The Avid Reader
When asked to list her top book picks, Deborah Johnson, author of The Air Between Us and the upcoming The Secret of Magic (2012, Amy Einhorn Books/G.P. Putnam & Sons), thought being limited to only five titles might make the task impossible. However, this Missouri native and 18-year-resident of Italy narrowed her choices by exploring a common theme: books that made her want to experience the South firsthand.
1. Coming of Age in Mississippi by Anne Moody — I didn’t know anything about the book when I saw it on the shelf at Square Books in Oxford. It is a memoir about a woman who is poor and black, who is awakened to the fact that the life she is living isn’t a good one and decides to change her circumstances. Like all good literature its theme (seeing a problem and doing something about it) is universal. You really want her to triumph. Moody writes a realistic portrayal of the civil rights period and how people can change things.
2. Father and Son by Larry Brown — I read this book years ago on the recommendation of a friend, but the imagery stayed with me. Brown depicts the basic conflict between good and evil with gritty, working-class realism.
3. All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren — I knew of this book by reputation — it had won a Pulitzer. As I was reading I thought it was a good book, but then I came to a passage that made me realize it was a great book. I recommended it to two others who had the same experience at the same point in the story. Penn Warren is a master of descriptive text and aptly describes the life and times of a political titan in the 1930s Deep South.
4. A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines — From page two this isn’t the happiest book, but it isn’t a cheap tear-jerker. It will move you, but not by manipulating you. Both the protagonist and the reader are transformed by this profound story.
5. Run with the Horsemen by Ferrol Sams — At a book signing in Tennessee, a man presented me with a copy, saying he thought I would like it. It is the semi-autobiographical story of the son of a white landowner in rural Georgia, set during the Great Depression. It is a coming-of-age story, but what makes it special is its very unexpected vision of the South. The plantation he lives on is not “Tara.” There is much more interplay between the races than most people in the North suspect we have down here. This unexpectedness, the realism of it, is what drew me to the book.