Reviewed by Mary Ickes
Southern Fried Lies, Susan Snowden’s first novel, won First Place in the 2013 Independent Publishers Award for Fiction in the Southeast. She was honored at a ceremony in New York City on May 29. The IPPY Awards … are designed to bring increased recognition to the deserving but often unsung titles published by independent authors and publishers.
Readers and reviewers chiding Ms. Snowden for a flippant title do her book’s depth and appeal a great disservice. Though the title seems to indicate a spoof on the ways and mores of Southern life, discerning readers, by the Prologue’s end, realize that Sarah Claiborne’s story about Catherine, her mother, will not be frivolous.
Societal demands of the 1960s that women stay home to raise children and keep house stifled Catherine’s dream of a career in foreign journalism. Too cowardly to follow her own path, Catherine married Edward, an architect, and produced Ben, Sarah, Annie, and Chris. Edward duly supplies funds for Catherine to create a home so well appointed and orderly that visitors consider her house the “Atlanta Museum.” Even so, Edward is her handy man to be scorned and ordered around. Catherine forces Ben, her favorite child and obsession, into journalism and derides his yearning to study architecture. The younger children find ways to avoid Catherine’s demands for perfection: Sarah reads in the chinaberry tree all day, Annie overeats, and clunky little Chris hides in the basement with his trains.
To maintain her orderly household and raise perfect children, Catherine withers opponents with rattlesnake looks, screams, launches the nearest object in their direction, slams doors so hard that the walls crack, and sneaks up on her children: “You never heard her coming. She would just all of a sudden be there.” If Catherine believes that her family is spitefully defying her, she sulks in her bedroom, often for weeks.
Ben placates Catherine by attending Vanderbilt University to study journalism until announcing, on Christmas day, that he is dropping out and moving to New Orleans. Sarah writes: “It wasn’t a picnic at our house before he left, but it was hell on earth now. All mother did was scream or cry.”
Catherine destroyed Sarah’s wistful hope that she might become the “… crown princess in the absence of the prince” by targeting her in a renewed reign of terror. Catherine detests Sarah because she and Ben have been best friends since childhood. After Ben banished the snooping Catherine from his room, Sarah continued her nightly visits to listen to records, discuss the books he recommends, and worry about their family. Catherine commands Sarah to forsake the chinaberry tree and become a proper young lady, but then stifles her efforts.
Catherine forbids Sarah to use the phone, visit friends, invite them to her house, and invades Sarah’s room to destroy suggestive records. Convinced that Edward is about to desert his family, Catherine blames Sarah. Unless she is dressing or going to bed, Sarah’s bedroom door must remain open. In a drunken rage, Catherine beats Sarah with a belt and then sends her to a counselor to discover why she is such a “troubled teen.” Sarah writes, “After fifteen minutes I realized that [the counselor] didn’t know she was living in the land of phonies. Step right up for your Coca-Cola and your Southern fried lies.”
Fortunately, Reading Friends, Sarah’s resilience and first-person narration, despite her loneliness for Ben, lend the dark story surprising humor and compassion. She expected their rapport to continue via the phone and mail, but Ben writes only about life in New Orleans. For a reason that Sarah cannot fathom, Ben resolutely refuses to discuss their family. And she is especially angry at him for communicating with everyone but Catherine when he knows the dire consequences. Sarah notes, “It was as if the brother I’d had all my life went off to college and never came back.”
Family loyalty is Sarah’s most admirable trait. Whether her father refuses to intervene when Catherine abuses their children from cowardice or fear, Sarah understands that “He lived in a little world where everything had to line up on the page …” She longs to live in New Orleans with Ben, but Annie and Chris need her love and protection. She continues her friendship with Etha Mae, their black maid, even though Catherine sneers, “… Colored people know their place, and they want us to remember ours. It makes them terribly uncomfortable when we don’t.”
Sarah’s dry humor often lends her perspectives a delightfully outrageous twist. For Annie’s tenth birthday, Catherine whines so incessantly about finding a cake with fresh coconut that Sarah opines … “we could have all loaded up and gone to Florida and scaled cocoanut trees for really fresh fruit.” She reveals only cursory details about family troubles to Etha May because … “I can’t stand to see her face get all worried. What could she do anyway? She’s already got us on three prayer chains at Ebenezer Baptist.” Who else would compare their mother to the KKK’s Grand Dragon: “The man looked stupid to me. … His evil eyes made Mother’s rattlesnake face seem like Bambi’s.”
Despite her mother’s escalating and dangerous abuse, or perhaps because of it, Sarah matures from a girl hiding in the chinaberry tree into a resolute young woman who accepts the only alternative possible concerning her mother. Readers soon discern that the Claiborne family will never “live happily ever after,” but, thanks to Sarah, we finish her story hoping that maybe, just maybe …
Author Bio: Susan Snowden’s work has appeared in numerous literary journals and anthologies. Southern Fried Lies, her first novel, was brought out by Archer Hill Publishing in SC. Susan recently received a gold medal for the book (Best Fiction; Southeast Region) at the 2013 Independent Book Publisher Awards ceremony in New York. She’s won prizes for her poetry and short stories from Writer’s Digest, Appalachian Writers’ Association, North Carolina Writers’ Network, and the Writers’ Workshop, among others. An Atlanta native, Susan moved to Arden, NC in 1995 and later moved to Hendersonville, where she works as a freelance book editor. (www.SnowdenEditorial.com)