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Friday, September 11, 2009

South of Broad

The mythical world of Charleston, South Carolina, is alive, if not so well, in Pat Conroy’s South of Broad. Pat Conroy is a Southern writer, a man who understands his people and the tragedies, both large and small, that mark so many of their lives from generation to generation. His flowery style is as Southern as the people and places he writes about, and Conroy’s fans love him as much for that style as for the stories he tells them. South of Broad may be a bit melodramatic, it may have a stereotypical character or two, and its main character may even be a little too saintly to be true – but nobody tells this kind of story better than Pat Conroy, and he has done it again.

What happens on June 16, 1969, will change Leo King’s life forever. Leo is soon to begin his senior year of high school and his mother, the school’s principal, asks him to offer his help to several new seniors transferring to the school. Over the course of one long day, Leo will meet those to whom he will remain closest for the rest of his life: beautiful Sheba Poe and her equally beautiful twin brother, Trevor; Ike Jefferson, one of the school’s first black students who is transferring to the school because his father has just been named head football coach there; brother and sister Chad and Fraser Rutledge, from one of Charleston’s wealthiest and most prestigious families; Chad’s girlfriend Molly Huger; and Niles and Starla Whitehead, rebellious sibling orphans.

None of the new students are particularly happy to be starting their last year of high school in a school filled with strangers. Chad and Molly are there because their private school expelled them after they were caught in possession of drugs, Niles and Starla because their history of running away from orphanages has now seen them transferred to a new one near the school, and Trevor and Sheba because their mother is trying to hide the family from their psychopathic father. Even Ike, despite the fact that his father has broken new ground by becoming the school’s first black head coach, would prefer remaining in his old school over helping to integrate his new one.

Leo King is not without problems of his own. Only eight-years-old when he discovered his ten-year-old brother’s blood-soaked body in the bathtub the boys shared, Leo has spent a considerable amount of time in mental institutions. And entering his senior year, he is still on probation and performing community service hours for a drug offense in which he was involved.

Conroy, ever the master storyteller, flashes forward to 1989, a twenty-year leap that finds the friends coming together to save one of their own from a lonely death. Although the group is now bound together forever by marriage and strong friendship, demons remain to be fought. Class, racial, and sexual boundaries have been, at times, only painfully crossed and childhood demons, real and imagined, have followed the friends into adulthood.

Pat Conroy’s Charleston is bigger than life and it is inhabited by people whose personal stories fit Conroy’s vision of his beloved city. Charleston is one of those almost mythical cities to which Southerners are drawn because of its history and beauty, and reading a Pat Conroy novel is the next best thing to being there. I enjoyed losing myself in Pat Conroy’s world again for a few days – it’s been way too long since I’ve last been able to do that.

Rated at: 4.0

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