Homegrown Literature

Reading a novel that is set in a place where you have actually lived or visited is an interesting experience. Being born and bred in East Tennessee, this is not a common occurrence, but it does happen. Usually, the books I read take place in distant or imaginary lands such as New York City, England, Yoknapatawpha County, or Middle Earth. However, over the past few years I have come across several novels that are centered on my home turf.

I have a complicated relationship with my Southern roots. Growing up I despised the South. I was perpetually embarrassed by my extended family’s twangy accent and bizarre colloquialisms. I despised traditional Southern food, I refused to read indigenous authors or listen to country music. In short, I was certain that I would flee the South as soon as I could. Thus, when I began my college search I confined my scope to the Northeast and Midwest. Imagine my surprise when I ended up falling in love with a school that is located in Lexington, Virginia and steeped in Southern history.

During my almost first few years at Washington and Lee, I have learned to love my home and my heritage. However, that is only the glamorous side of my Southern roots. Beneath the surface lurks the dark side of my family history. One side of my family is originally from deep in the Appalachian Mountains of East Tennessee. They are what you might call “hillbillies” and many of my ancestors were moonshiners. I tried to hide this side for years, but when we read Cormac McCarthy’s The Orchard Keeper last year in my Southern Fiction class, it all came flooding back.

McCarthy, an East Tennessee native himself, perfectly captured the region’s uniquely grating and nasally accent. The strange folktales that appear in the novel are the same stories that I grew up listening to whenever I visited my grandparents. The untamed and awe-inspiring mountains depicted in The Orchard Keeper, are the same peaks that I trekked through annually with my parents. Rather than feeling horrified and embarrassed by McCarthy’s depiction of my home, I felt proud. This novel made me realize that my culture was something to be celebrated. Now, I fully embrace my distinct Southern background.

What about you? Are there any novels that take place in your home town? Did they do the place justice?

About Lauren Starnes

Senior at Washington and Lee University. Originally from Chattanooga, TN. Majoring in English.

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2 Responses to Homegrown Literature

  1. Mary Olive Keller says:

    As a city where my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins have all lived, I consider New Orleans to be like a second home. A place celebrated in a seemingly endless supply of fiction, it’s almost hard to choose which works do New Orleans justice. Kate Chopin nails it in her portrayal of creole culture in her classic novel, The Awakening. And, of course, there’s Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. When I read through it, I can almost hear and smell the French Quarter. The day I find a work that evokes the taste of beignets, I’ll have a clear favorite.

  2. Caitlin Doyle says:

    I grew up in the mountains in western Colorado. Barring Hunter S. Thompson, the Rockies aren’t exactly known for a particularly notable literary tradition so I never really associated the concept of “home” with my experience of reading a novel or poem. That is, until I moved across the country and set up camp in rural Virginia. All of a sudden, reading Annie Proulx would make me tear up (I don’t know any cowboys and I’ve been to Wyoming once) and I spoke to my Western American Literature class about the Leadville section of Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose with an unexplainable defensiveness (I hate Leadville). Apparently it’s true that distance makes the heart grow fonder.

    I think the experience of reading about my “place” engendered so much pride in me because it reminded me that I belonged to a distinctive group. Just like I will never know what it was like to be raised in Manhattan or rural Alabama, only a certain group of people know what it means to grow up in the Rocky Mountains. Place and home and childhood are such an integral part of our identities that I think seeing them championed on a page can have no minor effect.

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