2014-11-20 / Opinions

Book Review

Under Magnolia
Reviewed by

Many of us know Frances Mayes as the author of the popular book Under the Tuscan Sun. Published in 1996, it tells of her adventures buying and renovating a villa in Italy. A successful memoir, it became an equally popular film in 2003.

Now Mayes has written another memoir, this time about growing up in Georgia. She grew up in Fitzgerald, just down the way from Wilkes County. Memoirs attract us for different reasons. This one will appeal to us Southern “girls” because it reflects so many of our own experiences. I’m not sure about the men; perhaps they will enjoy learning what their wives and mothers went through in a very different era.

Mayes’ writing is atmospheric, even poetic: “A six-foot black snake adopted the front porch for its shady naps. Proprietarily, it coils on a chair, and sometimes slinks behind the cushion, which can be startling if you happen to take a break in late afternoon with a glass of tea and a book.”

Mayes describes the house where she and her husband have settled now in North Carolina. It dates from 1806, and she loves and admires almost everything about it. However, she mentions that you have to go through a tiny closet to get from one bedroom to another. “Now that’s beyond funky and will have to go, thank you very much, National Historic Register.”

Growing up, the youngest by too many years of three sisters, she felt neglected by her parents.

Once, at nine years old, she ran away. She stayed in a culvert all night and returned home grimly triumphant, to discover that no one had noticed that she was missing. She loved her parents and knew they loved her, but they were both erratic, fond of the bottle, and given to sometimes violent arguments. The most stable adult in her young life was Willie Belle, the maid who looked after her while she took care of household chores.

The whole family loved St. Simons, Sea Island, and Jekyll, and spent happy summer days there. Mayes remembers Willie Belle most sharply on the island because “there I first saw her as separate from us and felt the first inkling that there was something wrong between the races.”

She finds, in writing these memories, that there seems to be no special reason for what comes back to mind. Why certain things rise to memory is uncertain but entrancing. Her father died a lingering death. Her sisters had already left home, and even then she knew that she should be more caring and helpful. But “visceral fear of his wasting body assaults me when I go near his room.”

Her high-school years were full of delight, her college years even more so because she felt “free.” Her father had died, but Daddy Jack reluctantly paid for her college. He would permit only Randolph Macon College for Women, since it was below the Mason-Dixon Line. After he died, she was charged for any phone call that she had made to boys during those years. He had kept careful track.

When courses interested her, she did well, loving learning, questioning accepted beliefs and practices. She, like many of her contemporaries, felt that she had to get away from the South and her hometown. Ironically, she has returned now, though not to Georgia. She finds that her small North Carolina town reminds her of the good things she left behind those years ago. She sees a “shared bond” in southern manners, the climate, and history. “Because the land once soaked in blood remembers, so do we.”

Under Magnolia is available at the Mary Willis Library.

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