Review by Jules Barrueco
An essay collection about sinners from the south sounded uninviting to this non-believing northerner. At the outset, the book’s 18 page three-part preamble boasts titles like “Running from the Lord” and discussions of all seven deadly sins. It’s “a little light on gluttony,” Dorothy Allison commented in her introduction, while running through the list. As this reviewer read and rode the subway south toward downtown Manhattan – a very different south than the one in the book – I feared I would not be gluttonous for the essays to follow.
Yet Southern Sin: True Stories of the Sultry South & Women Behaving Badly (In Fact Books, 2014), edited by Lee Gutkind and Beth Ann Fennelly, exceeded expectations. The anthology, born from a themed issue of Creative Nonfiction magazine, contains 23 pieces, mostly essays, mostly smart and relatable, mostly written by bold and brave women. The writing is excellent, and the editors largely selected pieces that fit and flow well together, avoiding the disjointed feeling that can result from a poorly assembled collection. Most surprisingly, you don’t have to be a God-fearing southerner to relate to these true tales.
Though many are sultry, as the title conveys, the real stories are not about southern sex and scandal. The authors wrote about friendship and love, betrayal and abandonment, using and being used. They touched on mental illness and substance abuse, sexual uncertainty and sexual dysfunction, marital uncertainty and marital dysfunction. One author aborted a baby; another nearly died by accident; a third nearly died on purpose. This book is not about tarts from the Deep South, as the title, and the short skirt and red-stiletto-clad legs on the cover, imply. Even the sultrier of the stories were told with tact. Beneath the “sinful” surface, the authors wrote about struggle and strength and survival. And that’s something we can all relate to, whether from the north or south, from a red state or blue, a believer or non.
Among the most remarkable is Rachael Peckham’s “A Lesson in Merging.” It leaves you feeling hollow, and if you choose to fill that void with a few minutes on Google, you might discover the real surprise ending to her story. Also memorable are “The On-Ramp” by Amy Thigpen, “Love in the Worst Way” by Aaron Gwyn (the sole male author), and “Do I?” by C.W. Kelly.
There are, however, a few blemishes on this otherwise smooth collection. A large portion of the introduction and editor’s notes suggest that the book is very religious, and very southern. In fact, it is not overly either, yet their depiction may needlessly alienate certain potential readers.
Also, the editors sprinkled a few historical pieces throughout that don’t quite fit. Although they are well written and interesting standing alone, they break up the flow of the personal essays. It can be difficult, while devouring a string of deeply intimate narratives, to garner excitement for historical lessons about crimes committed a century or two ago.
Finally, while every anthology needs a theme, the chosen title might not be the most appropriate description of these works. Describing the authors as sinners – as sultry women who behaved badly – implies a wrongdoing in the paths they took, the difficult choices they made, and the hard lessons they learned. Rather than judging them for “bad behavior,” perhaps we should commend them for being courageous enough to reflect, write and publish.
Although these essays might not make you laugh or cry, they are well written and enjoyable. Don’t be deterred by the southern, or the sin. These ladies (and gentleman) tell their stories well.
Rating: 4/5 stars[boxer set=”barrueco”]