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May 22, 2008

Southern Fare

Posted by carol
Today Shannon McKenna Schmidt talks about her book club's most recent read --- Eudora Welty's The Optimist's Daughter --- how she came to select it for discussion and what her fellow members thought of this Southern novel.

This month my reading group journeyed to the South...on the page, that is, with Eudora Welty's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Optimist's Daughter. It's the story of a woman who returns to her Mississippi hometown after being summoned to her ailing father's bedside. In keeping with the theme, we met at a restaurant that serves Southern-style food and discussed the book over the likes of fried chicken and pulled-pork sandwiches.

In all the years we've been meeting, and with more than 110 discussions to date, I'm still surprised that conversations can end up being so different --- and different than I expect them to be. What was noticeable this time was that all six of us had very similar reactions to The Optimist's Daughter --- it was not especially liked or disliked but rather everyone had mixed feelings about it.

And there are a lot of points to talk about. We touched on topics like peoples' reactions to death and grief, letting go of the past, the meaning of the title, how much a person's upbringing shapes their character, and how Welty was able to convey so much in a relatively short novel (it's just under 200 pages). There was also much to say about the two main characters, low-key, genteel Laurel (the Optimist's daughter) and bold, brash Fay (the Optimist's much younger second wife).

The Optimist's Daughter was my selection. I became interested in reading Welty's works while researching and writing Novel Destinations, which features literary landmarks in the U.S. and Europe. The Southern states are rich with author houses and museums, one of which is the Eudora Welty House in Jackson, Mississippi. She died in 2001 and bequeathed her home to the State, and it remains much as she left it.

It was fun picking up on certain details in the novel that Welty incorporated from her own life --- such as a cubbyhole desk like one she had, camellias (which were her favorite flower) and books by Charles Dickens with "old crimson bindings scorched and frayed" (her mother once braved a burning house to rescue a 24-volume set of the British scribe's works).

At this month's gathering we talked about going on a literary getaway, something we have yet to do as a group (my book club buddy Erin and I did visit Harper Lee's hometown together in search of sites from To Kill a Mockingbird when I was researching that chapter of Novel Destinations). Hopefully, in addition to more interesting reading and discussing, there's a visit to an author house in our future.

---Shannon McKenna Schmidt

Check out the
Novel Destinations contest on for a chance to win a copy of the book and a Jane Austen-themed tote bag filled with literary- and travel-related items (some of which come directly from author houses in the U.S. and Europe).