South of Broad
Pat Conroy, 2009
Against the sumptuous backdrop of Charleston, South Carolina, South of Broad gathers a unique cast of sinners and saints. Leopold Bloom King, our narrator, is the son of an amiable, loving father who teaches science at the local high school. His mother, an ex-nun, is the high school principal and a respected Joyce scholar.
After Leo's older brother commits suicide at the age of ten, the family struggles with the shattering effects of his death, and Leo, lonely and isolated, searches for something to sustain him. Eventually, he finds his answer when he becomes part of a tightly knit group of high school seniors that includes friends Sheba and Trevor Poe, glamorous twins with an alcoholic mother and a prison-escapee father; hardscrabble mountain runaways Niles and Starla Whitehead; socialite Molly Huger and her boyfriend, Chadworth Rutledge X-and an ever-widening circle whose liaisons will ripple across two decades, from 1960s counterculture through the dawn of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s.
The ties among them endure for years, surviving marriages happy and troubled, unrequited loves and unspoken longings, hard-won successes and devastating breakdowns, as well as Charleston's dark legacy of racism and class divisions. But the final test of friendship that brings them to San Francisco is something no one is prepared for.
South of Broad is Pat Conroy at his finest: a long-awaited work from a great American writer whose passion for life and language knows no bounds. (From the publisher.)
• Birth—October 26, 1945
• Where—Atlanta, Georgia, USA
• Education—B.A., The Citadel
• Currently—lives in San Francisco, California, and Fripp
Island, South, Carolina
Pat Conroy was born in Atlanta, Georgia, to a young career military officer from Chicago and a Southern beauty from Alabama, whom Pat often credits for his love of language. He was the first of seven children.
His father was a violent and abusive man, a man whose biggest mistake, Conroy once said, was allowing a novelist to grow up in his home, a novelist "who remembered every single violent act.... My father's violence is the central fact of my art and my life." Since the family had to move many times to different military bases around the South, Pat changed schools frequently, finally attending the Citadel Military Academy in Charleston, South Carolina, upon his father's insistence. While still a student, he wrote and then published his first book, The Boo, a tribute to a beloved teacher.
After graduation, Conroy taught English in Beaufort, where he met and married a young woman with two children, a widow of the Vietnam War. He then accepted a job teaching underprivileged children in a one-room schoolhouse on Daufuskie Island, a remote island off the South Carolina shore. After a year, Pat was fired for his unconventional teaching practices—such as his unwillingness to allow corporal punishment of his students—and for his general lack of respect for the school's administration. Conroy evened the score when he exposed the racism and appalling conditions his students endured with the publication of The Water is Wide in 1972. The book won Conroy a humanitarian award from the National Education Association and was made into the feature film Conrack, starring Jon Voight.
Following the birth of a daughter, the Conroys moved to Atlanta, where Pat wrote his novel, The Great Santini, published in 1976. This autobiographical work, later made into a powerful film starring Robert Duvall, explored the conflicts of his childhood, particularly his confusion over his love and loyalty to an abusive and often dangerous father.
The publication of a book that so painfully exposed his family's secret brought Conroy to a period of tremendous personal desolation. This crisis resulted not only in his divorce but the divorce of his parents; his mother presented a copy of The Great Santini to the judge as "evidence" in divorce proceedings against his father.
The Citadel became the subject of his next novel, The Lords of Discipline, published in 1980. The novel exposed the school's harsh military discipline, racism and sexism. This book, too, was made into a feature film.
Pat remarried and moved from Atlanta to Rome where he began The Prince of Tides which, when published in 1986, became his most successful book. Reviewers immediately acknowledged Conroy as a master storyteller and a poetic and gifted prose stylist. This novel has become one of the most beloved novels of modern time—with over five million copies in print, it has earned Conroy an international reputation. The Prince of Tides was made into a highly successful feature film directed by Barbra Streisand, who also starred in the film opposite Nick Nolte, whose brilliant performance won him an Oscar nomination.
Beach Music (1995), Conroy's sixth book, was the story of Jack McCall, an American who moves to Rome to escape the trauma and painful memory of his young wife's suicidal leap off a bridge in South Carolina. The story took place in South Carolina and Rome, and also reached back in time to the Holocaust and the Vietnam War. This book, too, was a tremendous international bestseller.
While on tour for Beach Music, members of Conroy's Citadel basketball team began appearing, one by one, at his book signings around the country. When his then-wife served him divorce papers while he was still on the road, Conroy realized that his team members had come back into his life just when he needed them most. And so he began reconstructing his senior year, his last year as an athlete, and the 21 basketball games that changed his life. The result of these recollections, along with flashbacks of his childhood and insights into his early aspirations as a writer, is My Losing Season, Conroy's seventh book and his first work of nonfiction since The Water is Wide.
South of Broad, published in 2009, 14 years after Beach Music, tells the story of friendships, first formed in high school, that span two decades.
He currently lives in Fripp Island, South Carolina with his wife, the novelist Cassandra King. (Adapted from the author's website and Barnes & Noble.)
South of Broad is a big sweeping novel of friendship and marriage—and, perhaps, vintage Pat Conroy…Conroy is an immensely gifted stylist, and there are passages in the novel that are lush and beautiful and precise. No one can describe a tide or a sunset with his lyricism and exactitude. My sense is that the millions of readers who cherish Conroy's work won't be at all disappointed—and nor will anyone who owns stock in Kleenex.
Chris Bohjalian - Washington Post
Echoing some themes from his earlier novels, Conroy fleshes out the almost impossibly dramatic details of each of the friends’ lives in this vast, intricate story, and he reveals truths about love, lust, classism, racism, religion, and what it means to be shaped by a particular place, be it Charleston, South Carolina, or anywhere else in the U.S. —Mark Knoblauch
Charleston, S.C., gossip columnist Leopold Bloom King narrates a paean to his hometown and friends in Conroy's first novel in 14 years. In the late '60s and after his brother commits suicide, then 18-year-old Leo befriends a cross-section of the city's inhabitants: scions of Charleston aristocracy; Appalachian orphans; a black football coach's son; and an astonishingly beautiful pair of twins, Sheba and Trevor Poe, who are evading their psychotic father. The story alternates between 1969, the glorious year Leo's coterie stormed Charleston's social, sexual and racial barricades, and 1989, when Sheba, now a movie star, enlists them to find her missing gay brother in AIDS-ravaged San Francisco. Too often the not-so-witty repartee and the narrator's awed voice (he is very fond of superlatives) overwhelm the stories surrounding the group's love affairs and their struggles to protect one another from dangerous pasts. Some characters are tragically lost to the riptides of love and obsession, while others emerge from the frothy waters of sentimentality and nostalgia as exhausted as most readers are likely to be. Fans of Conroy's florid prose and earnest melodramas are in for a treat.
"Kids, I'm teaching you to tell a story. It's the most important lesson you'll ever learn," says the protagonist of Conroy's first novel in 14 years (since 1995's Beach Music). Switching between the 1960s and the 1980s, the narrative follows a group of friends whose relationship began in Charleston, SC. The narrator is Leopold Bloom King (his mother was a Joyce scholar), a likable but troubled kid who goes from having one best friend, his brother, to having no friends after a tragedy, to having, suddenly, a gang, of which he is perhaps not the leader but certainly the glue. Conroy continues to demonstrate his skill at presenting the beauty and the ugliness of the South, holding both up for inspection and, at times, admiration. He has not lost his touch for writing stories that are impossible to put down; the fast pace and shifting settings grip the reader even as the story occasionally veers toward the unbelievable. Verdict: Filled with the lyrical, funny, poignant language that is Conroy's birthright, this is a work Conroy fans will love. Libraries should buy multiple copies. —Amy Watts, Univ. of Georgia Lib., Athens
First novel in 14 years from the gifted spinner of Southern tales (Beach Music, 1995, etc.)—a tail-wagging shaggy dog at turns mock-epic and gothic, beautifully written throughout. The title refers, meaningfully, to a section of Charleston, S.C., and, as with so many Southern tales, one great story begets another and another. This one starts most promisingly: "Nothing happens by accident." Indeed. The Greeks knew that, and so does young Leopold Bloom King. It is on Bloomsday (June 16) 1969 that 18-year-old Leo learns his mother had once been a nun. Along the way, new neighbors appear, drugs make their way into the idyllic landscape and two new orphans turn up "behind the cathedral on Broad Street." The combination of all these disparate elements bears the unmistakable makings of a spirit-shaping saga. The year 1969 is a heady one, of course, with the Summer of Love still fresh in memory, but Altamont on the way and Vietnam all around. Working a paper route along the banks of the Ashley River and discovering the poetry of place ("a freshwater river let mankind drink and be refreshed, but a saltwater river let it return to first things"), Leo gets himself in a heap of trouble, commemorated years later by the tsk-tsking of the locals. But he also finds out something about how things work ("Went out with a lot of women when I was young," says one Nestor; "I could take the assholes, but the heartbreakers could afflict some real damage.") and who makes them work right—or not. Leo's classic coming-of-age tale sports, in the bargain, a king-hell hurricane. Conroy is a natural at weaving great skeins of narrative, and this one will prove a great pleasure to his many fans.
1. At the beginning of the novel, Leo is called on to mitigate the racial prejudice of the football team. What other types of prejudice appear in the novel? Which characters are guilty of relying on preconceived notions? Why do you think Leo is so accepting of most people? Why is his mother so condemnatory?
2. What do you think of the title "South of Broad"? How does the setting inform the novel? Would the novel be very different if it were set in another city or region?
3. As a teenager, Leo is heavily penalized for refusing to name the boy who placed drugs in his pocket. Why did he feel compelled to protect the boy's identity? Do you think he did the right thing?
4. When Leo's mother asks him to meet his new peers, she warns, “Help them, but do not make friends with them.” Do you think such a thing possible? Through the novel, how does Leo help his friends, and how do they help him?
5. Leo's mother tells him, “We're afraid the orphans and the Poe kids will use you,” to which he responds, “I don't mind being needed. I don't even mind being used.” Do you think this is a healthy attitude toward friendship? Do any of the characters end up “using” Leo? Does his outlook on friendship changed by the end of the novel?
6. Leo admits that the years after Steven's suicide nearly killed him. How was he able to cope? How do Leo's parents deal with their grief? What does the novel say about human resilience and our propensity to overcome tragedy?
7. When Sheba suggests to Leo that he divorce his wife, he says, “I knew there were problems when I married Starla so I didn't walk into that marriage blind.” Do you think that knowledge obligates Leo to stay with his wife? In your opinion, does Leo do the right thing by staying married? Would you do the same?
8. Both Chad and Leo are unfaithful to their wives, but only Leo is truthful about it. Do you think this makes Chad's infidelity a worse offense? Why or why not?
9. At two points in the novel, the group tries to rescue a friend: first Niles, then Trevor. But when Starla is in trouble, they don't attempt to save her. Why do you think this is? Has Starla become a “lost cause”?
10. At one point Leo remarks, “I had trouble with the whole concept [of love] because I never fully learned the art of loving myself.” How does the concept of self-love play into the novel?
11. In the moment before Leo attacks Trevor's captor, he recites a portion of “Horatio at the Bridge,” a poem about taking a lone stand against fearful odds. What is the significance of the verse? Do you think it's appropriate to that moment?
12. The twins are the novel's most abused characters and also the most creative. Do you think there is a connection between suffering and art?
13. What do you make of the smiley face symbol that Sheba and Trevor's father paints? How does the novel address the idea of happiness coexisting with pain?
14. At several points in the novel, characters divulge family secrets. Do you believe that this information should stay secret, or is there value in bringing it to light?
15. Leo examines his Catholicism at several points in the novel. What do you think he might say are the advantages and drawbacks of his religion? Do you think all religions are fraught with those problems?
16. One might interpret Leo's mother's attitude toward religion as one of blind faith. If Steven had admitted his abuse to her, do you think she would she have believed him? How do you think the information might have affected her?
17. Sheba and Trevor are literally tormented by their childhoods, in the form of their deranged father. How are some of the other characters hindered by the past? Are they ever able to escape its clutches and, if so, by what means?
18. Discuss the scene in which Leo and Molly rescue the porpoise. What does the event symbolize?
19. Why do you think the discoveries about Leo's mother and Monsignor Max begin and end the novel? What theme do these incidents convey?
20. Chapter one begins with the statement, “Nothing happens by accident,” and Leo often reflects on the way that destiny has shaped his life. How does destiny affect the other characters? Do you agree that real life is the result of predetermined forces? Or can we affect our fate.
(Questions issued by publisher.)
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