13 fall books that will change the way you see the South

“You write in order to change the world,” James Baldwin once said. “If you alter, even by a millimeter, the way people look at reality, then you can change it.” The top 13 books we’re looking forward to this fall present a wealth of opportunities to see the South anew from different angles: its history, people and long-held secrets.


“Darktown” by Thomas Mullen

Mullen’s taut procedural drops readers smack in the middle of Jim Crow Atlanta, with the creation of the first “Negro Police Force” in 1948. Partners Boggs and Smith aren’t allowed to drive a squad car, arrest a white person or set foot in police headquarters. Walking their beat one night on Auburn Avenue, they stop a white driver whose passenger is a young black woman. When she turns up dead, Boggs and Smith decide to overrule another thing they’re forbidden to do — investigate her murder. (Atria, September)

“The Risen” by Ron Rash

In Rash’s seventh novel the lives of two brothers growing up in tiny Sylva, N.C., are rocked by an outsider during the summer of 1969. Eugene Matney has never forgotten Ligeia, the irresistible hippie chick whose unexplained disappearance back then has eaten at him ever since. Forty-six years later, with the discovery of Ligeia’s body, Eugene reevaluates that fateful, complicated summer, and his relationship with a brother he once trusted. (Ecco, September)

“The Underground Railroad” by Colson Whitehead

Before the Civil War, the Underground Railroad moved slaves to safety via people, transportation and safe houses. In a stunning embellishment, Whitehead takes it a step further, envisioning a real-life network of subterranean tracks, tunnels and trains running through the deep South. Fleeing a Georgia cotton plantation, Cora and her ally, Caesar, pursued by informers, bounty hunters, patrollers and a relentless slave catcher named Ridgeway, head north to freedom — or what resembles it, at first. (Doubleday)

“The Orphan Mother” by Robert Hicks

Fans of Hicks’ first novel, “The Widow of the South,” will recognize Mariah Reddick, former slave to Carrie McGavock, in this sequel set in Franklin, Tenn., during Reconstruction. It’s the summer of 1867, and Reddick, now a midwife, is determined to track down her son’s killer after he’s brutally murdered at a political rally. To help her, an African-American Civil War veteran and sharp-shooter, with his own reasons for going after the killers, digs into the stranglehold of corruption over the town. (Grand Central, September)

“News of the World” by Paulette Jiles

In this sparkling, down-to-earth, how-the-west-was-won story, a grizzled former Army captain escorts a newly released Indian captive from Wichita Falls to her relatives’ home in San Antonio. Abducted by Kiowa at 6 years of age, the now 10-year-old Johanna has no interest in white society, white clothing or her white family, much less the town hall meetings where her new captor reads newspaper articles to the locals. But as they make their way through dangerous Indian territory — where white men may be their worst enemies — the Captain and Johanna forge the alliance of a lifetime. (William Morrow, October)

“Among the Living” by Jonathan Rabb

In 1947, 31-year-old Holocaust survivor Yitzhak Goldah arrives in Savannah to live with his only remaining relatives, in an established Jewish community that embraces him as one of its own. Rabb, author of the “Berlin Trilogy,” draws parallels between Nazi Germany and the racism and bigotry of the postwar South, as well as the intolerance of Goldah’s newfound Conservative friends to a Reform woman with whom he falls in love. (Other Press, October)

“Commonwealth” by Anne Patchett

When an uninvited guest crashes the christening party of an Irish cop’s new baby, it sets in motion events that mark the Keatings and the Cousins families for generations to come. With affection, insight and humor, Patchett’s seventh novel traces their interlocking history from the 1960s to the present, as they divorce, remarry and spill back into each other’s lives, a sprawling, appealing cast of characters who, each time they meet, reveal clues to the long-ago tragedy they’ve shouldered all these years. (Harper, September)

“Perfume River” by Robert Olen Butler

The prolific author best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain,” returns to mine the fraught relationships of military fathers and sons in this searching portrait of an introverted 70-year-old historian and Vietnam vet, Robert Quinlan, and the brother he hasn’t seen in 45 years, a draft dodger still living in Canada. Reunited by their father’s precarious health, the brothers confront their conflicting memories of wars, both real and emotional. (Atlantic Monthly Press, September)

“Nine Island” Jane Alison

Alison draws heavily from Ovid’s love poetry for this wryly meditative self-examination by a woman in retreat from affairs of the heart. Recently dumped by an old flame, “J” retreats to her Miami condo-tower to grieve, take care of her aging mother and tend to her blind, incontinent cat. Sensuous, often steamy sex — some of it real, some fantasized, some mythological — and a precarious friendship counteract J.’s loneliness, as she gradually learns that retiring from romance doesn’t have to mean retiring from love. (Catapult, September)


“Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America” by Patrick Phillips

Phillips takes readers back to turn-of-the-century Forsyth County, with this jaw-dropping investigation of racial cleansing. In the autumn of 1912, when the county boasted more than 1,000 black and mixed-race people, the beating death of a young white woman led to the lynching and one-day trials of three blacks. Within the next two months, all but a handful of African Americans had been driven out, their farms and land seized, their once-thriving community forgotten, the all-white county raining terror on any blacks who tried to return. Philips delivers a well-researched and scathing indictment of an unrepentantly racist community that clung to its bigotry well past the historic Brotherhood March of 1987. (WW Norton, September)

“Truevine: Two Brothers, a Kidnapping, and a Mother’s Quest: A True Story of the Jim Crow South” by Beth Macy

Macy investigates the true story of George and Willie Muse, albino African-American brothers from rural Virginia abducted in the 1890s and forced to work in circus sideshows as “cannibals,” “sheepheaded men,” even “Ambassadors from Mars.” Though the Muses were long portrayed as victims, the history Macy unearths suggests more complex issues were at play. Along the way, she offers a fascinating history of circus life during its heyday, when Americans were so hooked on freaks and geeks that no one questioned where they came from — or who was collecting their paychecks. (Little Brown, October)

“Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race” by Margot Lee Shetterly

As the daughter of a black physicist, growing up in NASA’s Langley community, Shetterly knew so many African Americans working in science, math and engineering she thought “that’s just what black folks did.” Years later, she discovered that women she knew as Girl Scout leaders, Sunday School teachers and her father’s colleagues had history-making careers as NASA’s “colored computers”: mathematicians whose calculations helped fuel some of America’s greatest achievements in space for nearly three decades. Shetterly uses the interwoven accounts of four of these pioneers to tell the story of their American dream. (Morrow, September)

“Bandit” by Molly Brodak

Atlanta poet Molly Brodak’s soul-searching memoir guarantees you’ll never look at a mug shot the same way. In the summer of 1994, when she was 13, her father robbed 11 banks before he was caught and imprisoned for 7 years. Upon his release, he robbed another bank and ended up back behind bars. With unwavering candor and remarkable grace, Brodak pieces together the years she spent trying to make sense of a volatile, complicated man her family never really knew. (Grove Press, October)

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