Want to learn more about our area and how its past has formed its present?
Then there is no better way than to read works by Lowcountry authors.
The Water is Wide
Pat Conroy is generally better known for novels like Prince of Tides and Beach Music, but an early work of nonfiction about his days as schoolteacher on Daufuskie Island is, in my opinion, by far the standout. Daufuskie is called “Yamacraw” and the names of characters are changed as well. The unflinching portrayal still upset a some locals when it was published in 1972. Conroy spoke the truth about what he saw: little black children on an island of isolation and poverty. Their education had been sorely neglected. They couldn’t even recite the alphabet or name the country they lived in.
In a pitiful drafty schoolhouse with outdated textbooks cast off by mainland white schools, they were beaten and called “retarded” by their only other teacher. So Conroy promptly instituted his own unorthodox methods. He took them across the water on field trips to an outside world. Later, his job was threatened by patriarchal powers of the school board. Despite its treatment of such heavyweight issues, the book is an absolute joy to read, full of the warmth and humor of Daufuskie’s native islander community. And the kids—you can’t help but love the kids! Conroy perfectly captures their hilarity, innocence and mean streaks; their tragedy, potential and hope. The Lowcountry is better for having this book.
William Elliot’s Carolina Sports by Land and Water
First published in 1846, it discusses the days of gentlemen rice planters. “I am a hereditary sportsman,” Elliot writes, “and inherit the tastes of my grandfather, as well as his lands.” Elliot is absolutely typical, keeping to all the social norms and prejudices of the era. He built his fortune on the backs of slaves, whom he felt certain would burn the whole place down if he didn’t crack the whip; later he went into politics; his passion for “sportsmanship” contributed heavily to the wanton 19th-century slaughter of wildlife that nearly exterminated deer, bear and panthers from the South. But at least the way Elliot tells it, he’s a hero.
Here are rollicking tales of the hunt in which he kills two bear with one shot, chases down and strangles a deer with his bare hands, and lands any number of epic bass and drumfish that would make the modern angler gape with envy. Of particular interest are his stories of “the mightiest, strangest, most formidable among them all for its strength, the devil-fish; then rarely seen, and deemed, even down to our own times, scarcely less fabulous than the Norwegian kraken!” Elliot liked to harpoon these monstrous manta rays, then hold fast to the line while they towed his little boat on a wild ride all over Port Royal Sound! Politics aside, there’s just no denying he knew how to spin a good yarn.
This Daufuskie Island author has a way of telling stories that perfectly suits his habitat: thick and tangled like the woods, weaving in and out like tidal creeks, grand as a plantation, full of shabby history like an old praise house, dubious as something you only thought you saw in the moonshadows, dirty as a dirt road yet somehow sacred too, like golden light on the marsh. You’re never quite sure what his stories are about, but boy do they give you a feeling. And they are NEVER politically correct.
A seventh-generation Lowcountry native son, Roger Pinckney is authentic; he’s got both the pedigree and the checkered past to lend just the right sensibilities to his work. Characters include bootleggers, outlaws, “root doctors” (Lowcountry voodoo men), unscrupulous developers, and of course more than a few beautifully dangerous women. His novels are titled “Reefer Moon and Mullet Manifesto,” and his collections of essays include “The Right Side of the River, Signs and Wonders,” and “Seventh Son on Sacred Ground.” His fairly scholarly work entitled “Blue Roots,” tells all about Gullah folk magic from Roger’s own experience. Read him to escape into a tale, to understand the Lowcountry. It reminds us appreciate and protect these waters and this land.
Scarlet Sister Mary
Highly controversial in its own time, this novel will still raise eyebrows today. It is the story of a young black woman whose true love does her bad. Because of this, she gives free reign to her passions. She takes on a string of casual lovers by whom she bears nine illegitimate children. Sister Mary rears them on her own with strength, courage and a sort of homely dignity. She does this even as she is ostracized by her church-dominated community. The book is set in post-emancipation coastal Carolina, but with a twist. There is not a single white character in the book. Scarlet Sister Mary celebrates rural Black-American culture on its own terms, in its own language. It has been compared with such pioneering novels as The Color Purple and Their Eyes Were Watching God.
Here is an intimate portrait of a Gullah community where people’s lives carry on independently of their masters. Written by a white woman made the book very revolutionary for its time. Due to this, and to the sensual nature of its content, it was labeled obscene. At least one public library in South Carolina banned the book. Its author, Julia Peterkin, a plantation mistress who grew up around Gullah folk. She knew how to perfectly render their dialect and humor. She became the first South Carolinian to win the Pulitzer Prize when Scarlet Sister Mary was selected in 1928. (A detractor promptly resigned from the jury in outrage.) But none of this is the real joy of the book. It brings to life this troubling, yet warmly loved slice of Lowcountry folklife. Read it for the colorful language and laugh-out-loud humor.
J.E. McTeer’s High Sheriff of the Lowcountry
He is a local legend, along with his arch-nemesis, the infamous Sea Island conjure man Dr. Buzzard. McTeer became head lawman of Beaufort County in 1926 at the age of 23. He replaced his deceased father and went on to serve in the position for 37 years. He garnered respect and affection from both the black and white segregated communities. The character of McTeer acts as sheriff and a self-professed “white witch doctor.” He partakes supernatural battles with the criminals he was trying to bring down? McTeer authored Fifty Years as a Lowcountry Witch Doctor, High Sheriff of the Lowcountry, Adventure in the Woods and Waters of the Low Country, and Beaufort Now and Then, vintage classics you can find in any local library.
McTeer was an extremely intelligent, rational, shrewd and insightful person. He deeply understood and sympathized with the people of his community. He called himself a “poor man’s psychiatrist.” After his tenure as sheriff, he continued to see patients. They came from several states to seek his counsel in a little back “root room” of his real estate office. He was truly an icon of a unique era that is now past.
By Michele Roldán-Shaw