This month, Southern Lit Review celebrates Mother’s Day by recognizing the books that most inspired our female contributors.
The list will include some familiar titles, and some that haven’t been widely recognized. Some are modern, others classics. A few are fiction, others memoirs or nonfiction. The common thread among the titles is the strong influence they have had on our lives either as girls, young women, wives, mothers, or grandmothers.
I can’t start my personal list without returning to my childhood, when I peeked through the pages of every book on the shelves of my parents’ bookstore. I’ll never forget coming across a crisp, clean copy of Harper Lee’s classic, To Kill A Mockingbird. I sat down in the corner of the stock room, perched on a cardboard box, and entered Scout’s world. Not since Ramona the Pest had I identified so strongly with a female character. I was Scout. Scout was me. And I couldn’t put the book down until I knew the fate of Boo Radley.
I learned from Scout that kindness is a virtue worth clinging to, and that a good father-daughter relationship is something of value. I also learned that the world was not always going to be as fair as I’d hoped, and that the only way to navigate through the hatred is to be guided by a strong moral compass. So here’s to Harper Lee…a southern female voice worth reading at any age.
As I grew from a young girl to a young woman, I was assigned to read The Awakening by Kate Chopin in my high school English class. I not only read it, I read it four times in a row, studying the scenes in which Edna took steps to discover her truest self and feeling her strength as she dared to break away from the confines of her marriage and societal expectations.
I memorized quotes that marked my soul. Quotes that pained me, “He reproached his wife with her inattention, her habitual neglect of the children. If it was not a mother’s place to look after children, whose on earth was it?” and quotes that saved me, “A feeling of exultation overtook her, as if some power of significant import had been given her to control the working of her body and her soul. She grew daring and reckless, overestimating her strength. She wanted to swim far out, where no woman had swum before.”
I never saw the murky waters of Grand Isle the same way again, and I never saw my role as a woman the same way either. So here’s to Kate Chopin, a strong female voice that I heard at just the right time in my life.
Another female author who has influenced my life is Barbara Kingsolver. I’ve been transformed by her works for years, all the way back to reading The Bean Trees. It was such a page turner, I could barely stand to peel my eyes from the page to check the IDs of college boys who came stacked and packed into the testosterone-laden weight room at LSU. But I was most impacted by two of her works.
One, The Poisonwood Bible, in which she transported me to another world and taught me how to love – and I do mean completely fall in love with – the craft of writing, inspiring me to put ink to my thoughts and leading me to a lifelong interactive journey with the written word.
Later, when she penned the nonfiction Animal, Mineral, Miracle: A Year of Food Life with her husband Steven Hopp, she impacted my life even more, inspiring my husband and me to leave our comfortable suburban life and learn to operate a fully-functional family farm. As first generation farmers, we keep Kingsolver’s guide on our nightstand, dog-eared and tattered with notes in the margins. So let’s raise a glass of farm fresh goat milk (yes, I have learned to milk goats) to my heroine, the incredible Barbara Kingsolver.
There’s no way to list my most influential southern writers without mentioning the brilliantly poetic, Beth Ann Fennely. I first read Beth Ann’s work in a collection of letters she had written to her student throughout her young friend’s pregnancy. She wrote with tremendous passion about the realities of pregnancy and motherhood. As a result, Great with Child is one of the most poignant, beautifully-crafted works about mothering I have ever read.
I’ve been a mother for 13 years now, and I still keep Beth Ann’s letters on my shelf of favorites. Every time the sharp anxiety creeps in, reminding me that my children are growing up too quickly and that life is passing me by in a blur, I return to Beth Ann’s own journey. Time after time, her words soothe me and remind me that I am not alone in feeling this incredible, overwhelming love for my children. Join me as I toast Beth Ann Fennely.
Other southern female writers stand out as well. Of course Eudora Welty, Zora Neale Hurston, and Flannery O’Connor top the list. Other notable names include Carson McCullers, Alice Walker, Margaret Mitchell, and Katherine Anne Porter.
In addition, I recommend everything ever written by Toni Morrison, The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd, Ellen Fosterby Kaye Gibbons, the light-hearted Big Stone Gap trilogyby Adriana Trigiani, Mudbound by Hillary Jordan, and The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls.
We’ll continue to post female southern writers who have influenced our SLR contributors throughout the month of May. We encourage your feedback, and hope you’ll share your favorite works by southern females as well. And…before you men start to feel a little left out of the party, be sure to tune in next month when we’ll do the same for you in celebration of Father’s Day.