When traveling to the American South (especially the Southeast/Deep South) for the first time, I would recommend doing a little reading first to get a taste of the culture. Below is my list of the best books about the South everyone should read before they visit.
These are not just books set in the South; these books are shaped by the South. The South oozes out from every page.
Read More → Top Books About Travel and Self-discovery
They are not all refined and gentile, though certainly some are.
Some of these books might even make you angry or bring you to tears, but all will provide some deeper understanding of Southern culture past and present before you make a trip there.
Let’s dive in!
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To Kill a Mockingbird is considered one of the best Southern novels for a reason. Harper Lee’s classic novel about one man’s quest for personal integrity as he wrestles with his conscience under enormous pressure to cave to social norms in 1930s Alabama won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961.
If you’re a fan of To Kill a Mockingbird and also a bit nerdy about writing and publishing you might also want to pick up Go Set a Watchman. This early draft of Mockingbird was published in 2015.
It’s often referred to as a sequel since it’s set 20 years after the major events of Mockingbird, but it was written well before Mockingbird was published.
The film adaptation with Gregory Peck is excellent, but the book should be required reading for everyone on the planet.
Scarlet O’Hara and Rhett Butler. Great balls of fire!
You know the drill.
Along with To Kill a Mockingbird, I would call Gone with the Wind a must-read among books about the Deep South.
In addition to the sweeping story about one woman’s journey from antebellum Georgia privilege through war and poverty, it also provides a peek into the thinking of how 1930s Georgians looked back on the War.
It’s the only book that Margaret Mitchell, an Atlanta native, published during her lifetime. Also like Harper Lee come to think of it. Gone with the Wind won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
If you’ve only seen the movie, do yourself a favor and read Gone with the Wind.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is the great American novel. Fight me.
Huck’s adventures start in a fictional Missouri town, when he decides to fake his own death and set off on a raft down the Mississippi with a runaway slave named Jim.
Their journey takes them through Illinois, Kentucky and Arkansas. Through it all Huck finds himself constantly wrestling with the values of the society in which he grew up since they don’t square with his personal feelings for and friendship with Jim, a black man.
Please note that because Twain made broad use of English vernacular in this book, it does include repeated use of the “n” word.
Do not waste your time with any movie adaptations of this book.
The abolitionist novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, set mainly in Kentucky and Louisiana, has to be considered one of the best books about the South.
This is not a “curl up with a cup of hot chocolate” book. It’s difficult to read.
I’ve read it twice and I cried both times.
If you’ve seen The King and I you’re at least familiar with the part of the story in which a young enslaved woman named Eliza runs away to find freedom with her young child.
The name of the title character Uncle Tom unfortunately has come to be used against black people considered to have “sold out” to white people. I’d be willing to bet that none of the people who use “Uncle Tom” in that way have ever read this novel.
It’s hard to overestimate the impact that Uncle Tom’s Cabin had on American literary culture. Only the Bible outsold Uncle Tom in the 19th century.
And according to legend President Abraham Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe sometime during the Civil War and said, “So this is the little lady who started this great war.”
Jojo Moyes’ The Giver of Stars follows the story of Alice, an Englishwoman newly married to the son of a coal mine owner in rural Depression-era Kentucky. Looking for a way to expand her horizons, Alice signs up to join the Works Progress Administration Pack Horse Library Project.
The Packhorse Librarians delivered books to remote parts of Appalachia during the height of the Great Depression. The project provided employment for some 200 women and reading materials to those with no access to public libraries.
Alice has to learn how to negotiate the rough Eastern Kentucky terrain and deal with some of the townspeople who are not too happy about the library project and the women it employs.
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2004, The Known World is set in antebellum Virginia.
Like Uncle Tom’s Cabin it explores slavery from many angles, but also includes the uncommonly explored historical topic of black slave ownership.
When black plantation owner Henry Townsend dies, the order he created begins to crumble away. The corruption of race-based slavery infects all around it, both slave and free, black and white.
The novel is meticulously constructed and beautifully written, deep and dense…but only in a good sense. Definitely not in a “difficult to read” sense. In the sense that the entirely fictional world Jones created feels real and true. He supposedly claimed he did little to no research before drafting, basing his story completely on memories of stories and his own imagination.
Black Boy is one of the few books about which I can honestly claim that I could barely put it down.
Unlike most of the other books on this list, Black Boy is not a novel but a memoir. Published in 1945 it tells the story of the early life of writer Richard Wright.
Wright spent his early years in Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee before moving to Chicago. Black Boy is an important book about Southern life at the time and includes blunt depictions of his childhood in poverty and constant hunger on top of the (of course) overt racism he experienced.
Frederick Douglas fled slavery in Maryland to become one of the key figures of the abolitionist movement.
Seven years after he gained his freedom, he wrote his story and published it in 1845. Keep in mind that it was illegal for slaves to learn how to read or write in many states…easier to keep them enslaved without education or the literacy necessary to thrive socially, economically or politically.
Douglas’ Narrative still stands today as one of the most important pieces of American literature and a pillar of the slave narrative genre.
Set in a fictional Appalachian village deep in rural Tennessee, Christy was based on the work of writer Catherine Marshall’s mother among impoverished Appalachian children in the early 20th Century.
This is one of the classic books about Southern culture and a highly influential work of Christian fiction.
Young Christy Huddleston leaves her comfortable life in Asheville, North Carolina, for a teaching job in remote Smoky Mountain Tennessee. Throughout the story she faces incredible challenges among the families in her new home and their poor living conditions.
There’s a little romance too for those who like that kind of thing.
If you enjoyed the sadly short-lived television show of the same name you definitely need to try the book.
Delia Owens’ debut novel Where the Crawdads Sing is a beautifully written coming of age story about a young girl who essentially raises herself in the marshes of coastal North Carolina.
Kya knows the marshes around her home inside and out. She lives so intimately with the land that she becomes an expert in the local plant and wildlife.
She also lives so isolated a life that few people from the nearby town know her. But when one of the young men she spent time with turns up dead, Kya becomes the prime suspect in his murder.
You can’t explore Southern literature without taking a trip down to William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi.
As I Lay Dying follows the Bundren family’s journey to bury the wife and mother of the family in her hometown. It’s sometimes touching, sometimes rather dark and grim.
This is quintessential Faulkner and essential reading for anyone who wants to understand 20th century Southern American literature. It consistently appears on lists of the most important works of American literature and best 20th century novels.
In addition to winning two Pulitzer Prizes (not for As I Lay Dying), Faulkner also won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1940.
When white teenager Lily Owens runs away from home with her black “stand in mother,” she is taken in by three black sisters in South Carolina, the Boatwrights.
Set in 1964 against the backdrop of the civil rights movement, young Lily tries to negotiate through her foggy memories surrounding her mother’s death. And she learns something about the importance of female companionship in the absence of her mother.
Sue Monk Kidd’s debut, The Secret Life of Bees, stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for two and half years. It’s been adapted for both film and stage.
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry won of the 1977 Newberry Medal and the only book for young readers on this list.
Like To Kill a Mockingbird, this story is told from the point of view of a young girl awakening to “how things are in the South.”
Young Cassie Logan is growing up in Southern Mississippi during the height of the Great Depression. Her family owns their own land which accords them some independence despite the racism they face every day.
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Award, The Underground Railroad is a gripping story of a young woman’s journey from slavery to freedom.
Encouraged by tails of the underground railroad, Cora and Caesar plot to flee the Georgia cotton plantation where they’ve been enslaved. But in Whitehead’s novel there’s an unusual twist…the underground railroad is literally a secret railroad that runs underground.
Their escape is nearly thwarted not far from the plantation. They manage to get away only when Cora kills a young white boy who tries to capture her. Now there’s no going back.
Cora’s journey takes her from Georgia to South Carolina, Tennessee and beyond. And each place she stops she encounters a different world and passes through unique perils known to black men and women in antebellum South.
Kathryn Stockett’s runaway bestseller explores the situation of the black women who worked as domestic help in the civil rights era Deep South.
With the help of a young white writer, two black women will take on a secret and anonymous project that will shake their community down to the foundation.
The film adaptation of The Help is also excellent and worth watching, though I’d recommend reading the book first. It’s better.
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