Reading the South
New Fiction by Regional Authors, May 2004
by Hal Jacobs
for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Southeast Georgia in the 1880s may seem an unlikely place and time for a historical romance novel, but the land of gnats, wiregrass and pines gets the full-blown treatment in Janice Daugharty's Just Doll (Baskerville Books, $22).
Doll Baxter is the "hot-skinned" beauty who catches the eye of dashing plantation owner Daniel Staten. After they clash, court and marry, they clash a whole lot more. He won't give up his Rhett Butler ways; she'd rather be a Scarlett than a Melanie. But somehow they find a way to accommodate each other without the help of support groups or Doctor Phil.
What elevates "Just Doll" above the stacks of bodice-rippers are Daugharty's skills as a writer. She delivers her tale with a lyricism and an eye for detail that make the melodrama fade into the background like ancient wallpaper. In her hands, dogs don't just run and bark at moving wagons. Instead, "rawboned and hollow, the . . . heart-faced curs came on, yipping at the spinning wagon wheels and wambling between the legs of the horses."
Daugharty, the author of six novels ("Like a Sister" and "Necessary Lies," among them) and a collection of short stories, has lived in Echols County all her life and is writer in residence at Valdosta State University. "Just Doll" is her first historical fiction and the first novel of a planned trilogy.
Why would anyone murder a young woman from Washington who has just relocated to a small Southern town? In Jennifer Patrick's cool and suspenseful debut novel, The Night She Died (Soho Press, $24), Lara Walton, 30, drives south after her boyfriend's fatal car accident. When her car breaks down halfway between Atlanta and Athens, she impulsively buys an old Victorian house that needs a good bit of tender loving care (as does she). A few months later, the local police chief finds no shortage of suspects who might have fired two bullets into the back of her skull.
As the novel backtracks and shows the events leading up to the murder, we see Lara strike up a friendship with Sterling, a skateboarder and Dairy Queen employee. Even though he's more than 10 years younger and a bit of a slacker (she's an environmental consultant), she finds great potential in his spiky humor, intelligence and sterling good looks.
Self-absorbed and largely indifferent to her neighbors, Lara doesn't mind that her actions are causing a ripple effect throughout the community. Unfortunately, just as she's ready to move on with her life, one of those ripples leads to her losing her life in this laid-back murder mystery.
Patrick lives in Athens, where she works at the University of Georgia as an academic adviser in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences.
Also check out these new novels by writers in the region...
Julie Cannon's Mater Biscuit (Touchstone, $13 paperback) picks up where she left off with her last novel, "Truelove & Homegrown Tomatoes." Imogene Lavender is still tending to the 'maters in her garden, still minding her daughter and niece, but now she faces a disturbing new challenge: caring for a mother who never really cared for her. Cannon goes beyond offering simple cooking recipes and gardening tips in her second novel. She takes a poignant, humorous look at extended family relations in a rural community.
Charles Martin's The Dead Don't Dance (Thomas Nelson, $13.99 paperback) features a young South Carolina farmer who is truly, madly, deeply in love with his wife. As the novel opens, she has slipped into a coma after delivering their stillborn child. What keeps him afloat (besides his hardheaded, hardworking approach to life) is the local community. While he grapples with his losses and questions the meaning of life, he stays connected through his friends, his family farm, his writing students at the local junior college, his memories of happier times and his faith that his wife will open her eyes again.
Michael Pearson's Shohola Falls (Syracuse University Press, $24.95) is rooted in a fascinating literary conceit: A teenager coming of age in the 1960s learns that his great-great-grandfather was the real-life inspiration for America's most notorious teenager, Huck Finn. As this modern-day protagonist goes from living in the Bronx to an upstate New York orphanage to a crowded apartment in Berkeley, he finds that his life bears eerie parallels to that of Mark Twain's dearest childhood friend and the prototype for Twain's most enduring character.
Olympia Vernon's Logic (Grove Press, $22) defies logic. As the story delves into the nightmarish, incestuous world of a young Mississippi girl, logic crumbles into feeling and raw emotion. Vernon's second novel is much more poetic and freewheeling than her 2002 debut novel, "Eden." Some chapters consist of only a few words: "Run and tell who? Who I run and tell?" Some readers may find her use of language exhilarating, but others will find the novel somewhat abstract and impenetrable.
An edited version of these reviews appeared in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution,
Sunday, May 30, 2004.