Sweeping across the gorgeous landscapes of Charleston, South Carolina and the South from the sixties to the nineties, this story chronicles tragedy, loneliness, and a tightly-knit group of high school outsiders who withstand the tests of time, racism, and the unexpected dark legacies of racism and class divisions—until one final test that forces them to face the unexpected.
Leopold Bloom King is at the center of this tale, South of Broad: A Novel, and is the first person narrator. His parents are Dr. Lindsay King, the high school principal and a former nun, and his father, Jasper, who teaches high school sciences. Leo grows up in the shadow of his older brother’s suicide. Steve, the golden boy, who was beloved by everyone and especially his mother, cannot be replaced in any of their lives. His absence leaves a hole in the fabric of the family—something that can never be repaired. Leo’s reaction leaves the family even more devastated, and Leo himself spends the next several years dealing with the consequences.
The first of the tightly knit group begins with the twins who move across the street from Leo in the summer of 1969. He greets them with cookies, at his mother’s insistence. She is big on manners. Sheba and Trevor are totally outside the realm of what Leo expected, and their presence in his life will change everything. Then he meets the orphans, Niles, Sharla, and Betty. And later, in football practice, he connects with the coach’s son Ike, the first black person he will become friends with. Later, other unexpected connections will be formed, from Chad Rutledge and his sister Fraser, to Molly Huger—wealthy children who have fallen from grace and now find themselves attached by fate to this rag-tag group.
Over that summer and the subsequent years, we follow the adventures, the struggles to overcome the race and class distinctions, and on a hunt for Trevor in San Francisco. Back in Charleston, another unexpected tragedy begins to unfold. Just when we think that we’ve seen everything, we are sucker-punched once again.
The author takes us on a journey from the sixties to the nineties and then back again to fold together some additional layers of the story and the characters. We come to learn about the events that shaped them all in this gradual fashion. I like that we do not know everything about the characters all at once; as in real life, we come to know them in a natural progression of events, but with the fast-forward feature to give us a peek at their grown up selves.
Conroy’s language is beautiful and eloquent and his characters are rich, with all the quirks one might expect from such a group.
In the end, I like this passage, which illustrates this for me.
“Trevor is flying out in the morning for San Francisco, his future uncertain. But so is mine, and so are the fates of storms and the wrath of an angry, implacable God. But that is what it means to be human, born to nakedness and tenderness and nightmare in the eggshell fragility of mortality and flesh. The immensity of the Milky Way settles over the city, and the earthworms rule beneath the teeming gardens in their eyeless world. I am standing with my best friends in the world in complete awe at the loveliness of the South.”
There are many passages throughout that leave me in awe at the beauty of language and the connections between friends. I had no choice but to give this one five stars, although I would have awarded more if I could. A story that one can savor, connect to, and remember long after the final page is done.