The New Mind of the South, and Novel Thoughts about Southern Evangelicals

Art Remillard

On the surface, the last two Journal of Southern Religion podcasts seem rather, well... conventional. But dig down a bit, and you might find that they are, well... edgy. That is, both podcasts bring attention to books that carve new meaning into some seemingly established conversations.    

For starters, I talked with Tracy Thompson about her book, The New Mind of the South. While obviously playing off of Wilbur J. Cash's 1941 classic, The Mind of the South, Thompson offers an updated, nuanced, and necessarily complex view of what it means to be a "southerner" in the 21st century. In his forthcoming JSR review of the book, our own Paul Harvey exclaims, "Here's a perfect non-fiction summer reading for those of you wanting to settle on your porch in the evening hours, beverage (adult or otherwise) on hand, and just be entertained and instructed by an author whose reflections on and travelogue about the contemporary South is one of the better ones I've ever read."

I couldn't agree more. Additionally, if you teach a course on southern culture and religion, consider adding The New Mind of the South to your syllabus. Thompson's writing is especially accessible (get a preview at her blog the Blockhead Chronicles). And the topics that she addresses will lead to plenty of classroom discussions.

Speaking of additions to your syllabus (and great porch reading), pick up a copy of Elaine Neil Orr's debut novel, A Different Sun.

Orr is Professor of English at North Carolina State and has written two scholarly books, Subject to Negotiation: Reading Feminist Criticism and American Women's Fictions and Tillie Olsen and a Feminist Spiritual Vision. After completing her memoir Gods of Noonday, though, Orr decided to give fiction a try.

In my podcast with her, Orr explains that she was inspired by the diary of a mid-nineteenth century southern Baptist missionary, Lurana Davis Bowen. While reading the diary, Orr says, "I found sentences so compressed, they seemed nearly to explode." The only way to trigger the explosion was to develop a story, one that draws from Bowen's diary as well as Orr's own experiences of being the daughter of medical missionaries in West Africa.

The result is a compelling novel. Through Orr's fictional characters, we walk alongside representatives of the evangelical South as they struggle to make sense of both Africa and their homeland. As I read, I kept thinking about Brian Moore's Black Robe. While the eras, places, and populations differ, these unique works of historical fiction address critical questions of meaning, mortality, and morality. For A Different Sun in particular, Orr's academic background gives her story a certain weight and believably. Yet her poetic touch is the soul of the book, firing up our imaginations and keeping us thinking about her characters long after we complete the final chapter.

As I said, pick up a copy--along with The New Mind of the South. You won't be disappointed.


M.E.Martin said…
Thanks for this post, Art! I've read Elaine's beautifully written book and I highly recommend it. Our families were friends in Africa (Nigeria), and much of this lyrical "tension" and the beautiful layers of intrigue, tenderness, curiosity, and yes, "poetic realism" are timeless and always invite curious minds to understand better, know more. I'll check out your other recommendation too. Keep up the good work!

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