|Sweetgrass, Mary Alice Monroe’s hardcover debut, and arguably her strongest novel to date, transcends romance and women’s fiction genres and reaches into the realm of fine Southern literature. In the book’s acknowledgements, the author gives a shout-out to Southern icon Pat Conroy, and while Sweetgrass can’t quite stand with Prince of Tides, it wouldn’t be out of place in the same bookcase – if on a slightly lower shelf.
Monroe writes with such a strong sense of place that you can hear the birds and smell the ocean as you read. We’re in the author’s native coastal South Carolina, where Mary June Blakely, along with her husband Preston, preside over the shrinking family plantation, Sweetgrass. Although the land has been in their family for eight generations, the end of an era may be near. Their daughter Nan’s loyalty is to her husband and two teenaged sons, and son Morgan lives far away in Montana after turning his back on the family’s legacy. After hearing the disastrous news that their taxes have skyrocketed, Preston suffers a massive stroke, leaving him partially paralyzed and mute.
Now Morgan has no choice but to return to South Carolina and take charge of Sweetgrass while dealing with both internal and external challenges. Holding onto Sweetgrass looks virtually impossible in the face of the financial crisis, and his own aunt and brother-in-law urge him to sell to real estate developers. In addition, Morgan confronts the tragic ghosts of his own past and reconnects with his estranged family. He’s not alone in his struggles. Mary June, although devoted to Preston in his invalid state, realizes that their marriage has suffered for decades, as has her relationship with Morgan, because of closely held secrets and hard feelings. Even the companionship she once shared with Nona Bennett, whose family members served as Blakeley housekeepers for generations, has become strained. Is it too late for the Blakelys of all ages to come together to save the land that once meant everything to them?
While the plot of Sweetgrass contains few surprises, especially in the sporadic flashback scenes, the novel rises above the pack because of its memorable characters and uncanny sense of place. God bless Monroe for creating a heroine in her 60s who is still vibrant, growing and learning. Mary June (better known as Mama June by her children) stands by the traditions that have guided Southern women for centuries, but isn’t afraid to make tough choices as she forges ahead, and she’s willing to move heaven and earth to help her husband. Now that’s a love story. One of the book’s most intriguing characters, Preston, doesn’t say a word for almost the entire novel, but his powerful legacy and his continued influence on the family render him a commanding presence. Morgan’s evolution from guilty runaway to confident, secure businessman who facilitates a possible solution for Sweetgrass and stares down the opposition is character growth at its best. My only quibble is with the wise, noble African-American Nona; I wish Monroe had fleshed out her character more and given her something to say other than earnest platitudes.
Sweetgrass is a quintessential Southern novel, emphasizing the absolute supremacy of land and family. Good thing Monroe is such a skilled word painter to make the reader see the importance of that land. She has a special ability to write evocative descriptive passages that are never too long or flowery. By emphasizing the beauty of coastal Carolina, she also underlines her strong conversation message. Past novels such as The Beach House and Skyward spoke out regarding the plight of sea turtles and wild birds, but Sweetgrass is all about the land itself, and the danger of losing its beauty to developers who want to cash in on the booming real estate business.
Woven throughout the novel is information about Southern basket making, which relies on the sweetgrass that gives the Blakely family home its name. Primarily a pastime of African-American women, it’s left to the sage Nona to expound on the metaphors about growing from adversity and making something of whatever life gives you, even if it’s not what you expected or wanted. Fortunately for Ms. Monroe, life has given her a great deal of talent and she’s building a fine career with it. Even a lifelong Yankee like myself can’t help falling under the spell of Sweetgrass.