Can anyone ever really go home again? Well, physically, yes. Susan Hamilton Hayes was fortunate that her family home on Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina, was still in the family, and that she could actually go there whenever she wanted. Doing so brought back memories joyful and tender, also funny and heartbreakingly painful. If it hadn’t been such a hauntingly beautiful place, would she have wanted to return?
Sullivan’s Island by Dorothea Benton Frank, was the book chosen by our book club to discuss in January, 2017. Although published in 1999, this book is still relevant today, and will likely remain so forever.
Sullivan’s Island is the story of heartbreak, love lost, love and respect regained, and of the joys and difficulties of raising a teenager. Add to that race relations of the 1960s, domestic violence, adultery, alcoholism, dysfunctional families, and the love/hate angst of having had an abusive father and an extremely submissive mother who coped by taking to her bed. Almost everyone can relate to one or more of these issues. This is some pretty heavy stuff, and it was a time when such things weren’t discussed.
In the prologue, Susan finds her husband, Tom, in their bed with a young woman half his age. She throws them out of the house, and the remainder of the book takes the reader through the emotional minefield of separation and divorce while raising a teenage girl as a newly single parent trying to protect her daughter, Beth, from the ugliness of divorce.
During this emotional time, Susan begins to relive old guilt feelings surrounding her father’s death. She had always feared that a fight centering around his abuse of her little brother, Timmy, had somehow led to a fatal heart attack that caused his car to plunge off a bridge into the marsh. Additionally, she had never completely accepted the story that her father’s death was accidental. Susan researches old newspapers, seeking proof that her father was actually murdered, because of his refusal to participate in racial bigotry.
Frank’s stories of life in the low country are uniquely sweet, sexy, hysterically funny, and sad. The late Pat Conroy said, “Her books are funny, sexy, and dripping with sea water.” I couldn’t agree more. Her reminiscences of a childhood catching blue crabs for dinner brought back my own memories of damming up the creek behind our house, falling in almost daily, and of catching crawfish. Unfortunately, at that time, I didn’t know we could eat them.
The book is full of words of wisdom often uttered by Livvie, the family’s housekeeper, who actually raised Susan and her many siblings. Livvie said things such as, “The world you have when you grow up is gonna be the one you make. You use your mind and make it better.”
Through Susan, Franks asks important questions such as, after the 1964 bombing of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, “…how deep must be the hatred that drove the person to commit such an unforgivable crime? Who would kill people while they prayed?” Indeed, how? Susan tells Livvie, “…There will always be rednecks and ad guys. Can’t change that either, but we can change education.”
My heart broke when, after a beating, little Timmy asked, “Why doesn’t Mama stop him?” Their mother had simply sat on the steps with her head down while her husband beat “the living daylights” out of her youngest son.
This book contains so very much material for good discussion and serious thought. I was disappointed in our book club meeting about this book. Choosing it to read during the busy month of December for discussion in January was a mistake, because several members had not finished reading it. Although I had read it about 10 years ago, I needed to read it again, and also had not finished it.
Having visited Charleston, SC, many times, I was familiar with some of the places mentioned in the story. It’s always nice to read about a place, and think to myself, “I know exactly where that is,” or “I’ve been there”. In 2009, Frank published Return to Sullivan’s Island, when Susan’s daughter, Beth, returned there as an adult. The old family home on the coast was still standing, waiting for Beth. Charleston is a wonderful place to visit. I can’t wait to spend a few days there again, and to see Sullivan’s Island for myself.