Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

20 Books Set In The Deep South

The American Deep South captivates us in fiction, for many reasons. I think it’s the combination of sunshine and dark history that draws us in. Even all the way on the other side of the world (Sydney, Australia), I find myself tearing through books set in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina and feeling absolutely transported. Here are twenty books set in the Deep South that y’all should really read (see what I did there?).

20 Books Set In The Deep South - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

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Harper Lee was an Alabama native, so it’s no surprise she chose the rural town of Maycomb, AL for her only true novel, To Kill A Mockingbird. This is one of the classic books set in the Deep South, read across the world and loved by people of all ages and backgrounds. Many of the events Lee depicts in this novel resemble things that actually happened in her hometown (Monroeville), and the “boy next door” character was based on her own childhood friend, Truman Capote. And, of course, it’s impossible to ignore that many of the themes in this book reflect the ugly history of racism and oppression in the Deep South. Read my full review of To Kill A Mockingbird here.

The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

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“In the town, there were two mutes and they were always together.” – isn’t that a cracker of an opening line? Even though it doesn’t explicitly reveal that The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter is set in the Deep South, it definitely hints at the haunting nature of the story set in a small Georgian mill town. Or, really, it’s multiple stories, of characters yearning to escape – especially Mick Kelly, an avatar of sorts for McCullers, a young girl who rejects gender norms and dreams of playing the piano. This Oprah’s Book Club pick will transport you, moving you in more ways than one. Read my full review of The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter here.

Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil by John Berendt

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Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil is one of the most iconic books set in the Deep South, as well as a classic of the true crime genre. John Berendt truly immerses himself (and the reader) in the scene of the crime, stretching far beyond the details of a murder to craft careful portraits of the Savannah residents tangentially linked to it. This book showcases the diversity to be found in the South if you care enough to look closely: drag queens, society ladies, antiques dealers, rednecks, voodoo priestesses… all of them with plenty of dirty laundry that Berendt is just dying to air out.

The Color Purple by Alice Walker

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How’s this for a(nother) great opening line: “You better not never tell nobody but God.” Chills, right? It’s a powerful opener for a powerful book, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. It sets the stage for a story told largely through letters to God, from a black woman named Celie who grows up in Georgia. When she starts writing these letters, she is just fourteen years old, and yet she has already seen and experienced a lifetime’s worth of hardship. While life has historically sucked for black women in the Deep South, Celie’s is particularly tough – but through her relationships with other women, and her inner reserves of strength, she comes out the other side. Read my full review of The Color Purple here.

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

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The Vanishing Half begins in Mallard, a small Southern town primarily populated by light-skinned black Americans “who would never be white but refused to be treated like Negroes”. It’s the hometown of twin girls who grow up together, but whose lives diverge in surprising and significant ways. One grows up to “pass” as white, while the other marries a dark-skinned man and has a dark-skinned daughter. Through this multi-generational family saga, Brit Bennett plays out the domino effect of reductive labels, and the echoing impact of internalised racism across generations. Read my full review of The Vanishing Half here.

My Best Friend’s Exorcism by Grady Hendrix

My Best Friend's Exorcism - Grady Hendrix - Keeping Up With The Penguins

South Carolina might seem like an unlikely setting for a supernatural teenage romp concluding with a literal exorcism, but in Grady Hendrix’s hands, My Best Friend’s Exorcism just works. It turns out demonic possession makes for a fascinating metaphor, and you can read a lot of meanings into it. It’s about coming-of-age, obviously, but also the frustrations of living in a small Southern town, the widening wealth divide between the working and middle classes, and the double standards when it comes to sex and gender. Hendrix makes Deep South suburbia every bit as terrifying as the darkest urban paranormal horror story. Read my full review of My Best Friend’s Exorcism here.

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

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Jesmyn Ward has written several books set in the Deep South – she’s definitely one of the most powerful contemporary author voices to come out of Mississippi in the past while. The one for which she’s best known, at this point in her career, is Sing, Unburied, Sing. The story starts with thirteen-year-old Jojo, figuring out what it means to be a man. His role models are his dignified Black grandfather and his absent white father – coupled with the inconsistent presence of his mother, Leonie, in his life, it’s a confusing mix. Ward’s third novel is dark and compelling, exploring race, gender, and inherited trauma across generations through an odyssey across rural Mississippi.

As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

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William Faulkner’s writing often sounds a lot like drunk texting, but he won the Nobel Prize For Literature in 1949, so clearly there’s more to it than confused rambling. As I Lay Dying is the story of a Southern woman’s death, and a perverse kind of funeral procession as her family transports her coffin across the Deep South so that she can be buried in her hometown. It’s narrated by no fewer than fifteen characters, and all of them have something a bit crazy going on, aside from the matriarch’s death. It’s a challenging read, but it’s also one of the defining books set in the Deep South, so it’s worth checking out. Read my full review of As I Lay Dying here.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

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An American Marriage is the book that Oprah says “redefined the traditional American love story”. It’s about Roy and Celestial, a middle-class Black couple living in Atlanta. They are educated, employed, upwardly mobile – pretty much the exact opposite of the stereotype of young black lovers fighting poverty or substance addiction on the mean streets. Still, even though they’re newlyweds and they’ve “done everything right”, their lives are torn apart when Roy is accused of sexually assaulting a woman. He’s sent to prison, and Celestial is forced to confront a life very different to the one she had envisaged for them. Read my full review of An American Marriage here.

Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell

Gone-With-The-Wind-Margaret-Mitchell-Book-Laid-on-Wooden-Table-Keeping-Up-With-The-Penguins

Ah, Gone With The Wind. If your feelings about this one are complicated, you’re not alone. It’s a white-washed, rose-coloured caricature of a very dark period in America’s history, one that skips over anything uncomfortable or unpleasant about slavery and plantation life in favour of lovely dresses and romantic embraces and spunky (white) anti-heroes. And yet, it’s been so widely-read and made such a huge cultural impact that any list of books set in the Deep South is incomplete without it. Read it for the epic that it is, but take everything it represents about Southern life during the Civil War with the bitterest grain of salt.

Interview With The Vampire by Anne Rice

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Anne Rice combines the best of the Deep South setting with classic gothic/paranormal horror in Interview With The Vampire – and it’s strangely sexy. Louis de Pointe du Lac was once a young Louisiana plantation owner, before he was driven mad with grief after the loss of his brother. In the throes of angst, he encountered Lestat de Lioncourt, a vampire who offers Louis companionship and eternal life. 200 years later, Louis tells his life story to a reporter, thus the book’s title. Follow Louis from Louisiana to New Orleans, across Austria and Transylvania, through Paris and into the darkest recesses of our basest impulses. Read my full review of Interview With The Vampire here.

Mother May I by Joshilyn Jackson

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Bree is 38 years old, she uses canvas bags, she’s a former board member of several charities, and she’s a doting mother to two teenage daughters and a “surprise” infant son. Her perfect life in suburbia is shattered when she looks away for just a moment, and her son is taken. Then, the phone rings: “Go home. Tell no one. Do not call the police. Do not call your husband. Be at your house by 5:15pm or he’s gone for good.” It’s a fairly standard (if horrifying) opening for a high-octane mystery, but Jackson has a few surprises in store for readers of Mother May I. This is one of the most chilling and thought-provoking thriller books set in the Deep South. Read my full review of Mother May I here.

All The King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren

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In Robert Penn Warren’s All The King’s Men, the character Willie Stark bears striking resemblance to the real-life Louisiana Governor Huey P. Long. They both earned themselves many political enemies (Long in the real world, Stark in the fictional one) while retaining huge popular appeal with their constituents. They also meet the same end, assassinated by a physician in the state capitol building. Even though the parallels are abundantly clear, Warren strenuously denied that he intended to honour Long through the Stark character, and also rejected the theory that he intended to declare support for the man’s assassination. In fact, Warren claimed that it was “never intended to be a book about politics” (which makes Deep South politics a strange choice of subject matter). Read my full review of All The King’s Men here.

Murder In Mississippi by John Safran

Murder In Mississippi - John Safran - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Murder In Mississippi is actually titled God’ll Cut You Down for U.S. editions. John Safran explained that, while “Murder In Mississippi” sounds very exotic and interesting to us Aussies, for Americans it’s the equivalent of calling a book “Murder in New South Wales”. Whatever it’s called, this is a fascinating true crime story told by one of Australia’s most notorious pranksters. Safran fancied himself a Capote-style newshound, following the news of a white supremacist’s murder by a black man all the way to Mississippi. He thought he was going EXPOSE INJUSTICE and FIX RACISM… and, of course, nothing of the sort came to pass. Read my full review of Murder In Mississippi here.

I Kissed Shara Wheeler by Casey McQuiston

I Kissed Shara Wheeler - Casey McQuiston - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Casey McQuiston is a bit of a storytelling chameleon, blending stories seamlessly into any setting. In their debut, it was the White House. In their follow-up, it was New York City. And now, in I Kissed Shara Wheeler, it’s a Catholic high school in Alabama – quite the change(s) of pace, don’t you think? Chloe Green has a hard time with her family’s relocation from California to the Deep South, but she channels her fears and frustrations into her quest to become valedictorian of her new school. Shara Wheeler is her main competition – until Shara kisses Chloe, and promptly disappears. This is a fun and hilarious rom-com, all the better for the queer desire at its heart and its Southern setting. Read my full review of I Kissed Shara Wheeler here.

Simon vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli

SImon vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda - Becky Albertalli - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Most people don’t even realise that Simon vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda – the beloved queer YA romance novel – is actually set in the Deep South. So, here’s your FYI: the story takes place in mid-2010s suburban Atlanta. Understanding that actually makes the story richer, once you know the “big reveal”. I won’t spoil it here, but it’s a cracker! Simon is a closeted teen who begins an anonymous pen-pal friendship with another secretly-gay student at his high-school. The identity house of cards could all come tumbling down, though, when a bully blackmails Simon by threatening to out him and his new friend – who Simon is developing feelings for, and he thinks the feeling is mutual, as long as their secrets stay safe.

Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy

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Maybe the pageant scene isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the Deep South, but it’s a captivating spectacle all the same. Julie Murphy’s Dumplin’ takes that scene for its setting, a small Texas town where Willowdean Dixon is determined to take the crown as Miss Clover City. She doesn’t take after her former-beauty-queen mother when it comes to body size, but she’s determined to feel at home in her own skin. Alongside a cast of other unlikely characters, she faces down her fear in order to show the town (and herself) that she belongs on that stage just as much as anyone else. Read my full review of Dumplin’ here.

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

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Their Eyes Were Watching God is a book set in the Deep South about a woman’s search for respect, disguised as a woman’s search for love. Janie finds love and freedom with a poor man, in stark contrast to what is “expected” of her (not to mention available to her) in her rural Florida town. Her first two husbands offer her stability, which is comfort of a kind, but expected that she be defined by her marriage to them – in Tea Cake, she finds a man who wants her to have and be anything she chooses, and supports her regardless of his own role in her life. It’s a beautiful story of both love and devastation, connections and divides within the Black community. Read my full review of Their Eyes Were Watching God here.

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

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Of all the books set in the Deep South that expose injustices and brutal racism, The Nickel Boys is the one sure to turn your stomach the most. The Pulitzer Prize judges called it “ultimately a powerful tale of human perseverance, dignity and redemption” when they awarded him the 2020 Prize for Fiction (his second win, making him only the fourth writer to get the gong twice). The story begins with an investigation into the by-then defunct Nickel Academy, a “reform school” with a horrifying history. Bodies are found in unmarked graves, and former “students” slowly, tentatively, come forward to tell the truth of what happened to them there. This is a painfully accurate account of what happened to many children in some chapters of Deep South history. Read my full review of The Nickel Boys here.

Bonus: check out my full review of Colson Whitehead’s earlier novel, The Underground Railroad, here. It’s set (partially) in the Deep South, too!

The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean

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Susan Orlean has a knack for sniffing out delightfully niche true crime stories and spinning them into fascinating tales. In 1998, she published The Orchid Thief, “a true story of beauty and obsession” she found on the southern edge of Florida. It revolves around notorious horticulturalist John Laroche, and the illegal poaching of rare orchids – a much bigger trade than you’d think! Laroche found a legal loophole that he thought might let him get away with it, one “that he claimed allowed the Seminole natives to remove endangered species from the swamp”. But this story ends up stretching far beyond the bounds of the Deep South, where Laroche’s claims can’t protect him.

2 Comments

  1. Ah, yes. A genre near and dear to my Southern heart. I’m in the middle of Cold Sassy Tree by Olive Ann Burns—a novel that fits very neatly into this list. I think I have 8 of these sitting on my shelves. 💛

    (And just a side note: the reason most people don’t realize that Simon vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda is set in the Deep South is probably because most Southerners don’t consider modern-day Atlanta to be part of the Deep South anymore. 😂😂)

    • Sheree

      June 12, 2023 at 1:49 PM

      Gahhhhh! I *knew* I’d get one wrong! Really, it was quite bold of me to assume I could understand U.S. geography – I struggle enough with my own state here in Australia! 😅

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