12 September 2010

Mary Alice Monroe and The Isle of Palms, South Carolina: Southern Literary Tour, Part Two: #17

Mary Alice Munroe's novels form part of what can be described as a sub-genre of literature of the South – Lowcountry literature, of which the two novels above are examples: The Beach House (2002), and its sequel Swimming Lessons (2007). Both books are set in Isle of Palms, which is slightly to the north-east of Sullivan's Island and about ten miles from Charleston.

The books abound in references to the geography of the area, and the weather is always a concern: the Lowcountry has not forgotten the destruction wrought by Hurricane Hugo in 1989, and toward the end of The Beach House there is a hurricane from which the characters escape. While we were in the Appalachians and moving toward the east, there was a strong concern that we would be prevented from going because of Hurricane Earl. As it happened, though, people moved out of Nantucket way up in Massachusetts, and people were battening down the hatches in the barrier islands of North Carolina in the Kill Devil Hills area, but Earl moved further into the Atlantic, so it was safe for us to move in.

Throughout The Beach House and Swimming Lessons, turtles are used as a metaphor for the behavior of humans: the protection and preservation of turtles are a major concern even before the books begins – there's a quotation from Thoreau regarding them, plus a dedication to the Isle of Palms/Sullivan's Island Turtle Team, to which Mary Alice Monroe (and the two book's protagonists) belong.

Another writer of this subgenre is Dorothea Benton Frank, who writes novels she calls 'Lowcountry Tales', and which have such titles as Isle of Palms (2004), Pawley's Island (2005), Bulls Island (2008), and Return To Sullivans Island (2009). Frank's books seem to be designed for a much more popular market: they're all (I think) in the first person, and tend to be very chatty, much more colloquial, more dialog-driven, with frequent exlamation marks, and with the use of 'you',  the narrator appears to be speaking directly to the reader.

The Ravenel Bridge, or to give it its full title, the Arthur Ravenel Jr Bridge, which is named after a (Republican) Charleston politician and also called the New Cooper Bridge after the Cooper River it goes over, stretches from downtown Charleston to Mount Pleasant. It is 471 meters long, was built in 2005, and it is quite an experience to drive. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Mary Alice Monroe's Swimming Lessons mentions the protagonist Toy Sooner 'zoom[ing] over the gleaming new Ravenel Bridge'.

The Beach House and Swimming Lessons have a character called Brett, a naturalist who runs an eco-tours business, which is obviously an important activity here.

Mary Alice Monroe: Sweetgrass / The Secrets We Keep (2005)

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