Best Contemporary Books Set in the South

I am calling “contemporary” books set in the south as those written and published after 1980. I have another list of my favorite “classic” novels set in the south that were written and published before 1980.

Favorite Contemporary Books Set in the South

Are you looking for some of the best books set in the south? Here are some of our favorites! We don’t claim that they are all great literature, but then, we don’t believe that a book has to the “great American novel” to be an entertaining, inspiring or just a delightful read. Hope you enjoy this list of wonderful contemporary books set in the south as much as we did!

Southern books

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Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate

Cover page of Before We Were Yours one of the best books set in the south

Before We Were Yours is a bit of a rough read. What makes it worse is that it is based on a notorious real life horror story. However, if you can handle it, it is also beautiful. Emily and I both found ourselves unable to put this book down. It definitely packs an emotional punch.

Before We Were Yours alternates between the story of siblings in 1939 who live with their parents on a shanty boat on the Mississippi River. They are forcibly taken from their home and placed in the Tennessee Children’s Home Society, an orphanage in Memphis. The children are fictional, but the Children’s Home was a real place and children really were taken from their families by the cruel director Georgia Tann.

The second story line in the book is set the present day and features Avery Stafford, a woman in South Carolina who discovers the possibility that a grandparent is hiding a family secret.

The two stories unravel and then entangle and eventually become a powerful whole.

Sing Unburied Sing by Jesmyn Ward

Cover page of Sing, Unburied Sing. One of the best books set in the south.

I loved this book so much! It is stunning and captivating, but it is also dark. Oh, and there are ghosts. If you hate magical realism then this is not a book for you. The ghosts, unhappy and stuck in time, are major characters. They even go on road trips with the living.

This book is about a dysfunctional family. Jojo, a thirteen year old, lives with his sister Kayla and their kind and loving grandparents. Jojo and Kayla’s mother, Leonie, is a drug addict and their father Michael is in Parchman, the Mississippi State Penitentiary.

The story is told from the point of view of Jojo, Leonie, and the ghosts, or unburied. You want to hate Leonie, and sometimes you do, but you also hurt for her. Jojo is coming of age and is more of a parent to Kayla than Leonie can be or ever has been. They go on a road trip to pick up Michael from Parchman that feels interminable and so, so real. The storylines are raw, but the writing is so lyrical that you have to continue reading even though your heart is breaking.

This book set in the south will drag you stumbling through the Kudzu on a hot and humid summer night.

The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd

Cover page of The Secret Life of Bees. One of the best books set in the south.

This book is set in 1964 in South Carolina. The thirteen year old protagonist, Lily Owens, is basically on the lam with Rosaleen, her nanny. Rosaleen, a black woman, has been arrested and beaten for trying to exercise her right to vote and Lily springs her from the hospital. They flee not only to keep Rosaleen safe, but also to get away from Lily’s abusive father and her own jumbled memories of how she accidentally shot her mother when she was four years old.

Lily’s mother had left behind a picture of a black virgin Mary with the words Tiburun, South Carolina written on the back so that is where they go. Turns out Tiburun is where Black Madonna Honey is produced by three middle aged sisters. Lily and Rosaleen are taken in by the sisters and this is where Lily learns all about the life of bees.

This is a sweet, but not cloying read. There are moments of magic and moments of cliche, but this book is so well written that it doesn’t matter. It is a bit of a coming of age story, a bit of feminine spirituality, mixed in with a lot of southern charm.

The Crowning Glory of Calla Lily Ponder by Rebecca Wells

Cover page of The Crowning Glory of Calla Lily Ponder. One of the best books set in the south.

Neither of us really liked the YaYa Sisterhood books by this same author. Those women were just too unlikeable! But we loved Calla Lily Ponder! I’ll be honest with you, this book might be a little too sentimental for some. It is gonna give you ALL the feels, but if you don’t mind a few tears and a lot of sweet and a bit of sappy, then give this book a try!

Even with the tears, it’s still a light read. Perfect for the beach. The descriptions of Louisiana will suck you in and make you feel that you are sitting dockside on the La Luna river under the Spanish moss. As you get to know Calla Lily you will wish that you could become real life friends.

The relationship between Cally Lily and her mother, M’Dear, is one of the most charming and engaging that I have ever read. You will particularly love “The Rules of Life According to M’Dear.” They are stunning in their profound truth and simplicity.

There are lots of references to the Moon Lady who gives Calla Lily a type of spiritual guidance which adds a fairy tale feeling to the story. We have both read Calla Lily more than once and Emily has read it multiple times! It is one of our favorites.

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

Book cover of Where the Crawdads Sing. One of our favorite books set in the south.

When I started this book I had recently been lamenting that I hadn’t found a book that had captured me in ages. Where the Crawdads Sing changed that. This is a story about a young girl who is abandoned by almost everyone and finds herself alone in and being raised by the marsh in which she lives. It is a story of loneliness and the healing power of nature.

Known as the “Marsh Girl” Kya is left to fend for herself and find solace in the creation that surrounds her. She becomes a naturalist by constantly observing. The author is a wildlife scientist and you can tell. Delia Owen’s descriptions of the creatures and plants of the marsh are fascinating even for a city girl like me. You can feel the wind, and hear the birds, and smell the water.

Many of Kya’s reference points for interacting with other people come from nature. She learns about the behavior of men and women and predators from her observations of animals in the swamp. There are moments when her ability to interact normally with others after being alone most of her life suspends reality, but the book is so well written that you won’t care.

This is a combination nature story, coming of age story, love story, and murder mystery in all the best ways.

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Book cover of The Help. One of our favorite books set in the south.

I’m sure that most of you have read this book or seen the movie, but we had to include it anyway!

In some ways this is one of the few books that was better as a movie. Why do I say this? Because the dialect written in the book is better heard than read. As a southerner it bothered me that only the black maids were written in dialect. The truth is that white southern women in the south spoke their own kind of dialect. In particular, Celia was specifically mentioned as speaking in a poor white southern way, but she was “written” as speaking just like all the other white women. So, there’s my pet peeve with the book.

Other than that The Help is a fast and enjoyable read and I think it did a pretty good job of painting a picture of what the south was like during the early 60’s. This book is definitely about race, but that isn’t all it is about. It is also about relationships, particularly the relationships between employers that have and employees that have not. It is about how difficult it is for any two people in an unequal power situation to be friends. Interestingly, even though the “help” in many ways were powerless, they had the power to shape the children that they were raising.

This is a book that gives you plenty of food for thought. My favorite quote from it is, “Ever morning, until you dead in the ground, you gone have to make this decision. You gone have to ask yourself, “Am I gone believe what them fools say about me today?”

Isn’t that true for all of us?

The Color Purple by Alice Walker

Book cover of The Color Purple.

One of my favorite books of all times! It is short and to the point and in many ways brutal. But it speaks to the spirit and strength of a woman. Especially a woman seeking, like many are, a reprieve from cruelty. This book is for women who are searching for meaning and connection and that elusive ray of hope.

Surprisingly, The Color Purple is more about the way women around the world are treated by men than it is about race. I’m not saying that it isn’t also about race, but that is not the only, or perhaps even the main, theme.

The protagonist in the book, Celie, is treated horribly by the men in her life. She is told by her husband, “Who you think you is? You can’t curse nobody. Look at you. You black, you pore, you ugly, you a woman. Goddam, he say, you nothing at all.”

Walker’s words show the pain and sorrow throughout Celie’s life. And yet, she survives. This book is hard and Walker certainly doesn’t shy away from difficult subjects, but she also gives us a story of redemption and metamorphosis. Celie doesn’t just survive. She transforms.

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg

Book cover of Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe.

This is the story of two women. The older of the two is in a nursing home. Her name is Mrs Threadgoode and she is telling a a tale to her younger friend Evelyn. Evelyn is a mousy and dissatisfied woman struggling with midlife. She has lost herself somewhere along the way.

The story that Ms. Threadgoode shares with Evelyn is also about two women. It is about the relationship between the tomboy, Idgie, and her friend Ruth. Together they run a cafe in Whistle Stop, Alabama back in the 1930’s.

The characters are unforgettable. The irascible Idgie never backs down from love or trouble. Ruth is gentle and kind, and quietly strong. You will come to love and root for Evelyn as you watch her blossom due to the influence of Ms. Threadgoode and her stories.

This is a story of love, of friendship, of standing up for oneself, of defending what you believe to be true, and of growth. You will laugh out loud, you will cry, you will be shocked, you will gasp and you will sigh.

A Painted House by John Grisham

Book cover of A Painted House. One of our favorite books set in Arkansas.

You can’t write about books set in the south and not include a novel written by John Grisham. I like many of his books. A Time to Kill is excellent as is The Last Juror, but after some thought I realized that A Painted House is my favorite of the Grisham novels.

Maybe because it is set in my home state (and Grisham’s home state) of Arkansas, or maybe because it is more of a character sketch and coming of age story than many of his other books which are typically plot driven legal dramas.

This is the story of young Luke Chandler in 1952. He is growing up on a flood-prone cotton farm in Arkansas. He lives with his parents in the middle of the fields in a little house that has never been painted. In my opinion the strength of this novel is that you as an adult reader are seeing the events of a summer unfold through the eyes of a child. A child who is too young to fully understand and comprehend what is happening even as you understand everything.

The book’s opening sentences draw you in immediately and sets you up for the trouble to come. “The hill people and the Mexicans arrived on the same day. It was a Wednesday, early in September 1952. The Cardinals were five games behind the Dodgers with three weeks to go, and the season looked hopeless. The cotton, however, was waist-high to my father, over my head, and he and my grandfather could be heard before supper whispering words that were seldom heard. It could be a “good crop.”

Trouble comes in the form of lies and violence, murder, threats and nature, and Luke is a witness to it all. He is asked to keep heavy secrets. There are times when you think the grimness and struggle will never end. Yet, as your heart is breaking you will also find it being warmed. Because ultimately this is a story of the human spirit and our ability to love and to survive and to keep going in spite of adversity.

The Sugar Queen by Sarah Addison Allen

Book cover of The Sugar Queen.

The Sugar Queen is a warm, sweet and frothy mix of magical realism, fairy tale, and contemporary southern fiction. We fell completely under it’s spell. It’s a light read. I think it would be the perfect book for a southern “snow day.” The kind where school and work have been cancelled and you are sitting in front of a window with a few swirling flakes outside and a light dusting of white on the ground that will be gone by tomorrow. This book is like hot chocolate on a snow day.

Josey is a reclusive young woman caring for her widowed, aging and awful mother who seems to delight in tearing Josey to shreds emotionally. In order to escape Josey hides in her closet which is stashed with romance novels and sweets. Lots and lots of sweets. One day Josey finds that someone else has decided to take up residence in her closet. She finds Della Lee living there and this turns Josey’s life upside down. Is Della Lee a wicked witch or a fairy godmother? Maybe a bit of both.

As Josey’s life begins to expand she bonds with Chloe. And in my opinion Chloe has the best bit of magic of any book character EVER. Books literally pop up around Chloe whenever she needs them. At first she was surprised when the perfect book would magically appear but then, “She accepted it from then on. Books liked her. Books wanted to look after her.” I would love for that to happen to me! Chloe helps to draw Josey out of her shell and her life expands from there.

This is a light and pleasant read.

Cold Sassy Tree by Olive Ann Burns

Book cover of Cold Sassy Tree.

You know how certain books become like a treasured friend? Cold Sassy Tree is one of mine.

It was written back in 1984, but the story is set in Cold Sassy, Georgia at the turn of the century. It has an old-fashioned feeling in the best possible way. The story centers on Will Tweedy’s relationship with his grandfather and the small town scandal that begins when his grandfather remarries a much younger woman, a Yankee no less, just a few weeks after his wife’s passing. Even worse he says of his late wife, “Miss Mattie Lou was as dead as she’d ever be.”

Will is left to sort out family dysfunction, the prejudice and problems left in the wake of the Civil War, his own place in a changing society, and southern Christianity as well as all of the assumptions that come with that.

The characters are all so well written and fully realized in this book! I think that the author perfectly captured the voice of a young southern boy becoming a man. Will can be annoying and irritating at times, which makes him so real as a fourteen year old boy. Miss Love, the new wife of Will’s grandfather, is by far my favorite character in the book. She is kind and strong willed and bravely defies the expectations of the close-minded inhabitants of Cold Sassy.

There is so much to love about this great southern novel!

In conclusion

There is something on this list for everyone, from heavy to light, funny to serious, deep themes and love stories! We believe that these are some of the best books set in the south. If you read any of them let us know what you thought!

Sitting on the porch reading a great southern novel

Thanks for stopping by!

By the way, if you are interested in some memoirs set in the south check out: Dispatches From Pluto. I also think that the memoir Just Mercy is very important right now.

Karen and Emily

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