December Read of the Month: “Dancing Naked in Dixie,” by Lauren Clark

Lauren Clark

Reviewed by J.R. Baldwin 

Award-winning travel writer Julia Sullivan is jet-lagged and on-deadline when she arrives back in New York. As she mentally prepares for a week in office, she is called into the editor’s office. Her new boss is a surprise, personally related, and not a welcome face. Even more so when Julia’s job is threatened if she does not accept her next assignment: Eufaula, Alabama.

Julia, in a heated moment, provides the title of the book when she says to her editor, “I’d rather—I don’t know—dance naked for my next assignment than go to Alabama!”

The melodrama is an appropriate tone for this protagonist, who keeps herself busy as a way to avoid life. She has yet to come to terms with her mother’s death, her attention-deficit disorder, her relationship and future with her boyfriend, Andrew, or herself. And for perhaps the first time, she’s truly doubting her ability to rise to the challenge.

Alabama’s merits were summed up, in the beginning, with its contributions to popular culture. The meeting of locals, Julia’s preconceived notions of the South and her desire to leave as soon as possible provide the early conflict. She had made up her mind: talk to her host, extract the story, and get back to New York in one or two days. She resented her editor and she disliked this assignment; it felt like a punishment, even though her work was slipping.

It is, however, Julia’s meeting of Shug Jordan, her host, and his family, as well as her interactions within the town, which brings Julia and the reader deeper into the story. Her dispassion is soon replaced by an empathy with Eufalfa and its people, and Julia’s investigations into the local politics bring the reader into a world where neighbors’ decisions directly affect one another. Julia’s position as a magazine reporter took her to Alabama; it is her klutziness, mishaps and girlishness, as well as her earnest nature, which entangle her in the lives of Eufaula’s citizens.

By the time Julia has returned to New York, she’s slowed down. In the beginning, her nervous energy kept a swift beat to her walking pace and ready opinions; now, she looks closer at the people around her and is more considerate. She’s mortified when she realizes she never knew the name of the security guard at her building (who has been there for years); she’s finally feeling regret. “I’m the first one to admit I was wrong—totally wrong—about Eufaula. It’s wonderful. The architecture is amazing, really lovely. And the people there are sweet, funny, and interesting. And they are so proud of their history there,” Julia says to her best friend Marietta back in New York. Marietta is incredulous, and the judgmental attitude portrayed perhaps by her is symbolic of how many continually view the South and its people.

The supporting characters are memorable, but often fall into predictable dialogue. The fast-moving plot keeps the story from getting stale, however, and the author avoids caricaturing people. Julia’s immediate attraction to Shug is the strongest story line. Her inner dialogue is awkward and charming, as she struggles to focus on her story while being around him. Even back in New York, when she sees flowers on her desk, her immediate thought is that Shug has broken up with his girlfriend and flown to New York to be with her; when she finds out they are from her boyfriend, she’s disappointed.

The novel is not over once Julia’s article is written. Back in New York, news spreads fast about the town’s ability to save its historical district from developers – the very historical district Shug works to upkeep and promote for tourism purposes, and an annual event called The Pilgrimage. Julia also discovers a more personal connection to the town within the history of her own life as she races back South to rally support and defense.

The sweet tea Julia so despised is the perfect flavor of this book, and Lauren Clark’s story telling keeps the reader reaching for more.

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