion years old and we’re just babies. I know your opinion of teenagers, Mr. Walker; just bear in mind that to God you and I are much younger, even, than that. We’re that foolish, to think we know how to rule the world.

— Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver

Guest post: Sandy Bottoms

Map: Virginia, setting of “Sandy Bottoms” by Kim Norris

This is a guest post from Kim Norris who contributed in response to the American Vignette: Summer Garments call for submissions. The piece was originally published on her 4 Good Ideas blog. The setting is Virginia Beach, VA. Enjoy!

Hot summer mornings we awoke to cicada sounds – zwhirrrrrrr-chi-chi-chi – from the tops of the high pines that lined our backyard in Virginia Beach. Harbingers of heat, their call meant beach weather to me. Mom taught school, so she had summers off too, and most days – every day it didn’t rain – we pulled on swimsuits and shorts and tees over them. Mom directed as we loaded the Volkswagen with beach bags full of soft, faded sheets and fluffy colorful towels. She filled a cooler with sandwiches and snacks and poured iced tea or lemonade in a dispensing thermos. We stacked folding chairs and a half-inflated rubber float in the hatchback. I packed whatever I happened to be reading that week – Nancy Drew most likely, or a Little House book.

Car loaded, we’d head for the oceanfront. We shunned the crowded narrow beaches where tourists laid down in front of the concrete boardwalk, side by side like sardines in a can, the Atlantic Ocean lapping nearly at their heels as high tide approached. Mom preferred the far end of Atlantic Avenue, down to 64th Street; only locals knew where to park and the beaches were broad. White, hot sand flooded flip flops and burned feet as we crossed from the street to the dunes. Prickly sweat trickled down my neck with every step as I trudged toward the green, foam-capped surf, the sounds of its crashing audible even before Mom had killed the car’s ignition. I longed to drop everything I carried, strip down to my bathing suit, run to the water, and let the coolness rush over my feet and up my calves, but Mom had a certain order to things. First sheets must be spread, chairs unfolded, the cooler and thermos buried under a pile of not-yet-sandy towels to keep the high, hot sun from melting the ice too soon. Mom insisted on sunscreen for us girls, cocoa butter for herself; I hated to apply lotion, not liking the way it made the sand stick to my skin. Finally satisfied, Mom would sit primly on the sheet smoothing the wrinkles and futily wiping away sand blown by the shore breeze.

“You were born on the other side of that ocean,” Mom would tell me. On clear days, I believed I could see Spain’s hazy distant shore at the far emerald edge.

The ebb and flow of a perfect beach day: first dig toes deep in shifting wet sand, taste salty spray, feel the brine. Wade out, jumping waves to push past the breakers, turn and body surf back in, stomach as a longboard, no need to fear a wipeout. Sit submerged to the neck just behind the break line, and let the rhythm of the wind and water lull. Return to the soft sheet, eat a PB & J, trying desperately to keep the sand from clinging like sticky jelly; fail, and learn to love the crunch. Stretch out and let the hot sun beat down relaxing back muscles, bury both hands in the cooler sands below the sun-baked surface. Seek heat relief at the water’s edge; drip dreamscape sand castles at the tide line. Walk the hard, wet sand. Search for shells.

Grass-covered dunes shimmered in summer heat. Cooler and thermos emptied, afternoon storms building above, we packed up, crossed the scorching sands to the unrelenting swelter of the street. We’d lay damp towels down on the Volkswagen’s leather seat to keep from burning our legs. Sandy, salty, sweaty bathing suit bottoms made us wriggle and itch. All the windows rolled down, wind would further tangle the mess of sea-water curls that snaked the napes of our necks, glued by sweat.

Home again, and still a certain order to things. “To the spigot!” Mom would say. “No one goes in the house until they rinse!”

Sis and I raced to the backyard, both wanting the first water out of the hose, warm from the sitting in the sun. The perfectly heated stream chilled quickly. We rinsed clean our arms and legs, unburdened sandy bathing suit bottoms of fine white silica. Followed the cold hose with a tepid shower, cool Noxzema on hot burned skin, tangles combed. After, we sat on the screened back porch and sipped root beer floats, sweet and foamy, so cold it caused a headache when I drank it too fast.

Day relented and moonlight emerged, in pink cotton pajamas, we watched fireflies sparkle in the backyard. On the line, our summer suits dripped dry in the humid night air. Crickets sang. Heat lighting rolled across the sky.

Kim Norris learned to hold a pencil when she was four and she immediately began writing poems and short stories; her plots improved after she learned to read. She has no musical talent, mathematical ability, or business acumen, so she works as a technical writer, editor, and marketing coordinator. She’d rather be a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist, but so far, that has proved more challenging than algebra. She consoles herself by blogging and writing fiction. She blogs more fact than fiction at Four Good Ideas, more fiction than fact at 4 Good Ideas, and offers mouthy opinions on Twitter @KimHNorris.