I’m so excited to share the cover of my next book, Thank God for Mississippi. It has it all: a porch, a rocking chair, ferns, and oh-so-Southern hydrangeas. It also has a bit of swirly font that reflects the (slight) chaos that ensues within the book. Without further ado, I give you the cover!
And here is the full print cover (front and back) for your perusal:
What do you think? Let me know here or on social media. And stop by again. We’ll have a release date soon!
Thank God for Mississippi is written in first person perspective—a totally new experiment for me! Since I have been writing for about twelve years, I have only ever written within the third person realm, sometimes with a bird’s eye view and sometimes within a character’s mind. But Mississippi simply refused to allow me not to allow her to tell her own story. Here is an audio I recorded explaining in a bit more detail the perspective in TGFM.
Hi friends! This is the first in a series of articles in which I (with the help of my sister) am going to be exploring history, historical controversies, the way we look back on history, and more!
Check out the link here to learn about our training and credentials (or in my case, lack thereof!).
We are very excited to share this series with you. We have put a lot of thought and work into the project and hope you walk away feeling a little lighter and more at ease with the more difficult aspects of the study of history. We thought it would be good to open with a little Q&A on some of the topics we’re going to be exploring, so without further ado, here we go…
The following is a conversation, so to speak, between the participants in the Ask the Historian Series, Tara Cowan and Hannah Cowan Jones, to introduce you to some of the themes we are going to be discussing in this new blog series. We have put the conversation into a Question & Answer format to enhance readability. You can think of it as a dialogue involving questions we ask each other, questions we have received from others, and thoughts we have pondered for a long time.
Q: What is your approach to the study of history?
A: (Tara) I have certain boundaries of what I consider “responsible history”: let history speak for itself, state the facts, don’t use any of it as a vehicle for modern ideology… Approaching history with detachment is a good start to not swerving outside any boundaries. Inevitably, we come at anything with biases and preferences that sway us. But history speaks for itself. It doesn’t need a champion or a modern spin. And once you truly immerse yourself into anything, historically speaking, it’s a lot easier to lay your biases aside. When you’re looking at cold, hard facts, the picture becomes a lot more complicated and complex, and the picture is usually messy.
I am not a proponent of pushing any sort of agenda through history or exalting any person or events. I’m sensitive to the fact that history is still emotionally charged and that it still means something to people across the broad spectrum of historical memory. But if I could suggest one thing that has changed my study of history, changed my writing, and helped me get down to the gritty truth, it would be: just love history for the history. Its truths will shine brighter than any point you could make about it. Take yourself out of it. Don’t demonize. Don’t glorify. Don’t sanitize. Call it like it is.
Note: Hannah has her own approach to the study of history, which will be in an audio on a subsequent blog post.
Q: What is historiography?
A: Historiography is the history of historical studies. It’s the basis of all history. It follows the approaches, shifting attitudes, and lenses of historians throughout the years. The first person to address a topic is the beginning point, and you move forward through the people and decades which have continued to address the topic, recording the shifting approaches as a sort of history in and of itself.
Q: What is historical memory?
A: (Hannah) As with all memory studies, historical memory can be grounds for contention between what is popularly believed and what the historical record holds. The idea of collective memory comes into play from this idea. For instance, I have worked at an historical site in South Carolina where the collective memory tells that the Massachusetts 55th Infantry Regiment stayed onsite for more than a month, helped distribute medical care to newly freed African Americans returning to the Sea Islands to claim lands from the United States government, and served as a key transition of power from the United States military to the Freedmen’s Bureau in the months leading up to the end and following the Civil War. The local community has powerful oral histories that they cling to still surrounding this event, yet the historical record indicates that The Massachusetts 55th perhaps only passed through briefly on their way to the upstate, perhaps not even staying at this site. Historical memories should be acknowledged for the power that communities place in them. Triangulating them with other sources provides a richer context for getting to what actually happened. Allessandro Portelli, an Italian scholar of American culture and oral history, is a great place to start if you are interested in reading examples of where “truth” and “memory” collide.
Q: What is hagiographic history?
A: Oh, what fun hagiographies can be! Modern understanding of hagiographic histories tends to mean history which seeks to venerate a person, a cause, or a group. It is a one-sided telling which tends to spin everything in a positive light and assign almost heroic traits to the subject without providing a balanced prospective of true humanity or differing points of view. One modern example is often found in early biographies of historic generals. The term originated here – From about the 2nd Century on, hagiographies have been used to venerate the lives of Christian saints. Often packed with gruesome accounts of martyrdom, intense fasting, terrifying dreams, and profound miracles, hagiographers often *expanded* the truth to better embrace the fullness of the incredible lives of the saints they studied. Hagiographers examined the lives of these saints, typically knowing them very personally, and their records provide an important avenue for interpreting early Catholicism, beliefs about men and women, daily lives and customs, and much more during periods of time when the historical record can feel limited.
Q: What is revisionist history?
A: When you find a topic in history that interests you and you delve into its historiography, it doesn’t take long for a revisionist historian to pop up with a reinterpretation of the subject or even a bold criticism for the long-held interpretation of the subject. He or she might present new evidence that directly contradicts orthodox conceptions of the topic. More often, though, a revisionist historian will present a revised reading of historical events by challenging the moral perspective or interpretation of events with new academic theories (you commonly see this surrounding topics of race, gender, etc). These conversations can be so productive for the academic community to regard “mainstream” history through new, relevant lenses. The downside to revisionist history is that is can go too far and attribute modern morals or feelings on historic people and events—and it’s always dangerous territory to presume the motivations of people not here to speak for themselves.
Q: Do you have any “least favorite” historical figures?
A: A lot of people did a lot of harmful things throughout history. Naturally, there are people who, when I am studying them, give me a sort of aversion. If I don’t like a historical figure, I try to study him or her more. Writing someone off based on limited knowledge, or because he or she has come to symbolize something in popular memory, isn’t historically honest or sound. Everyone has motivations for the things they do. Sometimes, you come out still not liking them very much, but at least you can understand them.
Q: What do you think of the phrase, “He was a man of his time?”
A: I’m not a huge fan of the phrase. It doesn’t seem to acknowledge the humanity in all of us across history. It makes it sound as if we are no more than the cultural conditioning we have received in the world in which we were raised. But we all have an enormous capacity for good, for transcending the workaday practices in our world. Stamping that on someone is to deny that he/she had that capacity, which is to put them in a “history” box. But he or she was a fully formed, living, breathing person. That’s not to say we become judgmental once we acknowledge that the person had the capacity to have gone beyond the influences of their day. But just acknowledge that they could have done so first.
I think the better approach is, after acknowledging that the figure had the human capacity to “rise above,” to take a look at why they didn’t. Then it’s perfectly appropriate to talk about what the pressures of that person’s time looked like. Sometimes we can’t answer these questions, sometimes we can. Either way, our knowledge is the richer for having the full story.
Q: I’ve noticed in your writing that, while you present both sides, you rarely, or never, tell the reader how to feel or wholesale condemn anyone. Why is that?
A: (Tara) Passing judgment from a twenty-first century perspective just doesn’t seem helpful. Those who have lived before us had experiences, training, constraints, and pressures very different from our own. To paraphrase several historians, we’ve had the advantage of decades or centuries to consider our problems, to try to ‘get it right.’ We have the benefit of standing on the shoulders of giants who have, in their own generations, brought us to a greater awareness of the need for equality, freedom, fairness, kindness, etc… We are the beneficiaries of that, not the authors. To condemn would be to deny my own need for grace and the problems in our own world today, some of which I actively try to address and others which I do not. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. said, “Self-righteousness in retrospect is easy—also cheap.” It’s easy to heap coals from our throne of self-congratulation, and it’s cheap to seize the moral high ground at history’s expense in making it seem as though the world was two-dimensional and clear-cut in a way it (almost) never is.
Q: Should we condemn historical figures for the things they have done to cause harm to others?
A: Acknowledging what has happened is perhaps most important. This consists of stating the unvarnished truth. Brushing anything under the rug is inappropriate when addressing history because it paints a falsehood. Uncovering what happened is absolutely vital to understanding the past, and nothing should be covered up in an effort to protect any reputations or ideologies.
But acknowledging is different from condemning. For events in our modern world, it’s appropriate for people who feel called to do so to denounce things which cause harm. But people get confused when a historical figure gets brought into the debate. The historical figure is not a participant in whatever modern debate is happening and becomes merely a vehicle for modern ideology. This causes more harm than good because it misses the nuances of history and character, building a narrative to be used for action which may not be grounded in the full story. (This can equally be true when attempting to put a historical figure on a pedestal to make a modern political point.)
It’s so hard not to get emotional when reading history because it does feel personal. History is only compelling, after all, because humans are similar in their desires, drives, loves, and sins through the ages. And every group—national, religious, racial, sectional, ethnic, etc.—can point to a person or multiple people who caused their ancestors great grief, hardship, and pain. I have an example of this in my own life, which I won’t name because I imagine everyone has one, so we’ll keep this universal. With the best will in the world to view all historical figures and peoples with detachment, this historical event and the person who perpetrated it are continual stumbling blocks for me, and I want to condemn everyone involved. I say this to let you know that I understand the feeling.
But I know, even in the grip of my emotional responses to that subject, that this is not the right way to think. Because no matter the event or person in history we might be discussing, there is probably someone who feels just as vehemently as I do about my stumbling block in relation to that person or event. And where would we be if all we could do in history is sit around, a bundle of anger and emotions? After all, no matter the legacies of the past that we are forced to live with today, shouldn’t our goal while studying history be to build a better tomorrow in our own world? And how can we do that if we don’t view historical events or figures honestly and unemotionally?
In the words of Jon Meacham, “We learn more, not when we look up adoringly, or down condescendingly; we learn more when we look them in the eye. Because then we might be able to see what we can do when we turn around and look at our own world.”
Some of my readers may think of me primarily as an author of Historical Fiction, while some may associate me more with the modern elements of my time-slip series. I do tend to identify more as a historical fiction author, and actually, Thank God for Mississippi is my first full-length modern book. So I recorded a little audio on the reasons I decided to publish this one before my next historical novel that was in the queue. Here is the audio:
I am reviewing my most anticipated book of 2021, The Women of Chateau Lafayette, today. I don’t review many books anymore, especially if I have any critiques to make (my thoughts on this in a later post), but there are certain authors who are too famous for my polite criticisms to injure their sales. And when I do make them, you can be sure that it’s because I have a great deal of respect for the author. Usually, I think many issues with books by more well-known authors are at least half the fault of the publishing world. So, with that in mind, here we go… [Note: There are mild spoilers ahead.]
The Women of Chateau Lafayette is a sort of follow-up by Stephanie Dray to her Revolutionary War era books, America’s First Daughter and My Dear Hamilton. Since the Revolutionary War is my favorite era to study, I have read and loved both. I have seen in many reviews and, indeed, on the cover of this new book, that Stephanie Dray is touted as the author of those former books, but she is actually a co-author with Laura Kamoie. The fact that Kamoie wasn’t on this one made me a bit nervous that it wouldn’t be the same as the first two books because, frankly, they are such a dream team.
But having always adored America’s “favorite fighting Frenchman,” The Marquis de Lafayette, I was ecstatic to see he was the next subject one of these authors would be covering. Which, of course, is always a bad way to go into reading a book—with a ton of expectations.
When I received the book in the mail, I was stunned by its size. I haven’t done a page comparison, but I’m not kidding when I tell you that the only fiction books on my shelf which compare in size are War and Peace and Gone with the Wind. Needless to say, I expect no more whining about the size of Southern Rain, as it is quite dainty in comparison. 😉
Another thing that made me nervous about the book was that it didn’t stick with just the Revolutionary Era. There were to be time slips between WWI and WWII eras also. But I have to admit that the idea of Lafayette’s home being used as a beacon of freedom during the very dark hours of Vichy and Occupied France was breath-taking on the grand, sweeping scale of history, and I couldn’t fault Dray for going there.
Now, I am a person who does not mind a lot of things to remember in a book. Give me a family of eight siblings, and I will memorize their names and ages. But to be honest (and hopefully not to be condescending), in a present when many are kind of fuzzy on the distinction between WWI and WWII, and given that the wars do have a lot of similarities from the French point of view (fighting Germany for one), one of the more modern eras should have been left out.
And for me, that era would have to be Beatrice and the WWI time-slip. Beatrice was an amazing woman, and though I had never heard of her, I should have. So I tip my hat to Dray for rescuing her from the abyss of history. But the Beatrice sections were a bit on the boring side. Dinner with a nondescript character here, tea with another character there…. I could tell there were tie-ins with characters from the WWII era, but we weren’t invested enough in those characters, who were barely mentioned or described, for those connections to be exciting in the way that a not-too-distant time-slip can be. I’m not even sure why we started Beatrice’s storyline where we did, or why precious pages were devoted to so many dawdling scenes. What I mean is, it seemed to take forever to get to the point with her portions, and I’m not sure we ever did. (Note: In the Author’s Note, Dray discusses her historical sleuthing that led to some quite remarkable finds about Beatrice. But those would have been a better fit in a biographical nonfiction book. Here, they distracted from the overall thesis of the book. Those discoveries’ connection to Lafayette were too tenuous to sustain the thread between the time-slip.)
I was a little more interested in the WWII Marthe bits because France was so…apocalyptic during WWII. Marthe is bi-sexual, which seems to have bothered some reviewers, but there have been bi-sexual people throughout history. Marthe is a fictional character, so it was Dray’s only opportunity to change things up a bit given the historical characters she was working with. But Marthe’s segments were largely her considering her attraction for a woman who was heterosexual and married (so…it was a storyline that never could develop). It is not much of an exaggeration to say that fifty percent of the WWII bits are Marthe merely exploring this attraction in her mind. Unrequited love is not unusual, but it’s not necessarily very interesting. Again, precious time to be wasting in a massive book which was attempting to cover enormous ground.
For both of these eras, these things just struck me as so much dawdling given the War and Peace size of the book. We could have (and should have) started two-thirds of the way in for both the WWI and WWII plot lines and more thoroughly explored those times, and both would have been much better stories with a tighter connection to Lafayette. I will say that the WWII parts felt very WWII—so well done to Dray for capturing an era. And I also liked Marthe as a character. It was brave to make her crabby and a sort of anti-heroine, and that part worked very well.
The Adrienne parts (American and French Revolution) were clearly the strongest. I wondered if that was because it always should have just been Adrienne’s story. Dray even says in the Author’s Note that this was what was originally intended. (Although, again, very compelling to make a broad sweep of French history, especially WWII.) But due to the necessity of covering two other storylines, Adrienne’s part, which was the largest in terms of years covered and scope, was cheated. Whereas we would see a week here, a few weeks later there with the more modern storylines, we would often see for Adrienne’s, “Three years had passed, and…” Instead of the soaring, poignant statement about a real woman’s role in historical events which leaves you pondering history itself (like the aforementioned two earlier books), Adrienne’s reads more like a biography, albeit a very well-written and succinct one.
There is little plumbing of the depths of her relationship with Lafayette, which I don’t think would have been inappropriate given that they were sort of the reason we’re here reading this book at all. Said plumbing of the depths of a marriage, although not always happy or pleasant, was one of the absolute wonders of both Martha Jefferson Randolph’s and Eliza Hamilton’s stories. The Lafayettes’ marriage was historically fascinating, and, while I know it would have been a huge undertaking to have dived in with both feet to all of that foreignness, drama, passion, and devotion, I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t deeply disappointed that we didn’t.
Something that the Adrienne parts did very well was convey the origins of the French Revolution. The starvation and effective slavery of the French people in order to give the nobles wealth which had persisted for hundreds of years is actually included here. Dray highlights this dichotomy and settles the score on that front.
Something that it didn’t do so well was…include Lafayette. It felt like we talked about him more than we actually saw him, which weakened the story a great deal. He was so excluded that, if you didn’t know the background, you would almost have to wonder what the big deal was, why we were even talking about all of this. While in the Eliza Hamilton and Martha Jefferson Randolph books, you really get the impression that these two women play the vital role in shaping the legacy of the men they loved and that they were a driving force behind many of their actions, that wasn’t necessarily the case here. Certainly Adrienne was a remarkable and brave woman, but Lafayette was the driving force behind this particular history, and I think it would have been okay to have admitted that, or at least to have given him a more vital role in the narrative. Instead, it was a thesis (the legacy of Lafayette) based on a background which was never firmly established.
So…as you can see, I struggled a bit to get through this one. It was well-written, and Dray pays attention to prose in a way that not many modern authors do. There were some stunning lines, especially those devoted to concepts of liberty. I always trust Dray historically; you are safe in her hands. But the book needed an editor clipping out chunks, adjusting timelines, accelerating pacing, and removing boring bits. For these failures, I lean toward blaming the publishing industry. The whole thing felt rushed, like if more time had been given to consider what worked and didn’t work, all of this would have been figured out and the corrections made. There was nothing overwhelmingly wrong with the book that couldn’t have been corrected by some very slight adjustments here and there. But this book was obviously going to be a big earner, banking on Lafayette’s popularity in Hamilton, and publishers have a relatively narrow window to capitalize on that before it fades.
In other words, what was a well-written, exhaustively researched book based on a breath-taking premise was a bit boring and rambling when it could have been a showstopper. The searing resonance that I expected just was not present. But I will continue reading Dray and absolutely hope she and Kamoie continue their exploration of the Revolutionary generation. And do I think you should read The Women of Chateau Lafayette? Despite my criticisms, yes. Lafayette’s story and message of freedom should be shouted from the rooftops. I have always thought this, and always will.
Hi friends! I am excited to announce a new series that is going to be running on the blog called “Ask the Historian.” There is going to be a series of five articles exploring approaches to history, the discipline of history, the way we look back on history and feel emotional, as well as some of the more controversial topics we have seen in the news and heard about involving history’s connection with the present.
There is also going to be a video recording with some of the posts which will explore a related topic. These will be my voice, and sometimes my sister is going to be joining us. My sister is a professional historian, while I am just a layman historian or history lover. We believe there are many valid opinions and points of view. We seek to share some helpful tips or perpsectives for navigating the often-tricky historical landscape of today.
I invite you along for the ride and look forward to sharing our thoughts with you!
Here is an audio introducing you to the themes and goals of the series!
My next book is going to be a modern day book set in small town Tennessee! I am excited about this book – I love this story and these characters, and I think you will, too. So what is the book about? I know we all like to categorize books, but this one is a little hard to do. Is there romance? Yes, subtly. Is there mystery? A little. Is there a Women’s Fiction Element? To a certain degree. Is it a commentary on small town Southern life? In many respects. Is there humor? Yes. Basically, it’s just life. I dug deep for this one, striving to strip it of anything inauthentic. I believe you will love it from cover to cover!
Without further ado, the title of the book is Thank God for Mississippi.
And here is the synopsis:
MISSISSIPPI WHITSON knows two things: she has to find a new job, and she has to find one soon. When her elderly employer, Hammondsville’s district attorney, dies, the plan is to smooth the transition for his replacement and then move on. The plan is not for the replacement to be her employer’s grandson, an out-of-towner who doesn’t know the first thing about surviving small town Southern life.
WHEN HE ASKS FOR HELP, she can’t refuse, being such a good person. But what started as a brief detour on her life plan may end up costing her more in terms of time, criminal drama, and matters of the heart than she ever expected.
A LOVING, humorous, yet insightful look at life in small town Tennessee, Thank God for Mississippi is the next must-have read for fans of many genres of fiction.
The following is a collaboration by Lance Elliott Wallace of New South Essays Blog and Tara Cowan of Tea & Rebellion Blog. We are excited to share a Q&A on Southern life and culture based on questions we have received. Before we jump in, we thought we would give you an idea of our conception of Southern culture. Southern culture is, by its very nature, multicultural. Historically, the South is rich in diversity with heritages including Native American, Spanish, English, Scottish, Irish, African, French, Mexican, and Central and South American, just to name a few! A blending of many cultures and the passage of time has led to certain social trends, habits, and styles that can be identified as distinctly Southern. At the same time, there remain many individual cultures within the South that maintain their own distinctive identities. Self-identification as Southern cuts both ways, sometimes celebrating history and values that are not shared by the subcultures that make up the regional identity. It’s not always pretty, but the complexity provides endless opportunity for exploration and commentary. This is a broad overview to keep in mind as you read!
Q: What are some beautiful places to see outside?
Tara: The South in general has some beautiful national and state parks. The mountains of East Tennessee and North Carolina are gorgeous any time of year. Savannah, Georgia, is renowned for its many city parks. There is a lot of beauty in the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia. To me, the most beautiful place to be in the South is on the Gulf of Mexico; you can’t beat the pristine white sand or the emerald water.
Lance: Absolutely agree, Tara. Our family has vacationed at Santa Rosa Beach on 30A in Florida’s panhandle for nearly 20 years. The white sand and emerald green water are imprinted on my psyche providing the backdrop for some of our best memories. I have hiked the approach to the Appalachian Trail with each of my three boys beginning at Amicalola Falls in north Georgia, and those vistas still come to mind easily. We have also spent time in the mountains of North Carolina. We enjoyed hikes and driving through the high country of North Carolina during several trips with friends. West Jefferson and Blowing Rock are particularly scenic. One of the benefits of living in the Atlanta area is that I don’t have to drive far to get to beautiful beaches or scenic mountain tops. The cities I like best for their beauty are Savannah, Charleston and Asheville.
Q: Where are the best spots for food?
Lance: We have lived in the Atlanta area for 18 years and have enjoyed many wonderful meals in town for special occasions. Upscale dining in Buckhead offers the full range of world class fare while Midtown’s diversity has everything from updated versions of Southern staples like fried chicken and deviled eggs to Asian cuisine from every ethnic origin to fantastic Mexican flavors. As a native Texan, I have to put in a plug for the BBQ brisket in the Hill Country between Austin and San Antonio.
Tara: Yes! The South is famous for BBQ, and I think there is actually a bit of a competition between Texas and Tennessee (where I live)! For traditional Southern cooking, Tennessee is a great place—Nashville and Pigeon Forge particularly, if you are feeling touristy. If you want traditional blended with other influences (like French and Gullah Geechee), I’ve had fun exploring restaurants in Charleston, South Carolina. For seafood, I highly recommend Destin, Florida.
Q: What historic sites should I see?
Tara: There are so many different points of interest. If you are looking for an immersive historical experience, there is Williamsburg, VA, and several other Southern cities that put a premium on history, like Natchez, New Orleans, and Charleston. Biltmore in Asheville, North Carolina, is a must-see. McLeod Plantation Historic Site in South Carolina is a great place for a focus on the lives of an enslaved community and its descendants. I recently visited Shiloh National Military Park—obviously, there is a lot for Civil War buffs to see, but there are also Indian mounds preserved within the park, which is unique, and the park overlooks the Tennessee River and has a really stunning view.
Lance: I lived in Macon, Georgia, for 10 years, and it is often overlooked as a historic destination because of Savannah’s obvious claim to that reputation. In his march from Atlanta to Savannah, Sherman went around Macon, so there are great spots that survived the Civil War. If you do go, plan to spend time at Rose Hill Cemetery, take in the view from the Woodruff House atop Coleman Hill, tour the Hay House and see a show at the historic Grand Opera House. Macon’s architecture is amazing, and seeing the city when the Yoshino Cherry Trees are in bloom in March enhance the city’s charm.
Q: What is your favorite Southern tradition?
Lance: Though not nearly as fanatical as I once was, I have a genetic predisposition to enjoy sports. There is nothing better on a fall Saturday than to boil a pot of peanuts and watch college football from noon to midnight, interrupted only by firing up the grill and cooking something delicious. I know they play football all over the country, but in the South, college football is on a pedestal. No matter who you root for, you can find a way to care about any game on TV.
Tara: Grilling and college football—yes, indeed! It’s hard for me to identify exactly what Southern traditions are because I’ve never lived anywhere but the South. But I like the gathering (maybe someday again!), the close-knit families, the extensive Sunday dinners, and the ties to home.
Q: What is the craziest Southern tradition?
Tara: One that I hear people express the most shock over is our funerals. It may be more of a Middle Tennessee thing—I can’t speak to other places in the South. Funerals are a big deal in my area. A lot of what happens strikes me as very Victorian. You need to wear black or at least dark colors to the funeral. You stand in a queue and wait hours if necessary in order to talk with the family beside the casket, where you will be invited to look at the deceased for as long as you wish (and forced to do so if you express a wish not to). The deceased is open for viewing for about two days. The room will be bedecked with flowers people have ordered, which just before the funeral will be taken and set up at the site of the burial. Every person you know brings food until there is literally nowhere to put anything else. At the actual funeral, there is usually a preacher who delivers a message, and several songs will be performed. Funerals can run an hour or two hours long. Then, as if they were the royal family, the family of the deceased is taken to a motorcade where the funeral home employees have discreetly lined up the family vehicles in order of precedence (usually determined by relationship to the deceased). The other mourners fall in behind the hearse and the family if their vehicles have not also been lined up (and usually they have). A policeman (or several) leads the procession, and another usually follows. No matter how distant the cemetery, every person you meet on the road is required by social tradition to pull over on the side of the road. If you are behind a funeral procession, even on a highway, you are not to pass. At the cemetery, a tent is usually constructed over the burial site, where all of the mourners proceed, and you basically have another funeral. Then there is a huge meal. Some of it is amusing and exhausting, of course, but I think most all of it is done out of respect for the grieving family.
Lance: Having recently attended the funeral for my wife’s aunt, a beautiful service despite the pandemic precautions, I agree with Tara that the way Southern families conduct their funerals can be weird for some folks. One of my go-to phrases in conversation is “As they say at Southern funerals, ‘Don’t he look natural.’” Tara’s thoughtful response also reminds me of one of my favorite songs by Southern singer/songwriter Kate Campbell. It’s called “Funeral Food,” and it’s signature line will stick with you: “Pass the chicken, pass the pie. We sure eat good when someone dies.”
I would add that every Southern town has a festival. These border on the sacred in some places and the utterly ridiculous in others. The smaller the town, the weirder their festival. My personal favorite is the Kaolin Festival in Sandersville, Ga. This celebration of white clay mined in the region isn’t a household word in areas of the world bereft of these clay deposits, but this celebration of a substance found in everything from paper coating to toothpaste has a wonderful parade, a Kaolin Queen pageant and the requisite carnival rides out at the fairgrounds. The pandemic has put too many of these festivals on pause. Here’s hoping they can safely return soon.
Q: Why do Southerners sometimes refer to people from the North as “damn Yankees?”
Tara: I do hear that occasionally. It’s unfortunate and not very “Southern” given the emphasis on hospitality and friendliness in the South. The roots of the South using the term derogatorily are historical. Later on, it became a stereotype used when a Northerner did something displeasing to a Southerner, particularly something considered discourteous. Southerners tend to put a premium on social politeness, and there is a perception that Northerners aren’t as concerned with that. So when the stereotype is perceived as coming true, that is the label that gets stamped. Of course, none of this is really thought out by people today and stereotypes are just never fair. But history has a way of handing legacies down to us that tend to be perpetuated—however rude they may be!
Lance: All true, Tara, but let me take a slightly different approach here. Yes, there is still regional animosity between the former combatants of the “War of Northern Aggression” as it is still known with all seriousness in some quarters of the South. The phrase went mainstream in popular culture after the release in 1955 of the musical comedy “Damn Yankees,” which was adapted from the book “The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant” by George Abbott and Douglass Wallop. It was adapted into a movie of the same name and released in 1958 starring Tab Hunter, Gwen Verdon and Ray Walston. The basic story is that a longsuffering Washington Senators fan, Joe Boyd, sells his soul to the devil to see his team beat the Yankees. I, for one, do not sit in judgment of the fictional Joe Boyd on that count. In real life, the New York Yankees have won 27 World Series titles since 1903, and they have been a nemesis of the teams I grew up a fan of—first the Texas Rangers and later the Atlanta Braves. It was painful to watch the Braves lose the 1996 World Series to the Yankees after jumping out to a 2-0 series lead, winning both games in New York by a combined score of 16-1. The Braves proceeded to lose the next four giving the Yankees their first title since 1978. Not prone to swearing, that series made me want to utter “damn yankees” more than once.
Q: (Three questions actually follow from this one!) When speaking of a modern Southern comedian, Lance recently wrote in a blog post, “…[H]e does have strong Southern bona fides, a recognizably Southern rhythm and pacing to his storytelling, and an authentic Southern voice that isn’t a caricature.” What do you think makes Southerners unique as storytellers?
Tara: Authenticity is key in good Southern storytelling. There is usually something that strikes a chord or touches us in Southern stories. There is a willingness to settle in and weave an intricate narrative. I think that quality is the legacy of cultural heritages renowned for oral storytelling—Native American, Scottish, Irish, and African, to name a few. Storytelling is a learned and practiced tradition from childhood on in the South.
Lance: Time, place and adversity have shaped Southerners into good storytellers. The late 19th Century was a simpler time, and much of life in the South was agrarian. People had more time and spent it together on the front porch because there was no air conditioning. With the advent of radio and TV and the ubiquity of air conditioning, the culture shifted, but for at least a generation the prevailing form of entertainment was listening to your elders tell stories on the front porch after supper or after Sunday dinner with the family. The stories that held the most resonance were filled with humor and heartache, both of which were in abundance at the turn of the 20th Century in the South. Southern stories have an element of self-deprecation, a respect for ingenuity and distrust of progress and technology. The comedians, writers and storytellers that are known for being Southern have mastered their craft by being good listeners and refining their stories after many retellings as they see the response of their audience. That’s why so many Southern storytellers I have been around, famous or just family, can entertain even when they tell the same story over and over. They blend the familiar with a few twists to keep it interesting. We listen to see if it will be different this time.
Q: What makes Southern storytelling’s rhythm and pacing distinctive?
Tara: There is a certain musical flow to Southern stories, something that draws you in gently but immediately and then flows like a river as it unfolds from there. There is a certain pulling from the past/working toward the future dichotomy that makes it circular. And a distinctive tone to Southern storytelling reflects Southern speech patterns.
Lance: My grandmother had a way of stringing the details of her stories together with the verbal pause “and uh” that gave her stories a rhythm. Like a sermon in the African American church tradition, her stories would start slow and build to a dramatic conclusion, usually humorous. She would often laugh at her own stories. She called it “tickled.” I am “tickled” anytime I get to hear such a story. I agree, Tara, Southern storytelling is musical, whether it’s read or heard. To get a sense of what I mean, pick up a copy of Rick Bragg’s latest book, “Where I Come From” or any of his previous works. Read a few paragraphs out loud, and you’ll hear it immediately.
Q: Are Southerners caricatured in media such as movies, books, etc.? If so, what makes a Southern voice have an authentic ring?
Lance: Without a doubt. As a fan of Noah Hawley’s “Fargo” television adaptation of the Cohen brothers film, though, I have to admit that any time a region becomes the focus of a story, the opportunity for caricature exists. I see it most when someone without experience or appreciation of the South attempts to tell a Southern story. They paint with too broad a brush. Because I like to listen to accents, no matter where they are from, it’s often the over-done dialect that makes it so egregious. I like it best when writers, storytellers and actors capture the specifics of a Southern place. There is no one accent or way of life down South. If they know us well enough to grasp the nuances, they can avoid caricature and actually tell a story with authenticity. My favorite theme is the underestimated Southerner that turns the stereotype on its head. I know that can be its own cliche, but I am drawn to stories that flip the script. As for authenticity, I think that emerges from directness, lack of pretense, and color. Honesty is often hard to take, but Southerners can speak from their heart with surprising frankness.
Tara: That is a good point, Lance, that when any region becomes a focus there is an opportunity for or danger of caricature. I also see caricature a lot with religious or ethnic minority groups—any group that is numerically smaller in the broader culture. But yes, Southerners are caricatured broadly to the extent that when a character actually feels like a Southerner, it is a welcome surprise. Behaviors are stereotyped (wearing big hair, being backwards, practicing oppressive forms of religion, being prejudiced more than the general population, etc.). I agree that the accents are often the most cringeworthy. A Southern voice (and as an author, I can add any voice) has more authenticity when the character is first presented as a person and only then as a person who may have certain distinctive regional or cultural traits.
Q: What makes Southern society complex and complicated?
Tara: History. The South has a troubled, or one might almost say tortured history. The presence of slavery deep into the nineteenth century, the forced removal of Native Americans, and an almost caste-based social structure have all made the South and its history complicated, to say the least. There is a history of deep prejudice that still gives the region a troubled legacy today. That’s not to say that the whole country, or every country, doesn’t have the same truth. Prejudice exists in the South and everywhere. To deny that would be to paper over the very real, lived experience of many.
Simultaneously, I think the South has been forced to deal with prejudice on a fundamental level in a way that other regions may not have. I recently read a study that found that quantifiable inequality (unemployment, home ownership, education, etc.) was several percentage points less in the South as a region than in the nation as a whole. But that is not the general perception of Southern society.
Adding to the complexity, the South has also historically been riddled with poverty, to the extent that the default “American” in media or popular imagination is not Southern. Not being the default obviously leads to some problematic handling of the region as a whole by the uninitiated. For example, we wouldn’t normally allow for critical caricatures of people struggling with poverty, but the stereotype of all Southerners as prejudiced somehow makes those depictions acceptable, which does real damage.
And yet, the legacy of an aristocratically tiered social structure does still persist. There is a bit of a “haves and have-nots” element to Southern society that adds another dimension to the complexity, all the more so because it isn’t necessarily in a good versus evil way of a Dickens novel. The complexity of Southern society is profoundly difficult to grasp, but I can say for certain that a lot of it goes back to history.
Lance: Well said, Tara. The South’s agrarian history, which is rapidly being erased, contributes to the complexity. Moving from an inequitable and exploitative rural economy to a high tech and services based economy has changed the landscape so quickly, many who control the systems of wealth and influence have leveraged the old prejudices to stoke division and maintain control. Race is just one level of the conflict. Class is another. And with the growing abandonment and diversification of religious practice, there are even more opportunities for cultural clashes. It’s complicated because it feels like whenever there is progress toward unity, there are ugly, violent events that remind us of the past and erase any gains in trust and goodwill. We’re never that far from what the Baptists call “backsliding.” It feels to me like an addict in recovery. We can never get too confident we’re over the old troubles. We have to take it one day at a time, with humility, and try to do better accepting people for who they are as individuals and not for their membership in a larger group identity.
Q: How is the South and Southern culture changing?
Tara: I think the concept of Southernness may be developing into something that reflects more of the diversity that we have talked about. I feel like there was a time when identification with Southern culture was more common among middle- and upper-class people of European ancestry. But it seems like that perception is broadening today to acknowledge and include the culture and contributions of more and more of those who live in the South. I haven’t researched in this area, so I base this on the fact that I hear people identify as Southern who might not have done so in the past and see Southern magazines exploring the Southernness and contributions to the South of people who may first identify as something other than Southern. This is definitely a great question for Lance!
Lance: This is the very question at the root of New South Essays. I’ve mentioned some of it above. We’re becoming more urban, technology dependent and diverse. Small towns are drying up because people are moving to where the jobs are, and population loss in rural areas is palpable. Family is still important, but jobs are taking people farther and farther away from their roots. We’re experiencing a mix of stubborn pride and pervasive shame over a past that we once reflected on and talked about often. Now, everything about Southern is being reinterpreted. I find particularly interesting the work that The Bitter Southerner and The Oxford American are doing in that regard. I hope one of the messages people take away from my blog is that it’s OK to be Southern and talk about it openly and honestly. It helps to be humble and self deferential with a healthy dose of humor, which I see as growing in the New South.
Q: What is the best thing about the South?
Tara: For me it is the hospitality. Southern history is, of course, fraught and complicated, and, like anywhere else, it still isn’t a perfect place. But at its best today, there is a kindness to Southern culture, a sort of “welcome home” feeling that can and should be extended to all.
The best way to explain would be through a visit to Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room in Savannah, Georgia. There are ten or eleven people seated at a big table that is reminiscent of a Sunday dinner. You pass about a dozen dishes back and forth between you, making conversation all the while like you’re family. People line up and wait for hours for this experience with total strangers. Both times I’ve been, people from different regions or countries want to know all of the details of Southern life, and of course the Southerners are happy to oblige. This leads to trading stories about our homes and the different ways cultures do things. The last time I went, at our table were: my sister and me, a couple from Canada with their two children, an Indian American couple from Manhattan, and a couple from Alabama. All were such lovely people, and if we had met in any other setting, we might never have been acquainted with one another well enough to have known that. But when we left, we all talked about the connection we had felt. I still remember what all of their faces looked like, and for that moment, we were family. It’s a transforming experience, connecting with total strangers just because you can really feel harmony and peace around you. I really think the world would be a kinder place if everyone could experience that type of distinctly Southern setting, because you get to see the goodness in people, and you remember that and carry it with you. Southern hospitality mixing with Southern cooking is just one of the greatest things in the world.
Lance: I can’t argue with that, Tara! We’ve covered most of what I truly enjoy already, but I would be remiss if I didn’t devote some space here to Southern writers. I hope you will check out Tara’s books that weave history and relationships in a way that expose relatable truths. My favorite Southern writer of all time is Clyde Edgerton. I find the work of Larry Brown gritty and real. I’ve always enjoyed Rick Bragg, as I mentioned, and William Faulkner’s well-documented contributions inspired me to take up writing in the first place. You don’t have to be a Southerner to appreciate great Southern literature, and as it diversifies, its impact only grows.
Tara Cowan the author of the Torn Asunder Series, including Southern Rain, Northern Fire, and Charleston Tides. She writes fiction set mostly in the South and loves all things history, travel, and culture. An attorney, Tara lives in Middle Tennessee and is busy writing her next novel.
A former newspaper reporter and editor, Lance Elliott Wallace chronicles life in the New South from his home in the Atlanta suburb of Lilburn. He is a Fort Worth, Texas, native who has lived in Central Florida, Alabama and Georgia, gaining a fascination with contemporary Southern culture along the way.
Charleston Tides History Behind the Story – Outtakes
There were a few historical tidbits covered in Charleston Tides that didn’t quite merit their own posts, so I thought it would be fun to do a lightning “History Behind the Story” round covering five “outtake” topics. As always, there are a few spoilers ahead if you haven’t read the series. Here we go!
1. Mementos: You may remember in Charleston Tides that as soon as the war was over, people flocked to Charleston to get mementos of slavery, newly a dead institution. In Charleston Tides, we hear of the slave-trading district being combed for manacles, market bells, and a set of steps that were sent to William Lloyd Garrison as a trophy. John C. Calhoun’s tomb was desecrated, and people were delighted to take little pieces of stone from it as mementos. Clover was picked from the grounds of Institute Hall, where the Ordinance of Secession had been enacted in Charleston.
This seems a bit odd to us, but there was an obsession during the Victorian era with mementos. You can learn more about this in Episode 63 of the Ben Franklin’s World Podcast, “Ruin Nation: Destruction and the American Civil War.” The author of a book by the same name, Megan Kate Nelson, mainly talks about the general destruction of the war, but she also goes briefly into the memento fixation of the Civil War era. My first encounter with the same was with the house museums of Middle Tennessee, where hair art was really popular during Victorian times. You would take a clip (or a lot) of hair from every deceased relative and add it to a piece of hair art. These were then made into an elaborate floral display or the shape of a fan, and every family member gets added in as the generations progress. Even Queen Victoria, when she died, had all of her hair cut off as mementos to be given out!
2. Separation of Civil War Families: You may have noticed that a side-character couple, the Rices, have children who are not living with them at the beginning of the war. It is mentioned that their children are in school in Illinois. I didn’t specify whether the Rices were actually from Illinois, because it was most likely that their children were sent there because a school had been found that was a good fit for their needs. Separation was a reality for most Civil War families, especially those of a military variety, and usually the non-combatant members were sent to where it was most expedient based on needs of the day.
Ulysses and Julia Grant, for instance, had to send their children to various schools, often not near them or family or any particular ties, but to where they felt it would be best for the children. If the family was able to come together, it was only briefly, and often with various children here or there at different times. Ellen Sherman, who had always been particularly opposed to living away from her Ohio home, picked up and moved her many children to South Bend, Indiana, where they could attend Catholic schools and be near particular clergy who were close to her family.
In Southern households, safety was also a key factor. In the fictional movie The Beguiled, (recommended to me by a friend!) there is a girls’ school which is still operating because families sent their daughters there to be out of war zones. Alva Smith Vanderbilt Belmont’s father sent her mother and sisters to live in Paris during the war. Robert E. Lee’s family was scattered out of necessity due to their properties being close to the Union Army lines. His only child to die during the war was a daughter, Annie, who after living in Virginia most of her life, had moved to Jones Springs, North Carolina to try to recover from Typhoid Fever.
And of course, enslaved families who had been separated by ownership continued to be so throughout the duration of the war, unless they lived in an emancipated area and could find their family members. Reuniting with family was a huge challenge for many freed people in the aftermath of the war.
Separation was a very real and very painful thing for many families during the Civil War.
3. Birth Control: [Skip this one if you don’t have a desire to learn about Victorian birth control – haha!] In Charleston Tides, as I was thinking about Shannon’s brother and his wife’s future, it struck me that 1865 Charleston was a very bad time and place to have a baby. To think about having another mouth to feed when everyone is basically starving, with no hope of income, and when there was a recent death in childbirth… Realistically, it just seemed like a “No.” So I started researching historical birth control to see if it was accurate to hint that this might be used. During my Native American studies in college, I had in research stumbled across various practices used with some success, so protection has been used in North America for a long time.
I always see in historical fiction storylines of certain herbs to prevent conception, which… I’m just not convinced, frankly. If you think about the limitations in Victorian medicine and the understanding of the human body in general, getting doses right, taking them at the right times, and even still today they are not seen as being entirely effective… This seems like a historical myth that has been taken a little out of proportion.
Which leads me to…historical condoms. We’ve all read about (I’m just going to whisper it here) sheep’s intestines. Historic condom-like devices have been found dating back to ancient times. I won’t detail all of them here. But actually by 1855, rubber condoms were invented, if not widely used. They were even advertised in the New York Times, which seems to conflict with notions of Victorian fustiness!
Of course, there were various other methods of birth control, and I do think there were people, even married couples, who used them during the Victorian Era. You can read between the lines in letters and diaries. One that stands out in my mind is a Victorian plantation mistress talking about her sister-in-law, who had given birth to two babies in quick succession. A mother herself, the lady says something like, “I don’t know how she does it. I could never do it.” What else can this mean than that she was doing some strategic spacing of her own children?
4. Resistance to Insurgency in the South: There is a brief mention that Shannon’s brother, who had been a Confederate Naval officer, actually supported John Thomas’s political efforts to quell violence against freedmen in the South. I didn’t touch on this in the post about insurgency and violence, but there were such Southerners who lent their aid. There were some who did so for noble reasons, but most who did were thinking more practically. They knew that violence would cause a longer occupation, which would lead to a loss of rights by those traditionally in power, as well as a longer period to recover financially after the war. One example of a Confederate officer-turned aid to Reconstruction is James Longstreet, who was given a job by the Grant administration. Of course, there were many who were not similarly ready to move on and who took action against the goals of Reconstruction, even to the point of joining and forming insurgent societies.
Hi friends! I have updated the answers to a couple of my previous Q&As to provide greater clarity. I just wanted to officially note them on the blog to flag them for you, but you will also find them in their places on the Q&A tabs. Thanks!
Q: Do you write Christian Fiction or General Market? A: General Market. For now, I do not feel led to market my books as Christian Fiction. I am a Christian, and there are Christian elements in my books because I try to write authentically, and faith is such a deep reality for me. It would be impossible for me to take faith out of my characters’ lives when I am trying to craft three-dimensional figures who reflect real life. I receive God’s inspiration and seek His guidance as I write. However, readers should be aware that I do not seek to mold my writing to any narrative generally required of authors who publish and market as Christian Fiction. I write organically and authentically to myself and my characters, and I am not bound by editorial guidelines as to allowable themes, moral tones, or character resolutions. My books are General Market – Historical Fiction/Contemporary Fiction that happen to have characters who have/grapple with faith.
Q: Does Charleston Tides stand alone? A: No. You need to start with Book 1, Southern Rain, and continue with Book 2, Northern Fire, to get the full story and understand everything that happens in the series. In that way, the series is a bit like a saga, but I don’t call it that because the word “saga,” in addition to just meaning a long story, which this is, also can mean a highly emotional, heroic tale, which this is not.