As a child, I was afraid of the dark. And while I often lay wide-eyed imagining the bogeymen making the house moan and creak, I found comfort knowing that my brother, whom I shared a room with, was just a few feet away. On one such night, overcome with fear, I knelt down at his bedside and tugged on his arm. Instead of rapping me on the head, he took pity on me. He turned on his light, pulled a paperback copy of Where the Red Fern Grows off of his desk, and started reading it aloud. Within a few sentences, I was deep in the Ozark Mountains, following the adventures of Little Ann and Old Dan, arguably literature’s most famous pair of coonhounds. I don’t remember crawling back into my bed that night, but I do remember when I picked up that same tattered copy some years later and started reading it on my own. What I discovered then was that a book could rip your heart right out, causing you to shed tears, actual sobbing tears, on those yellowed pages.
So when the entire Garden & Gun editorial team and I held our first day-long brainstorming session to discuss what we’d include in our new book, S Is for Southern: A Guide to the South, from Absinthe to Zydeco, I suggested Where the Red Fern Grows when we hit the W chapter. Besides my own personal connection and the novel’s Southern setting, its impact on readers across the region and beyond made it a worthy inclusion in a book that chronicles the touchstones of Southern life. The staff’s passions informed a number of the five hundred entries. Deputy editor David Mezz, the owner of a jon boat, felt the time-honored watercraft deserved a spot. Design director Marshall McKinney made a strong pitch for the bar Earnestine & Hazel’s (and its Soul Burger) in his hometown of Memphis. And associate editor Elizabeth Hutchison wanted to cover the Georgia–South Carolina peach wars. (A touch biased, Hutchison has three generations of peach farmers from Filbert, South Carolina, in her family.)
Of course, no one book could include every aspect of Southern life and culture. Rather than trying to make it an
all-encompassing academic and historical tome, we wanted the book to take readers on a walkabout across the contemporary Southern landscape—its institutions, people, customs, and influences. You’ll find entries on modern staples—from Pappy Van Winkle to Waffle House—as well as legendary figures such as Edna Lewis and Ralph Stanley and insightful pieces on topics and events that shaped where we are today, from the Civil War to the lunch-counter protests of the civil rights movement.
We also tapped some of the South’s finest writers and prominent personalities for their expertise—Rick Bragg on Harper Lee; Southern Foodways Alliance founding director John T. Edge on his mentor, John Egerton; singer-songwriter and Hank Williams’s granddaughter Holly Williams on the Grand Ole Opry; food historian Jessica B. Harris on okra; and humorist Roy Blount, Jr., on humidity, among many others.
I hope you’ll find the book both entertaining and informative and that it sheds light on where the South has been and where it’s going. And if you find yourself wide-eyed with your mind racing some night—it might be just the thing to ward off life’s bogeymen.
S Is for Southern is available at bookstores everywhere and online at: