Pat Conroy, bestselling author of The Prince of Tides
The New York Times
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This is the insightful, troubling tale of the coming of age of a privileged young Southern woman during the turbulent Civil Rights era.
In Montgomery, Alabama, Martin Luther King Jr. has organized a bus boycott. In Tuscaloosa, outrage surrounds the entrance of the state university's first black student. But at little Randolph University, sweltering in the summer
This is the insightful, troubling tale of the coming of age of a privileged young Southern woman during the turbulent Civil Rights era.
In Montgomery, Alabama, Martin Luther King Jr. has organized a bus boycott. In Tuscaloosa, outrage surrounds the entrance of the state university's first black student. But at little Randolph University, sweltering in the summer heat, life remains dreamily the same. At Kappa House, the sorority sisters talk of who has pinned whom, and whether they can sneak past their housemother so they can party at an out-of-town bar. Even among this privileged group, pretty, popular Kappa sister Maggie Deloach is unquestionably one of the elite...until she commits a single act of defiance and courage that forever alters the way others think of her, and how Maggie thinks of herself.
Pat Conroy, bestselling author of The Prince of Tides
The New York Times
The making of Maggie Deloach was a process as indigenous to her part of the South as the making of cotton textiles in the fortress-bricked mills that crouched over the muddy, fast-moving rivers of the Georgia and Alabama plateau country. But it was a process far more narrowly applied. In the cities of the South in Atlanta and Birmingham and Charlotte and Mobile and Charleston there were perhaps a hundred Maggies flowering in any given year, girls planted, tended, and grown like prize roses, to be cut and massed and shown at debutant balls and cotillions in their eighteenth year. Unlike roses, they did not die after the showing; instead, they moved gently into colleges and universities and Junior League chapters, and were then pressed between the leaves of substantial marriages to be dried and preserved.
In the smaller towns, there were always perhaps three or four current Maggies. And in the smallest, like Lytton, there was only a Maggie. Nevertheless, the technique of creation varied only in small details and circumstances. It was a process of rules, subtle, shaded, iron bylaws that were tacitly drafted in burned and torn households sometime during the Reconstruction by frail, reeling gentlewomen throughout the exploded South, laws for the shaping of new women who would be, forever after, impervious to casual, impersonal chaos. The formula lasted, with only those modifications that were a nod to the times, through a world war and a depression and another world war, and its end product, the young women of a certain caste of the South, were, on the main, as uniformly bright, hard, shining, and true as bullets from identical molds. There was no reason to think that The Rules would fail to hold, certainly no omens of mechanical malfunction, when the life of Maggie Deloach began.
And so it was that Maggie's making began far earlier than the April night of her conception in the mahogany bed with pineapple finials that stood in a high-ceilinged bedroom of the house that had belonged to four generations of Deloaches. Comer Deloach, just out of the University of Georgia law school, had brought Frances Hamilton there as a bride of twenty, a tall, unworldly, drooping farm girl fresh from a north Georgia female academy. For the first four years of their marriage, Frances and Comer had shared the house with Comer's mother, a still-pretty woman of such relentless Christian charity that she had driven Comer's father, a stout, flushed dentist, to increasingly frequent all-night fox and possum hunts with what she called his Cronies, in Lytton's surrounding pine woods. On one of those nights of drinking sour mash and following the baying speckled hounds, Big Comer had stumbled into an abandoned well on the deserted old Macintosh homeplace, covered only by tangled kudzu vines, and had broken his neck. By the time the fuddled Cronies had summoned old Dr. Clayton and the Lytton constabulary, with flashlights and ropes, Comer was dead.
For two years after his death, Elvira Deloach had lived comfortably alone on insurance and the considerable rentals from Deloach properties, largely in the black section of Lytton called Lightning, and had dispensed her charity to the less fortunate of Lytton and its environs via the funnel of the First Methodist Church of Lytton. And when Comer and Frances moved into the old Deloach place on Coleman Street, she leveled it at the young couple; chiefly at Frances, since Comer's proud new association with an Atlanta law firm meant an hour's train ride to the city, nine hours in the firm's library, and another chuffing hour's ride home. Frances Hamilton Deloach, conventional and biddable from her curly crown to her long, narrow feet, soon learned to fear, loathe, and obey her mother-in-law, and to ferment with tightly capped resentment even while she sat smiling with Elvira's missionary circle in the cool afternoon cave of her living room, studying Elvira's endless tracts and sewing awkwardly for the newly-come-to-Jesus in darkest Africa. Always, when as the junior member of the circle she was dispatched to the cavernous kitchen to bring in the tray of coconut cake and iced tea, prepared by muttering Theopal, she would hear the bee-drone of conversation drop to the level of a sweetly malignant litany, and she knew Elvira was sighing to a breath-held circle of Christian ladies about her daughter-in-law's ineptitude at the kitchen range and the lacy iron Singer sewing machine, her lack of initiative in the Work of the Church, and her inferior Hamilton antecedents. ("She tries, I suppose, but everybody knows they sharecropped until the twenties, at least, and the Good Lord only knows where they got money enough to send that child to Brenau. Jess MacLaren told me for a fact that there's no Hamilton money in his bank. Blood tells.")
By the time Maggie was conceived, Frances Deloach was unalterably a cowed and silently angry woman, but a confirmed standard-bearer of The Rules. They had, after all, gotten her off a sharecropper's red acres and into a lawyer's house.
Maggie's conception was accomplished in dead silence under cover of a spring thunderstorm and with the barest possible minimum of bedspring squeaking. Sanctified joy under her own roof was something Elvira Deloach effectively discouraged by calling softly to her son, through their connecting bedroom doors, that she thought she'd heard an intruding animal in the chicken coop, or that she'd heard an odd noise, almost like a moan; was Comer or Frances feeling ill? Or that she was "feeling her bad old stomach again" and would he please bring her a glass of Sal Hepatica, as she'd left her glasses on the sun porch again, silly woman that she was. She varied the timing of her nocturnal requests; a mutely furious Frances and a resigned Comer could not predict them. She died of a stroke quite possibly an undissipated clot of Christian charity before Frances's pregnancy was obvious even to her stiletto-sharp, tilted, cola-brown eyes. Frances Deloach was shocked and frightened when Maggie's baby eyes lost their unfocused blue and those same eyes stared at her from Maggie's small face.
From that moment on, as if to exorcise the ghost of old Elvira that, from time to time, looked at her out of those eyes, Frances drilled Maggie, tended her, groomed her, cherished her. Toward what, she could not have said, specifically. The Best for Maggie, she and Comer agreed when they discussed their child. Marriage ultimately, of course, a good one, but that was only a part of The Best. Safety, Frances meant, absolute, insular safety from the pain of an Elvira and all other pains ethereal and corporeal. But she did not know that this was what she meant.
There was never any doubt in the minds of Frances and Comer Deloach that the love they lavished on Maggie was honest love, nor was there in Maggie's mind, and Maggie still does not doubt it. Fierce, fathomless love is seldom wise love, but as Maggie told her therapist only a year ago, it is infinitely better than no love or cool, constructed affection.
Maggie was taken early and often to doctors, dentists, piano and art and dancing teachers, the better children's ready-to-wear departments, always in Atlanta. Sunday school and church services never began without Maggie Deloach, in that year's blue or burgundy velvet coat, leggings and bonnet to match. Piano and dancing recitals were never without her plodding, competent small fingers and feet and her grave face. Maggie was, for all her cadet training, a quiet child whose reticence looked sometimes like an oddly lovely sullenness, and sometimes was.
Maggie had the only Shetland pony in Lytton, and the only professional permanent wave given to a child.
She went, with only a few minor lapses, from Gerber babyhood into winsome toddlerhood into exemplary prepuberty. She was a bright child, and an increasingly and disturbingly pretty one. "Storm cuttin' up behind them eyes," Carrie would say, and a small surf of unease would wash over Frances. Maggie read early, and this made Frances inexplicably uneasy, also. Comer was charmed and amused when his small daughter ignored the carefully chosen books from Lytton's branch of the Carnegie Library and buried herself in his leather-bound volumes of Shakespeare, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Walt Whitman. De Maupassant was regularly taken away from her.
"Comer, I don't mind her reading when she's resting or the weather's bad, but she's always got her nose in a book. She reads under the covers with a flashlight. She told me the other night that Harry Hotspur plays in the sandbox with her and she talks to him, and I've seen her out there, right by herself, talking to nobody for hours. Comer, it's just not right for a child to lose touch with... with... real things like that." Frances Deloach talked mainly in italics; it was always one of her greatest charms for her husband, and kept her a girl to him always.
"Let her read," he said. "She's smart as a whip, and it isn't trash she's reading, Frannie."
And so reading remained one of Maggie's small and constant rebellions.
Maggie spelled impeccably, and wrote small poems about her dogs and her pony on Blue Horse school tablets. She drew with an early and mechanical facility, though little imagination, an endless succession of rearing horses with flowing manes. And she had playmates, the handful of children her age who lived in Lytton proper. Most of Lytton's young lived on outlying farms and helped with the chores at an age when Maggie was still not allowed to cross the street, and Maggie knew little of their existence, except to see them in overalls and bare feet, spilling out of pickup trucks and going into Lytton's feed and hardware and grocery stores with their parents on Saturday afternoons. It was not that Frances and Comer Deloach considered them inferior to Maggie; indeed, Frances was fond of saying that her own childhood on a farm had been healthful and happy in the extreme. It was only that they had so little in common with her. This was true. Maggie would have found little to say to those tough, laconic children in whose worlds a Shetland pony was a ridiculous toy of an animal that wasn't worth spit in front of a plow.
Frequently, on those Saturday afternoons, the farmers with the crosshatched, red backs-of-necks would lift a straw hat to her father. "Evening, Marcus," her father would say, and, "Evening, Mr. Deloach," the farmer would say in return.
"Why does he call you 'Mister' and you don't him?" Maggie asked once, after a sidewalk encounter.
"He's a client of mine, honey," her father said.
"You mean he owes you money," said Frances.
"Hush, Frannie. Marcus will pay me when he can. The Clevelands pay their bills."
Frances never mentioned the money those spare, quiet men owed Comer again in Maggie's hearing. She was, essentially and superstitiously, a charitable woman, and an obedient one. And until she began high school, Maggie never saw much of those oddly faded, Saturday-afternoon children. Once in a while there would be a still, bleached small face in the pickups and red-dusted Fords that pulled into the Deloach driveway in the evenings, and the small face would stare impassively into her own while the father and her own father talked their business, each man with a foot propped on a running board. The eyes of the children met in middle distance and clashed and dropped, and there was no ken in either pair.
So Maggie skated on her roller skates, went to birthday parties, rode her bicycle, jumped rope, cut out Gone With the Wind paper dolls, colored in Snow White coloring books, and was driven into Atlanta in the Deloach Chrysler for Children's Symphony and Walt Disney matinees with the sons and daughters of Lytton's druggist, physician, Methodist minister, schoolteachers. She played seldom, by choice, with the small boys, who intimidated her and were deliberately rough with her in their games, smelling some essential, alien Maggie-ness instinctively, like wild young animals. And after Frances discovered her and the seven-year-old son of the hardware dealer playing doctor in the Deloach Cape jessamines, and spoke tearfully to her child of Jesus and cleanliness, Maggie's intimidation slid over into real fear, and she played largely with a narrowed field of little girls.
But she much preferred the company of adults, and since she was a precocious and mannerly child, and charming to look at, the people who came to play bridge and have cake and coffee with Frances and Comer suffered her presence with grace and even interest. She was in the habit of curling up with her cheek pressed against the warm, round, wood-fretted vent hole of the big floor-model Magnavox in the Deloach living room, so quiet, so still, that it was easy to lose her in the lamplit room. By the time she was ten, Frances had quite forgotten to admonish, "Little pitchers have big ears," and Maggie absorbed the talk of Lytton's select adulthood like a hardy, hidden flower in a spring rain.
High school was, for Maggie, a walk-through. Frances's Rules, absorbed as by osmosis through Maggie's faultless olive skin, proved to be workable, and augmented by her flashing, if unoiled, intelligence. They obtained for her all that Frances and Comer could have asked. Lytton's high school was a consolidated county school; in a student body comprised largely of rangy, rough-knuckled teen-agers ferried in every day by the orange Blue Bird county buses from the outlying farms and returned in time for a good three hours' chores, Maggie shone like a Staffordshire shepherdess. Those students, the bleached Saturday children of her childhood, were not Maggie's friends, but they prized her as the Cretans did Ariadne, without aspiration or rancor, and the votes that elected her cheerleader, Homecoming Queen, president of the Student Council and the Beta Club, editor of the student newspaper and the yearbook, Best All-Round in her graduating class, were offerings, homages, sheaves of wheat laid at her feet. Even her best friends for she had two of those, daughters of Lytton's doctor and Methodist minister, respectively could not call Maggie stuck-up. With them Maggie giggled, slept overnight, rode in their family cars to the Varsity in Atlanta in order to ignore the Georgia Tech students, listened to lugubrious 45 records, swapped angora sweaters, sneaked Pall Malls, double-dated the four or five "townies," whom they swapped amicably among themselves for four years.
With the others, the bus kids, she chatted in halls and homerooms, and learned their names by the second week in September. She went steady, her senior year, with one of them, a large, exquisitely wrought young man who was captain of the football team, and she wore his letter sweater, and she necked proficiently and dispassionately with him on the bus that carried the football team and the cheerleaders to and from the out-of-town games. Frances did not worry about that; Maggie drifted away from him in May, while the other girls of her senior class drifted toward marriages to their fullbacks and shortstops, as Frances had known she would. Maggie was the only one of her class to go to college.
On the night of her graduation, Frances and Comer gave a party for Maggie's entire senior class in the vast backyard of the Coleman Street house. All her teachers were invited, too, and came; there was ginger ale and lime-sherbert punch and sandwiches, and Japanese lanterns in the old oaks, and a band engaged from Atlanta to play for dancing on the brick terrace. Maggie was radiant, animated, tense in yellow tulle. "You should be very proud of her," said all Maggie's teachers to Frances and Comer, and, "Well, she's a sweet girl, and we are proud of her," said Frances and Comer.
Black Carrie, carrying out another tray of the party sandwiches she had made over the past two days, stopped to talk to the next-door maid who had been recruited for extra help. "She look like a princess, don't she?" said Carrie. "That chile always has been too good to be true."
In a shadowy corner of the yard, under a mimosa tree spilling its benediction of fragrance over Maggie's party, a young English teacher from Ohio, whose first teaching job after graduation had been Maggie's senior English class, poured a tot of gin from a pint bottle in his pocket into his punch cup and regarded Maggie, who had won, under his tutelage, a national essay contest on "Traditional Values in a Changing World." No Lytton student had ever done such a thing; the young teacher's tenure was assured.
"That," he said to the assistant football coach, who was sharing the gin, "is the most anonymous girl I have ever seen."
Three weeks later, Frances drove Maggie and a snowstorm of new summer clothes to Randolph University. Comer followed in Maggie's new graduation Plymouth. Randolph had been Frances's and Comer's first choice; it had a good but not frightening academic standing, a good but not outré English department (Maggie's major), and strict rules governing its women students. They had visited, the fall before, a small number of carefully winnowed southern schools, and came to Randolph on a bronze October Saturday. Maggie had been captivated and oddly, nervously, excited by its ersatz Georgian brick buildings and rows of sprawling sorority and fraternity houses and by the shoals of tweeded and plaided students spilling toward the stadium for the Randolph-Tulane game. The Dean of Women had been met, and had offered coffee and a sweetly worldly little talk on what Randolph strove to give to its young women, and a handful of literature.
Later, after Maggie had applied and been accepted and her roommate assigned, the roommate had been written, and had visited the Deloach house, and had been adjudged a nice girl. Maggie had liked her and she Maggie (Comer remarked later to Frances that the girls rather resembled each other), and they had driven around Lytton to smoke illicit Pall Malls and talk about Randolph. Both girls opted for summer school, and that too had been parent-approved. "Far less of a strain for her, don't you think, Comer, than fall, with everybody pouring in all at once?" Frances said. Comer thought it would be, undoubtedly.
After they had met her housemother in Marian Creighton Hall and hung her curtains and made her bed with an orange-and-blue plaid bedspread and plugged in her record player and student lamp and hung her clothes in her closet and found a parking place close to the dormitory for Maggie's Plymouth, Frances and Comer kissed Maggie, and Frances wept, and they drove away.
Maggie sat down on her bed and fished her covertly purchased ashtray and Pall Malls out of her purse. She lit a cigarette and looked out her window over the Women's Quadrangle and waited for her roommate and for other things.
"Now," said pretty Maggie, through smoke. "Now."
Copyright © 1976 by Anne Rivers Siddons
Copyright renewed © 2004 by Anne Rivers Siddons
Anne Rivers Siddons was born in a small railroad town just south of Atlanta, where her family has lived for six generations. She attended Auburn University and later joined the staff of Atlanta magazine. Her first novel, Heartbreak Hotel, a story of her college days at Auburn, was later made into a movie called Heart of Dixie, starring Ally Sheedy. Since then she has written fifteen more novels, many of which have been bestsellers. Recently, a movie version of her later novel The House Next Door was aired on LifeTime Network. Ms. Siddons now divides her time between Atlanta and Brooklin, Maine.
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I was hopeful that this book would be a touching novel that really spoke to me because Ms. Siddons books have been compared to some other authors I really like. It was okay. I had a hard time liking many of the characters and I grew particularly frustrated with the heroine. There was some pretty rough language and a lot of references to the college party life. I found some things to like about the book, but not enough to put this author ahead of some others on my to-be-read-next pile.