How about turning off your devices and reading books this winter?
Author Pat Conroy is generally better known for novels like “Prince of Tides” and “Beach Music,” but an early work of nonfiction about his days as schoolteacher on Daufuskie Island is, in my opinion, by far the standout. Although Daufuskie is called “Yamacraw” and the names of characters are changed as well, the unflinching portrayal still ticked off a lot of folks around here when it was published in 1972. Conroy spoke the truth about what he saw: little black children on an island of isolation and poverty, whose education had been so sorely neglected that they couldn’t even recite the alphabet or name the country they lived in.
In a pitiful drafty schoolhouse with outdated textbooks cast off by mainland white schools, they were beaten and called “retarded” by their only other teacher. So Conroy promptly instituted his own unorthodox methods—such as taking them across the water on field trips to an outside world about which they had an astounding ignorance—until his job was threatened by patriarchal powers of the school board. Despite its treatment of such heavyweight issues, the book is an absolute joy to read, full of the warmth and humor of Daufuskie’s native islander community. And the kids—you can’t help but love the kids! Conroy perfectly captures their hilarity, innocence and mean streaks; their tragedy, potential and hope. The Lowcountry is better for having this book.
First published in 1846, here is a genuine primary-source window into a past: the days of gentlemen rice planters. “I am a hereditary sportsman,” Elliot writes, “and inherit the tastes of my grandfather, as well as his lands.” Elliot is absolutely typical, keeping to all the social norms and prejudices of the era. He built his fortune on the backs of slaves, whom he felt certain would burn the whole place down if he didn’t crack the whip; later he went into politics; his passion for “sportsmanship” contributed heavily to the wanton 19th-century slaughter of wildlife that nearly exterminated deer, bear and panthers from the South. But at least the way Elliot tells it, he’s a hero.
Here are rollicking tales of the hunt in which he kills two bear with one shot, chases down and strangles a deer with his bare hands, and lands any number of epic bass and drumfish that would make the modern angler gape with envy. Of particular interest are his stories of “the mightiest, strangest, most formidable among them all for its strength, the devil-fish; then rarely seen, and deemed, even down to our own times, scarcely less fabulous than the Norwegian kraken!” Elliot liked to harpoon these monstrous manta rays, then hold fast to the line while they towed his little boat on a wild ride all over Port Royal Sound! Politics aside, there’s just no denying he knew how to spin a good yarn.
This author from Daufuskie Island tells stories that perfectly suit his habitat. You’re never quite sure what his stories are about, but boy do they give you a feeling—like being up in a deer stand before dawn, or down at Marshside Mama’s after dark (Daufuskie’s infamous juke joint). And they are NEVER politically correct.
A seventh-generation Lowcountry native son, Roger Pinckney is authentic; he’s got both the pedigree and the checkered past to lend just the right sensibilities to his work. Characters include bootleggers, outlaws, “root doctors” (Lowcountry voodoo men), unscrupulous developers, and of course more than a few beautifully dangerous women. His is the author of Reefer Moon and Mullet Manifesto, and his collections of essays include The Right Side of the River, Signs and Wonders, and Seventh Son on Sacred Ground. He even wrote a fairly scholarly work entitled Blue Roots. It tells all about Gullah folk magic from Roger’s own experience. Read his author to escape into a tale and to understand the Lowcountry. This author reminds us to appreciate and protect our waters and the land.
“Scarlet Sister Mary”
Highly controversial in its own time, this novel still raises eyebrows today. It is the story of a young black woman whose true love does her bad. In his wake she gives free reign to her passions. She enjoys a long string of casual lovers by whom she bears nine illegitimate children. She rears them on her own with strength, courage and a sort of homely dignity. Her church-dominated community ostracizes her. The book takes place in post-emancipation coastal Carolina, but with a twist. There is not a single white character in the book. It celebrates the rural Black-American culture on its own terms, in its own language.
Here is an intimate, three-dimensional portrait of a Gullah community.
People’s lives carry on absolutely independently of their recent masters. Written by a white woman, the book very was revolutionary for its time. Due to this, and to the sensual nature of its content, it was labeled obscene and banned from at least one public library in South Carolina. Its author, Julia Peterkin, a plantation mistress grew up around Gullah folk and knew how to perfectly render their dialect and humor. She became the first South Carolinian to win the Pulitzer Prize with Scarlet Sister Mary in 1928. (A detractor promptly resigned from the jury in outrage.) But none of this is the real joy of the book. Read it for the colorful language and laugh-out-loud humor that bring to life a slice of Lowcountry folklife.
J.E. McTeer’s “High Sheriff of the Lowcountry”
He is a local legend, along with his arch-nemesis (and in a way admired friend) the infamous Sea Island conjure man Dr. Buzzard. McTeer became head lawman of Beaufort County in 1926 at the age of 23, replacing his deceased father, and went on to serve in the position for 37 years, garnering respect and affection from both the black and white communities of that segregated time. But where else in America could you find a sheriff who was also a self-professed “white witch doctor”? He participated in supernatural battles with the criminals he was trying to bring down. McTeer authored the Fifty Years as a Lowcountry Witch Doctor, High Sheriff of the Lowcountry, Adventure in the Woods and Waters of the Low Country, and Beaufort Now and Then, vintage classics you can find in any local library.
The pages brim with matter-of-fact accounts of hexes, counter-hexes, and court witnesses who couldn’t complete their testimony because they started convulsing and foaming at the mouth after someone “put the root” on them.
McTeer’s attempts to bring down the flashy-dressing, purple-spectacled, third-generation rootman, Dr. Buzzard. This doctor helped draft dodgers by administering small doses of arsenic to give them heart murmurs. Such malpractice infuriated McTeer. This resulted in trading of threats and spells. It ended only when Buzzard’s son ran his car into the marsh and drowned. (In his books McTeer insists this was a coincidence. But, nevertheless it sealed the fame of his powers.)
Sensational as all this may sound, McTeer was an extremely intelligent, rational, shrewd and insightful person. He understood and sensitivity toward the people of his community. He called himself a “poor man’s psychiatrist.” After his tenure as sheriff, he continued to see patients. People came to seek his counsel in a little back “root room” of his real estate office. He was truly an icon of a unique era that is now past.
“Rambler’s Life: The South” and “The South Reloaded”
These back-to-back underground classics are the rarest books on the list, written by a hometown girl (me) and available in limited handmade editions at Cahill’s Market. They chronicle secret histories and little-known stories of the Lowcountry. They tell of the real-life South beyond it—in the words of everyday people who you might know. If you like moonshine, folk art, BBQ, gospel, snake experts, bluesmen and gator wrestlers, you will enjoy Rambler’s Life. If you like rubies, backpacking, sacred healing waters and intelligent conversation you will also enjoy it.
There is a lot going on in the South. You get beyond ugly stereotypes on the one hand, and overcorrection of being too polite on the other. An indie author with no agenda and the willingness to get down and dirty for the story. Here is Huckleberry Finn reborn as a girl with a pickup truck and a notebook, on a New South odyssey.
Enjoy a good read this winter, while supporting your local authors and keep telling their truths.
By Michele Roldán-Shaw