Low Country: A Southern Memoir
A good ghost story follows a structure: innocence, tragedy, mystery, eternity. They mix the known and the unknown to make shocking crimes follow well-trod patterns. The lovesick woman (murdered or dead of consumption and neglect) looks for her partner or a child to steal. The pirate (hanged, no doubt) searches for his lost treasure. The mad scientist (no telling how he died) hunts for a new victim among the living.
J. Nicole Jones’s memoir Low Country opens with one ghost and closes with the noted absence of another. Jones does not stick to a familiar structure. Instead, she plays with the standard form of a memoir in ways that are sometimes satisfying and sometimes a little frustrating. Jones braids her family’s story with strands of South Carolina legend and history to create a memoir that sometimes obscures her own life. In looping tangents that recall a little of Scheherazade’s style of storytelling, Jones talks about growing up among the hurricanes, spirits (both unearthly and illicitly distilled) and patriarchy of South Carolina. Her family history plays out like one of the country songs her father writes. There are drugs and alcohol, abuse and neglect, mistresses and con men. It’s colorful to be sure, and the main characters are really Jones’s grandmother and dad. Her South Carolina is one of deeply ingrained patriarchy. The value her grandfather and uncles placed on male children is clear.
Low Country could fall into many categories other than memoir. Anthropology, genealogy, folklore. Jones seems much more concerned with recreating the misty, supernatural aura of the low country and highlighting and redeeming the women in her family, than showing us how these contexts actually affected her.
In some ways I loved that she didn’t focus only on her own experiences. Her British grandmother’s stay in North Carolina and her paternal grandparents’ rise and fall in South Carolina are really engaging stories. The care with which she elevates her paternal grandmother’s life is especially touching. And the ghost stories and historic tragedies with which she juxtaposes her family’s specific traumas add a context that attempts to explain why life in the low country is what it is. As a North Carolina resident, I felt I learned so much about the roots of my neighbors one state south, and I enjoyed the process.
At the same time, I would have loved to have seen a bit more of Jones. Traditionally, memoirs focus on their narrator’s development, but Jones plays more the camp counselor telling a scary story than the main character in hers. Like many who leave home, Jones speaks about the South – and about her battered grandmother and troubador father – with a familiar and nuanced mix of distanced criticism, personal hurt and enduring affection. Near the end of the book, Jones wishes she could “reclaim the superstitions and stories passed on to [her] from fear, and remake them as [she] would see the daughters of the Low Country.” An admirable goal. But we see so little of Jones that it’s sometimes hard to tell how she is carrying these stories into the future – other than by publishing a memoir. She lovingly highlights the superstitions and women in her ancestry more than she remakes them. How did her eventual move to New York redeem her grandmother’s undying patience with a man the whole family told her to leave? I don’t mean to imply that it hasn’t, I applaud Jones for grappling with the abuse the South has lavished on even the most privileged women. But passages like “as I longed to do then but could not, I will skip over the rest of high school,” left me wanting more. Jones isn’t obligated to share any more of her life than she wishes in her own book, but analyzing Southern attitudes towards women through even her nearest relatives’ experiences still leaves the stories a little more final and distanced than I think she would want.
One of the times Jones really lets us into her experience of a woman being neglected is when she tells us about visiting her grandmother while she’s dying of medical malpractice. This is one of the times she talks about how her grandmother’s life and stories affected her on an intimate and personal level, not on a broader social level. The tenderness with which Jones writes this scene and the raw grief mixed with peaceful certainty that her grandmother has moved on to the respect she deserves are fantastic. In a few pages, this scene does more to drive the sometimes deadly effect of the South’s treatment of women home than many of Jones’s earlier chapters.
Jones’s prose is a misty, wandering thing, full of intimate folksy charm and bravado.
“...bullets and bourbon may as well be communion wafers and the blood of Christ in the swamplands and swashes of the Low Country.”
She breaks the fourth wall constantly, slipping into a second-person camaraderie that’s usually fun and inviting. One story will spark four other vignettes and musings, half from her life and half from South Carolina lore, before circling back around to the story of how her parents met. Sometimes the prose slips from polished to pretentious.
“Education I had always known was my way out of town.”
Her scenes are interesting and atmospheric, if sometimes a little labyrinthine. Usually, the interwoven narratives help highlight the interconnectedness of folklore and lived history, and I enjoyed the convoluted style of many sections. Occasionally, I just didn’t catch what was a new story and what was another tangent, but even in that there’s a bit of reality. Stories don’t end when the telling is finished, and Jones’s early life was lived in a very specific context that continues to affect her.
As a portrait of life in Myrtle Beach, Low Country is effective, entertaining and often beautiful. Her attention to history and folklore builds an engaging context around the Jones family, and her attention to the struggles of her grandmother especially are touching and tender. From the very title, Low Country, another name for the Southern coast of South Carolina, Jones is setting us up to pay attention to the ghosts of the region’s past more than to herself.