Monday, July 20, 2009

Sullivan's Island: When Suzie Gets Her Sassy Back, Y'all Better Watch Out

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Another time, we will shag, I'll teach you a little Gullah poem and we'll argue on how to make use of an entire ham. We will stroll down to the Sullivans's Island beach at dawn, talking hurricanes, tide tables and sand castles. You will spread your arms in the eastern wind and feel the sun rise in every one of your bones. Once the sand of Sullivan's Island gets in your shoes, your heart will ache to return. And return you will. You will be one of us. You won't mind being a little bit Geechee.

As the head and light of day begin to rise and glow, I'll feed you a Lowcountry breakfast of warm salted air, and smiling, you will tell all these stories to your friends until you think they're your own. You will hum this music of so much magic forever. Yes, you will. 'Eah?

- Dorothea Benton Frank
Author's Note

Despite the fact that I'm a complete and utter Yank who's spent barely a week in the South, there are times when I wish I grew up eating grits for breakfast, talking with a soft drawl, and being shushed by a large, loud Mammy-type. Those times pretty much always coincide with me reading a big-hearted Southern novel like Dorothea Benton Frank's Sullivan's Island: A Lowcountry Tale. Something about all that Southern charm just oozing out from between the covers makes me want to start throwing y'alls around, you know? Yankee or not, I do love me a good Southern novel.

Still, Sullivan's Island started out a little slowly for me. I wasn't immediately taken with our heroine, Susan Hamilton Hayes, a librarian who finds her husband of 16 years in bed with another woman. Unlike the dowdy Susan, this pretty young thing's been "chemically enhanced and surgically improved" (5). Blaming herself for her husband's infidelity, Susan turns into a simpering mess, yelling at him to get out, even while packing his toiletry bag so he doesn't strain himself. Her life in shambles, she grabs her 14-year-old daughter and makes for Island Gamble, her ancestral home on Sullivan's Island. With the smell of plough mud in her nostrils and a hint of Gullah magic swirling in the air, Susan finally comes back to herself - and when Suzie gets her sassy back, well, y'all better just watch out. Suddenly, she's a much, much more interesting character. And the story gets saucier, funnier and much, much better.

In chapters alternating between the past and the present, we get Susan's bio: As a child of the island, she spends her days running wild - scaling water towers, filling coffee cans with blackberries, collecting crabs for supper, and swinging lazily on the porch hammock. Outside, life seems free and easy. Inside the Island Gamble, however, is another story altogether - between her father's mean streak; her grandparents' steady decline; and her mother's drug-induced stupor; Susan and her siblings fend for themselves, steering clear of the mine field that is their home. That is, until Livvie shows up. The Gullah housekeeper demands order of the household, offering a breath of cunja-spiced fresh air. Livvie's good-natured efficiency seems to be just what the doctor ordered for a family whose tragedies are about to go from bad to worse. Despite the traumas and dramas of her childhood, Susan survives. Forty-some-odd years later, she's living in Charleston with her daughter, eking out a meager living, negotiating a divorce with her tightwad husband, and trying not to fall apart completely. With the help of her sister Maggie, who's turned the Island Gamble into a happy family home, Susan's just might be able to find the refuge she needs on the island that has cradled her since birth.

But the island holds great mysteries as well. How did her father, a raving hypocrite who terrorized his family, but (very vocally) supported the civil rights movement, really die? Is Susan destined to become her mother - trampled on, discarded, constantly used by men? Is she, who received little affection as a child, even capable of real love? And, most importantly of all, can the island that shaped her then heal her now?

Like the place itself, Sullivan's Island is a little rough around the edges. Frank's prose could use some polish, her two plotlines - Susan's life crisis and the mystery of her father's death - could have been more smoothly intertwined, and she could have tied up all the loose ends in a tighter knot. Still and all, I enjoyed this wild, funny romp. Frank's characters come alive well enough, although the setting upstages them all. Sullivan's Island sizzles with life and color - it pops off the page with a vibrancy unrivaled even by the irrepressible Livvie. There's plenty of drama here, but it's tempered with humor and a whole lotta heart. Oozing with Southern charm and a little Gullah magic, Sullivan's Island makes for good reading. Know what I mean, y'all?

Grade: B

If this was (were?) a movie, it would be rated: PG-13 for some language, fairly graphic (though totally hilarious) sexual content, and some violence.

(Note: I'm not clear on the proper way to write Sullivan's Island. Frank, herself, uses the name both with and without the apostrophe. The book's cover declares it Sullivan's Island, while its sequel reads Return to Sullivans Island [no apostrophe]. I found the name on the Internet both ways. I decided to use the apostrophe since that's the way it appears on the book's cover. I apologize for any error.)

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