Book Review

In Graceland, At Last, Margaret Renkl makes the stereotypes of her native country her business. Taken from her weekly op-ed column in the New York Times, these essays emanate from Renkl outwards—from her own garden where hawks drink at her birdbath to a wildlife reserve in Tennessee helping reestablish the eagle population, from her son’s pandemic wedding to the end of the Nashville TV show—the connecting tissue is trying to understand what the South is. “For a lifelong Southerner writing about the South in a national newspaper, it is also a great responsibility,” she writes. “No other region of the country carries so much cultural baggage.”

What quickly becomes clear in these articles is that the South is consistently at odds with itself, its right hand never sure what its left is up to. “The South has always been so bound up in both beauty and suffering,” writes Renkl, “that it isn’t possible to untangle one from the other.” She is fantastic at catching her home in the act. In a piece on Nashville’s Fort Negley, a monument from the Civil War that served as “a de facto refugee camp for escaped slaves,” the city’s rapid growth threatens to uproot the historic site. There was, in effect, a fight to keep it standing—not, however, from the defenders of Confederate statues. Renkl is clear about the hypocrisy: “It’s fair to assume that the supporters of other Civil War monuments around the state of Tennessee will not be coalescing around this vision to preserve a site that celebrates a different kind of history.” In another piece, she lays out what she sees as the damage the modern Republican party is doing to those same states that consistently vote red:

What’s being planned in Washington will hit my fellow Southerners harder than almost anyone else. Where are the immigrants? Mostly in the South. Which states execute more prisoners? The Southern states. Which region has the highest poverty rate? The South. Where are you most likely to drink poisoned water? Right here in the South. Where is affordable health care hardest to find? You guessed it.

As a Christian Democrat in deep red territory, Renkl is rightly concerned for both groups, which naturally brings us to Donald Trump, who in 2016 won huge support from both Christian and Southern communities. It is another of those regional hypocrisies she is so adept at uncovering. In “Open Letter to My Fellow White Christians,” she is unequivocal in her concern. “We set the fire when our ‘Christian’ president cleared a peaceful crowd by spraying them with tear gas as though they were enemy combatants, marched to a nearby church for a photo op, and held up a Bible to imply that God is on his side,” she writes. But the book also seems to fall into a familiar trap, which is to suggest that Trump arrived unprecedented, that he was, without a doubt, the worst president in American history:

By any conceivable definition, the sitting president of the United States is the utter antithesis of Christian values—a misogynist who disdains refugees, persecutes immigrants, condones torture, and is energetically working to dismantle the safety net that protects our most vulnerable neighbours. Watching Christians put him in the White House has completely broken my heart.

This is as close as the book comes to another elephant in the room: George W. Bush. Not to say that he must be named every time Trump is, but in a book written by a Southern Christian, much of which is concerned with the health of both, his absence feels strange. “Republicans now have what they’ve long wanted: the chance to turn this into a Christian nation,” Renkl writes in the same piece, and it reads a little like amnesia.

As a writer, Renkl is—to use a trope that appears to be well-founded—as warm and inviting as Southern hospitality. Her prose is clean and uncomplicated, which, like a riverbed, allows for an easy rhythm. In an article on a scarcity of butterflies, she writes, “The shoulder of a highway, from blacktop to tree line, is the perfect setting for flowers that require full sun; it’s a ribbon of meadow that unfolds before the eye for as long as the road goes on.” She is also fond of lists, a strategy of moving through names or scenes that takes advantage of her ear for poetry. “We saw morning glory, alligator weed, water hemlock, arrow arum, elderberry flowers, black needlerush, rose mallow,” she writes in one essay, while in another we find “an endless garden—Queen Anne’s lace and forest tickseed, Carolina horse nettle and narrowleaf vervain, annual fleabane and zigzag spiderwort and oxeye daisies were all growing untended on the side of the road.”

It is this and more that draws Renkl’s style in close proximity to Mary Oliver’s: the tender, careful eye; the religious idea of nature; the attentive, loving prose. Sometimes, especially in the book’s section on family, this means leaning into sentimentality, as Oliver could be prone to. But while this naivete, this sweetness, can border on cliché, it is the perfect vehicle for a dose of something bitter. Here is Renkl on drug addicts, after hearing that a friend’s mother became dependent on painkillers: “I’d never even heard of an addiction to prescription drugs. To me, a ‘drug addict’ was a desperate person who bought illegal drugs on the street. An addict was not an elderly woman who’d gone to a reputable surgeon and taken the medication he’d prescribed exactly as he’d prescribed it.” In other articles, subject matter like miscarriage, gun control, and the loss of parents are delivered this way, bringing you to a pause. “In this pandemic holiday, no one will gather here but our adult children, and once again there will be too many empty seats at the table,” she writes. “That’s a metaphor: in fact there will be no table.”

The thing about op-ed columns like Renkl’s is that they’re intended to be taken as a single, weekly dose. What collecting her NYT essays together like this does, is emphasise both the weaknesses and the strengths: Renkl’s reliance on biblical contrasts, and her inexhaustible sympathy; the American exceptionalism that crops up, and the intimacy with which she writes of her home, her family, of Southern complexities. “Landscapes can be deceptive,” John Berger wrote in A Fortunate Man, “sometimes a landscape seems to be less a setting for the life of its inhabitants than a curtain behind which their struggles, achievements and accidents take place.” Graceland, At Last is a diary of small clarities, and in some form or another, Renkl is helping to ruffle the Southern landscape.

About the Reviewer

Connor Harrison is a writer based in the West Midlands, UK. His work has appeared at Lit Hub, New Critique, Longleaf Review, and Review31, among others.