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Top Books by State: South Carolina

By Adrienne Rivera. Apr 20, 2023. 1:29 PM.

Topics: American Literature, Movie Tie-Ins

Today we continue our literary trip across the United States by taking a closer look at some of the best books set in South Carolina. This southern state is geographically diverse, containing both bustling cities like Charleston and Colombia and subtropical locations that feature estuaries and salt marshes. The Lowcountry, the setting of one of today's featured novels, contains numerous barrier islands unique to the region.

While Southern Carolina has a rich history as a colony and a key location during the Civil War, each novel we'll be looking at today features families in the 1950’s, which was a period of significant change regarding civil rights. Let's take a closer look at these South Carolina books in our Top Books by State Series:

The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy


Pat Conroy’s 1986 novel, The Prince of Tides, tells the story of a family torn apart by tragedy and how the main character strives to his sister from the lingering traumas of their childhood. While the novel's present action is set in New York, the bulk of the novel takes place in the past in Colleton, South Carolina. The Wingo family deals with numerous hardships at the hands of their abusive and financially irresponsible father and their uncaring, social-climbing mother.

Throughout the novel, there are depictions of the beauty of the South Carolina landscape. Some examples follow:

We children sat transfixed before that moon our mother had called forth from the waters. When the moon had reached its deepest silver, my sister, Savannah, though only three, cried aloud to our mother, to Luke and me, to the river and the moon, "Oh, Mama, do it again!" And I had my earliest memory.


It was growing dark on this long southern evening, and suddenly, at the exact point her finger had indicated, the moon lifted a forehead of stunning gold above the horizon, lifted straight out of filigreed, light-intoxicated clouds that lay on the skyline in attendant veils.

Behind us, the sun was setting in a simultaneous congruent withdrawal, and the river turned to flame in a quiet duel of gold...The new gold of the moon was astonishing and ascendant, the depleted gold of sunset extinguishing itself in the long westward slide; it was the old dance of days in the Carolina marshes, the breathtaking death of days before the eyes of children, until the sun vanished, its final signature a ribbon of bullion strung across the tops of water oaks.


Comely was the town by the curving river they dismantled in a year. Beautiful was Colleton in her last spring as she flung azaleas like a girl throwing rice at a desperate wedding. Colleton ripened in a gauze of sweet gardens in dazzling profusion, and the town ached beneath a canopy of promissory fragrance.


Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison

Dorothy Allison’s 1992 novel Bastard Out of Carolina tells the story of Bone Boatwright, thebastard out of carolina illegitimate daughter of a teen mother who faces poverty, abuse, and the hands of her stepfather in Greenville, South Carolina, in the 1950s. Focusing on themes of class, sexuality, and abuse, this novel is a heartbreaking portrayal of life in lower-class mid-century South Carolina. The first passages detail the transitory effect that poverty had on the family in the book, while the second focuses on popular southern foods:

Moving had no season, was all seasons, and crossed time like a train with no schedule. We moved so often our mail never caught up with us, sometimes moved before we'd even gotten properly unpacked or I'd learned the names of all the teachers at my new school. Moving gave me a sense of time passing and everything sliding as if nothing could be held on to anyway. It made me feel ghostly, unreal, and unimportant, like a box that goes missing and then turns up, but then you realize you never needed anything in it anyway.


Anney makes the best gravy in the county, the sweetest biscuits, and puts just enough vinegar in those greens. Glenn nodded, though the truth was he’d never had much of a taste for greens, and his well-educated mama had always told him that gravy was bad for the heart. So he was not ready when Mama pushed her short blond hair back and set that big plate of hot food down in front of his open hands. Glenn took a bite of gristly meat and gravy, which melted between his teeth. The greens were salt sweet and fat-rich. His tongue sang to his throat; his neck went loose, and his hair fell across his face. It was like sex, that food, too good to waste in the middle of the day and a roomful of men too tired to taste. He chewed, swallowed began to come alive himself. He began to feel for the first time like one of the boys, a grown man accepted by the notorious and dangerous Earle Boatwright, staring across the counter at one of the prettiest women he’d ever seen. His face went hot, and he took a big drink of iced tea to cool himself.


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Adrienne Rivera
Adrienne Rivera received her MFA in fiction from Southern Illinois University Carbondale. She currently lives in southern Indiana.


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