Let me start this review with my bias: I spent birth to the age of 25 living in various southern states and grew up in a rural area, even by Southern standards.
This being said, there are things I love and treasure about the culture, but there are also very distinct reasons that I no longer live there. This review is a mixture of quotes from the book and my personal experiences on the same topics.
Pages:464 Genre: Travel/ Regional Nonfiction
Rating: 3 of 5 fried pies Average Goodreads Rating: 3.78 of 5 stars
Summary from Amazon: One of the most acclaimed travel writers of our time turns his unflinching eye on an American South too often overlooked
Paul Theroux has spent fifty years crossing the globe, adventuring in the exotic, seeking the rich history and folklore of the far away. Now, for the first time, in his tenth travel book, Theroux explores a piece of America — the Deep South. He finds there a paradoxical place, full of incomparable music, unparalleled cuisine, and yet also some of the nation’s worst schools, housing, and unemployment rates. It’s these parts of the South, so often ignored, that have caught Theroux’s keen traveler’s eye.
On road trips spanning four seasons, wending along rural highways, Theroux visits gun shows and small-town churches, laborers in Arkansas, and parts of Mississippi where they still call the farm up the road “the plantation.” He talks to mayors and social workers, writers and reverends, the working poor and farming families — the unsung heroes of the south, the people who, despite it all, never left, and also those who returned home to rebuild a place they could never live without.
The book is supposed to be an inside look on the culture and conditions of the southern states and the people who call it home. The reality is that he spent a very small amount of time in the south in general, and instead the majority of the book focuses on specific small towns, mainly in Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi. He visits these same rural communities for short periods multiple times, during different times of the year. This allows him to see changes in the area and the people, but it also means the majority of his observations are either very specific or regional generalizations.
“Faulkner insisted on how different Southerners are from the rest of Americans; it is a belief that many Southerners cling to…”
Faulkner is referenced throughout the book, and he has a dedicated chapter just to his version of the Southern town and townspeople. I think the view of the south in literature and how it’s changed overtime is an important point when contrasted to what Theroux actually observed, but the extensive quotations and references to different books and authors was distracting and verbose.
“[The] Southern identity is not a matter of local color, quaintness, biscuits, white columns, dusty roads, and so forth. It lies very deep. In its entirety, it is known only to God, but of those who look for it, none gets so close as the artist.”
We are easy to identify as soon as we speak. We have a drawl and distinct vocabulary that distinguishes us from other regions. The majority of these preconceived notions are not positive. Racism is still rampant. Poverty, illiteracy, and violence are widespread. These things perpetrate the stereotype of the gun toting redneck and the entitled southern belle.
“The poor, having little else, keep their culture intact as part of their vitality, long after the well off have dumped it.”
This is completely true. It also has to do with the “altered” history many of us are presented, which just furthers the resentment stemming from the Civil War and forced integration during the Civil Rights movement of the 60’s. I graduated high school in 2000 and still learned about the Civil War as “the war of northern aggression” and the fight for “state’s rights.” Everything covering this subject was skewed to a southern perspective of being wronged by the north.
The area I’m from has an annual reunion and celebration honoring confederate soldiers who fell in the Civil War and locals boast about how my region of the Ozarks holds the headquarters of the [still active] Klan. Being raised in this environment doesn’t mean you’re destined adopt these ideals, my husband and I are both proof of that, but with this sort of inundation it makes it harder to see perspectives garnered as “outsider” points of view and harder still to realize these differences actually exist. You never realize what is regional until you venture out of that area and gain perspective.
“One is more often greeted with suspicion, hostility, or indifference. In this way Americans could be more challenging, more secretive and suspicious and in many respects more foreign, than people I have ever met.”
Theroux recounted the dichotomy of the welcome and hospitality of the South, with the wariness of outsiders. In many of the areas I’ve lived in and traveled to, if you don’t have grandparents buried there, you’re not “from” there. He does an excellent job giving real examples of times when this is true and how many topics of conversation discussed openly by Southerners with strangers, are considered private information by people from other region. It’s not uncommon to meet someone in line somewhere (where it’s considered rude not to chat) and their second question is what church you attend.
WORKING POOR AND POVERTY
“Sixteen percent of Americans were classified as poor–and it was twenty percent in the South, in places where the income gap was growing wider than at any time in history.”
Where I grew up in the Ozark mountains of northern Arkansas, I knew people who didn’t have indoor plumbing and lived in the same conditions the author recounts of the south in general. Conditions he deems “third world.” When I describe growing up poor in the south to scientist friends in Boston, they are always shocked. Working as a child is still common, either on a farm or doing random jobs. My first paid job was around the age of 12, where I washed dishes for a local catfish restaurant. This is something none of my Northern friends experienced. Some had jobs, but most were part time and not until college to use as “spending money.”
“Companies had come to the South because the labor force was available and willing, wages were low, land was inexpensive, and unions were nonexistent.”
This passage hit me particularly hard. My grandmother worked in a shirt factory, that if it was located anywhere else in the world would have been considered a sweatshop. It wasn’t heated or cooled, and would get over 90F inside during the summers. If she didn’t meet her quota her already low pay was docked. At one point when I was in elementary, my grandmother sewed through her hand. She wasn’t allowed to go to the doctor, and her pay was docked twice, once for not meeting her daily quota for the time she took to remove the needle from her hand and bandage herself, the second for the loss of merchandise because she bleed on the shirts she was working on.
No one complained openly because they couldn’t risk losing one of the few regular jobs available in the area. A hard but sought after job because it came with health insurance, something most of the people I grew up with, myself included, didn’t have. The entire factory, and the others located in nearby towns, was outsourced to Mexico in the early 2000’s, after I left for collage.
“The poor in the rural South cast aside and existing like residue.”
This taught me the value of hard work but my family also said time and time again that you should be thankful for any job and do it to the best of your ability, because if you don’t there is a line of willing bodies waiting behind you that haven’t been so lucky. This is something that means my work ethic today borders on pathological, but has also allowed me to be very successful because the majority of the country (thankfully) doesn’t have this mentality and only specific parts have the lasting experience true poverty provides.
“Poverty is a great educator. Those who have never known it lack something.”
I don’t really like this statement, but it does sum up much of the South. When you work to eat and starve if you rock the boat or complain about conditions, your basal level of what is acceptable is shifted from the average worker. I now work with mostly people who came from middle or upper middle class families, and my previous position in the Ivy League involved working with people who were independently wealthy or came from this sort of background. Most of the time this isn’t an issue, but it’s easy to take risks both in career and education when you have a safety net you know will catch you. The majority of the working poor don’t have this. I knew continuing on to college was completely up to me, if I lost a scholarship or couldn’t deal with increases in tuition I would simply have to quit. HERE is a document complied in 2014 by the US government on many of the limitations poverty places on education and potential for advancement.
“I saw […] a pawnshop, since the most costly and pawnable item in a hill country household is a firearm.”
My parents opened a pawnshop when I was in middle school, and it proved to be a turning point for us financially. We had a lot of hardships when I was very young, but this business provided a little more security. We no longer had periods without heat in the winter, and I went to the movies and out to dinner for the first time a year or two after the shop was opened (around the age of 12). This didn’t by any means make us “well off” or even really comfortable, but it did allow us to have basic needs covered and new clothes once a year.
The shop also met a need in the community. Up to this point second hand tools and other products were only available at yard [or tag] sales. The last several years have been hard on them though, I asked my mother why and told her that I thought business would be increasing because people needed used things over new she responded, “The people who couldn’t afford new before, now can’t afford used.”
Guns and bows are still the most common item purchased and pawned for the shop because of the quote above. Every time I visit home and spend any length of time in the shop, the conversation eventually turns to someone taking the guns, or ammo shortages.. which is a topic the author heard all through his travels.
This is a major topic throughout the book, and rightfully so. Theroux terms the portions of the South heavily populated by former slaves as the “black belt.” He does a good job contrasting the communities and outlining the separation that still exists today. Theroux even brings examples of college sororities and fraternities that are still divided by racial lines.
The book also gives several examples of the impact the fear of change can have on the community and on the individual. “The South remembers,” is a phrase I grew up hearing and facilitates the culture so many are trying to hold on to, but also so many of the prejudices that shame us and prevent us from growing and progressing as a region.
Most of the people I’ve met in New England and abroad who have ventured to the South have all mentioned it’s like stepping back in time and the longer I’m away the more I see it.
The author meets several veterans while traveling and touches on how the poorer region of the South donates the lives of many of it’s sons and daughters to military life. Many of the personal accounts in the book relate that military life was their only way out of poverty and the only way they would get to see the world would be through the lens of a rifle scope.
A large portion of my family is military, as are many of the people I went to school with. There is a great passage from a Vietnam vet and his experience returning from war to a still racially charged southern town, even after serving his country and coming home damaged as an Airborne veteran. Many of the people from my hometown have ended up in this division and many of those people now have memorials. It’s a very sobering thing as a teen to attend the funeral or memorial service for someone the same age as you. I assume the same is true for those who experience loss in urban areas. Death is death and it tends to visit the poor more frequently.
I have a few problems with this book, though it is insightful and well written in many places. One is the obviously biased descriptors sometimes used for the regions he visits, such as the “bumpkin hills” of the Ozark mountains in Arkansas. This is where I’m from, and likely why this judgement based word choice stuck with me.
Theroux repeatedly refers to his previous books and his travels around the world. I think at least once in every major section he mentions the aid and relieve efforts in “third world” countries, and draws the parallel to how little support much of the impoverished south receives. While the original point is very good, I don’t think the reader had a memory laps after 20 pages of reading and revisiting with the same exact phrasing became off-putting near the end of the book.
Expanding on this point, he obviously wrote this book in sections, with each subsequent visit being a new account on the area. While I’m sure he needed to remind himself of certain aspects of each particular visit, when read as a complete piece this is redundant and distracting. The expansion of changes he noted in the area was interesting, but I didn’t need a complete history of the town each time it was revisited.
My final major criticism of this book is the name dropping style he quotes other books and authors. Sometimes it’s relevant, but the majority of the time it’s just filler.
“… around the world, the private language of the underclass that identifies the speaker and is exclusive to that group: Cockney, street slang, and thieves’ argot, and verbal formulas that are distinct to secret societies, to baffle and vex and exclude outsiders.”
This is part of the reason I will always identify with the South and Southern culture. You can tell as soon as I speak that I’m not from New England. This same accent gives me away as “belonging” when I return to the south. It’s also easy. I know the rules and how to interact. Poverty and unity of community leaves a mark that travels with you, even after years of being away. I think this is part of the reason so many of the people Theroux interviewed eventually return to the area that once was home. There will always be things I don’t agree with, and hopes I have for the region as a whole, but it will also always be my home, even if I never live there again.