The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down*

As this is posted, it’s 152 years since General Robert E. Lee of the Army of Northern Virginia surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant, who was headquartered with the Army of the Potomac. As you’ll know, that was more or less the end of the U.S. Civil War (or, the War Between the States, depending on where you live).

Of course, that didn’t end the hostility and bad feeling between the former combatants. The war left deep and lasting scars all around, and even today, there are times when resentment flares up on both sides.

Certainly, there are important cultural differences between the northern and southern parts of the country. There are other regional differences, too. And it’s interesting to see how those differences, and that war, play roles, even in more modern crime fiction that doesn’t take place during the 19th Century.

For example, Rita Mae Brown’s Mary Minor ‘Harry’ Haristeen series takes place in the small town of Crozet, Virginia. As the series begins, Harry is the town’s postmistress. Since most of the residents have post office boxes, Harry gets to hear a lot of what’s going on in town. She’s also a member of one of the region’s oldest families, so she has an ‘in’ to all the ‘better’ events and social circles. Throughout the series, there’s a thread of people from the North as ‘other.’ At the very least, ‘Yankees’ are clearly from another culture and another way of life. They’re often to be looked on with suspicion, and families who happen to be from the North are only accepted after a long time.

In Deborah Johnson’s The Secret of Magic, which takes place just after World War II, we are introduced to Regina Robichard, an idealistic young New York attorney, who works for the Legal Defense Fund. One day, the Legal Defense Fund gets a letter from a reclusive author, M.P. Calhoun. It seems that a black veteran named Joe Howard Wilson was murdered, and Clahoun wants his death investigated. As it happens, Calhoun wrote one of Robichard’s best-loved books from childhood, so she already knows the name. That’s enough to interest her in going to Revere, Mississippi, where Calhoun lives, and where the murder takes place. For Robichard, it’s a completely different world, and she already has some preconceptions about it. But, as she investigates, she finds that things aren’t what they seem, and she’s forced to examine life in her own New York City. This is a legal novel, but it’s also an interesting look at the differences between North and South – both perceived and real.

Sarah R. Shaber’s Simon Shaw is quite familiar with the cultural differences that come when North meets South in the US. He’s a history professor at Kenan College, in North Carolina. He’s happy to live and work where he does, and he considers himself a southerner. But his mother was from New York, and he has quite a lot of family there, so he does visit. His perspective is impacted by both those experiences and his upbringing, so he really does interact, as you might say, with both cultures.

When we first meet P.J. Parrish’s Louis Kincaid in Dark of the Moon, he has returned from Detroit to his home town of Black Pool Mississippi. His mother is dying, and he’s agreed to look after her during her last illness. He’s been hired to work under Sheriff Sam Dodie as the county detective, and that’s problematic enough. Kincaid is bi-racial in a place where that’s enough to exclude him from most of the local life. But then, a hunter discovers the remains of a man who’s been dead thirty years, and some very dark secrets are about to come out. The closer Kincaid gets to the truth, the more danger he faces. In fact, his experiences in Black Pool are part of the reason that, in Dead of Winter, he accepts a job working with the Loon Lake, Michigan police. He thinks it’ll be a fresh start in a new place. But it’s not long before he finds that buried secrets are not the exclusive property of the South. Throughout this series, we see how Kincaid ideals with the very different cultures of North and South.

And then there’s Adam Hall, a Chicago lawyer whom we meet in John Grisham’s The Chamber. His firm sends him to its Memphis office when an older man named Sam Cayhall is convicted of a Ku Klux Klan murder, and sentenced to execution by the state of Mississippi. Hall is Cayhall’s grandson, so for him, this trip isn’t just for professional reasons. He isn’t experienced when it comes to murder cases, but he does everything he can to win a stay of execution for his grandfather. Hall’s legal strategies, and the question of the death penalty, are important plot threads in this book. But so is Hall’s story. In a way, he is caught between his family’s southern roots, and his own life in the north. And it’s interesting to see how the different cultures play out in the novel.

There are other stories, too, where we see how the end of the Civil War/War Between the States didn’t really put an end to the deep divides between North and South. Which ones come to your mind? You’re absolutely right, fans of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman


*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Robbie Robertson. Listen to the version by The Band, and by Joan Baez, and see which you prefer. There’s a version by Johnny Cash, too.


Filed under Deborah Johnson, Harper Lee, John Grisham, P.J. Parrish, Rita Mae Brown, Sarah R. Shaber

37 responses to “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down*

  1. No offense to Ms. Baez.. But it’s The Band, all the way for me

  2. I can’t think of any books I’ve read with this theme, but the brilliant film In the Heat of the Night sprang to mind immediately. And now I really want to watch it again. Now I think of it, I bet it was based on a book…

    • Good call, FictionFan! It’s based on a 1965 novel (same name) by John Ball. And, yes, the film is absolutely brilliant. It really told the story in a powerful way without doing the gratuitous ‘shock value’ thing. And it’s a great example, too, of what I had in mind with this post, so thanks. I ought to watch that film again, too….

  3. What an intriguing post, Margot. Rita Mae Brown’s Mary Minor ‘Harry’ Haristeen series is a great example, as is John Grisham’s The Chamber. Now I’ll have that song in my head for the rest of the evening. 🙂

    • Isn’t it a great song, Mason? 🙂 And I do think that both Brown and Grisham do a very effective job of showing the differences between the cultures of the North and South, and how the war really still has an impact, even now.

  4. Col

    Apart from the John Ball book, I’ve not really read anything along the theme of the post. The Parrish books appeals to me though.

  5. I really enjoyed reading this post. I always think of the North and South trilogy by John Jakes when I think about the civil war – they’re very long books over a wide time span and it’s years since I read them but they still stick in my head. Also Sebastian Barry’s new novel Days Without End is set during the war too and is utterly breathtaking.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Hayley. I’m glad you liked the post. And thanks for mentioning the Jakes series. It really is a comprehensive series, isn’t it? And I’m also glad you mentioned the Barry, one I haven’t yet read. It certainly sounds great, though, and one I ought to look into (I do enjoy historical novels).

      • Yes it is – I spent a whole summer engrossed in the books and although that was many years ago now I still remember the plot and how it made me feel so clearly. I’m sure you’ll love the Barry, I still keep thinking about the characters now weeks after I finished reading.

        • To me, that’s one sign of an exceptional book, Hayley: when you’re still thinking about it long after you’ve read it. I’m definitely going to have to look up the Barry!

  6. The John Ball book IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT is worth reading too. He won an Edgar for it. Been meaning to read the Parrish books for years. Thanks for the reminder.

  7. Grisham came immediately to mind, in terms of crime fic.

    Lots of tensions still between north and south, even when you wouldn’t think there would be. I think most of the tension is on the southern side, ha! I’m not even sure northerners in the south are aware of it because it’s frequently unspoken.

    • Now, that’s an interesting point, Elizabeth, about the way that tension is expressed (or not). As you say, people who aren’t used to living in the South may not be fully aware. It’s the subtleties, that ‘very correct’ way of speaking and acting that conveys so much. If you’re not familiar with what that means, you miss it. And, yes, Grisham does, I think, a great job of showing that tension.

  8. kathy d

    The Secret of Magic is an excellent book, a lot of feeling is expressed in addition to the plot.
    The Chamber is a tough read, a real expose of the death penalty system. I learned a lot although it’s hard-going to read.
    Hmmm, I must say we sang every Joan Baez song in my teenage years, did harmonies, had her records. I still remember many melodies and words.
    But then she sang, this song and that was it for me. She still has a beautiful voice, but I could not listen any longer.
    And then I saw her on a Bob Dylan PBS Special and she was casually using racist words in her conversation — on the documentary! So, the thrill is gone.
    There are several books by Grisham that cross the North-South divide, although he primarily writes about Mississippi. Gray Mountain features a New York lawyer who goes to Virginia to help low-income communities there and she has culture shock.

    • Thanks, Kathy, for mentioning Gray Mountain. As you say, there’s an interesting North/South dynamic there. And you’re right; Grisham’s done several books that cross cultural lines, so to speak. And, yes, The Chamber is a difficult read. It’s well worth the effort, in my opinion. But it’s certainly not a light, easy novel. I didn’t get the chance to see that Bob Dylan special; thanks for mentioning it.

  9. Keishon

    Great post and also a big fan of the two sisters who writer under P.J. Parrish. Loved John Ball’s book but haven’t read a lot of books with this theme either but I’m not looking for any 🙂 because I find such books hard to read. Have to be in the right frame of mind.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Keishon. I agree with you that the Louis Kindcaid series is very well-written. You make a good point, too. There are some books with this plot thread that are really difficult to read. They aren’t light reading, that’s certainly true.

  10. kathy d

    The PBS Special about Bob Dylan is part of the American Masters series. The sister of a friend is a producer of the series, so I try to watch them.

  11. Margot, I can never forget Grisham’s emotionally-charged “The Chamber”. Such a powerful story and so well told. I felt for Adam Hall.

  12. Thanks for the reminder of the Louis Kincaid series, Margot. I read the first book and have meant to continue the series but haven’t yet. Must do that.

    • It’s a fine series, Tracy. I know exactly what you mean, though, about having the time to continue on with a series. Sometimes it’s really hard to find the time to do that.

  13. I’ve been meaning to read one of Kris’ books. Dark of the Moon sounds like the perfect place to start. Thanks, Margot!

    • I recommend it, Sue. It’s not an easy book to read, but I think it has solid characters and a strong sense of atmosphere. If you try it, I hope you’ll enjoy it.

  14. Like some of your other British fans, I am not so familiar with books on this theme. But I did enjoy Charles Frazer’s Cold Mountain a few years ago, about a soldier returning home after the Civil War. It was made into a film too.

    • Oh, thank you for mentioning Cold Mountain, Moira. I’d completely forgotten about it, and it certainly fits with this theme. I appreciate your filling in the gap. And the film was quite good, I thought.

  15. A few thoughts here from a proud son of the South. First, slavery was “a” cause of the war, but not “the main” cause. That came about after the war was going badly for the North, convincing Lincoln to reverse his stand on not interfering with slavery by “freeing” the slaves with the so-called Emancipation Proclamation. However, only slaves in the occupied territories of the South fell under this proclamation. Yes, there were slaves in the North. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s wife held many in bondage, and continued to do so until some time after the war ended (as did other Northern slave holders). Lincoln’s main reason for launching war upon the South was his (and his industrialists backers) fear of losing the economic wealth the South paid in excessive tariffs and taxation. In a sense, the North was treating the South as “colony” for economic gain. Losing that income would have seriously affected the North’s economy and disrupted their plans for railroad expansion westward and continued industrial growth throughout the North. Let’s not forget who brought the slaves to the U.S. shores in the first place. It was New England slave traders, whose ships, flying the U.S. flag, bought or traded goods to African tribes who had captured enemy tribes and taken them prisoner with the intent of selling them to these slave merchants. It must be remembered that the North was heavily invested in cotton and tobacco and other money crops that could only be grown profitably in the warmer climes of the South. Many Northerners were actually monetarily invested in some of the large Southern plantations. As time passed and fiscal laws were tightened more and more, the South decided to secede and form their own nation, i.e., The Confederate States of America. Lincoln then tried (breaking his promise NOT to) to reinforce U.S. troops occupying Ft. Sumpter in South Carolina’s Charleston Harbor. This forced the South’s hand and they bombarded the fort. It fell the next day with zero casualties. Lincoln then put out the call for 400,000 volunteers to invade and conquer the “rebellion” as his called it. This outward act of war caused other Southern states to pass their ordinances of secession, and the war escalated. With less than 10% of Southerners owning slaves, what prompted the scores of thousands of Southern men to leave their homes, take up arms, and march to meet the invading Northern army? It certainly wasn’t to defend and protect the institution of slavery. It was to protect hearth, home, family, and their country from an invading army.
    I well remember when our schools were integrated. I was in high school at the time. Several black students entered our school and there was absolutely no problem. These students were accepted, befriended, and blended right in. I was the catcher on our baseball team. One of the newly integrated students was a pitcher on the team. We became fast friends.
    This is a far cry from the late ’60s when all hell broke loose in the Boston, MA, area during the busing issue. There were many other instances where integration was a problem in the North. There were also many instances of trouble in the South. Who can forget the tragedy of the beatings, firehosing, and bombing in Birmingham, AL? My point is, the South has long been a whipping post for racial problems. I say the blame is shared by both North and South. I share MLK’s dream of one day we’ll not judge a person by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. I long for the day when there’ll be no “African Americans,” no “Mexican Americans,” no “Italian Americans,” just simply “Americans.”
    In Vietnam where I served as a combat U.S. Marine, we all–black, white, latino, asian, whatever–saw only ONE color: the green we wore. And we all bled one color: red. We had each other’s backs, no matter the skin under the uniform.
    Thanks for letting me vent. Peace to all. 🙂

    • Thank you, Michael, both for your thoughts about the War Between the States/Civil War, and for your thoughts about the Vietnam War. You make a well-taken point in saying that racial issues (and gender issues, and LGBT issues, and so on) are not just a ‘North’ problem or a ‘South’ problem. Those deep-seated inequities in our country will take all of us working together to solve.

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