For fans of beloved memoirs like Educated and The Glass Castle, a “raw and deeply honest” (Publishers Weekly, starred review) true story set in rural Mississippi during the Civil Rights era about a white girl coming of age in a repressive society and the woman who gave her the strength to forge her own path—the black nanny who cared for her.
In her memoir that is a “story of love and fury” (Jackson Clarion-Ledger), Grammy Award-winning songwriter and producer Tena Clark recounts her chaotic childhood in a time fraught with racial and social tension. Tena was born in 1953 in a tiny Mississippi town close to the Alabama border, where the legacy of slavery and racial injustice still permeated every aspect of life. On the outside, Tena’s childhood looked like a fairytale. Her father was one of the richest men in the state; her mother was a regal beauty. The family lived on a sprawling farm and had the only swimming pool in town; Tena was given her first car—a royal blue Camaro—at twelve.
But behind closed doors, Tena’s family life was deeply lonely and dysfunctional. By the time she was three, her parents’ marriage had dissolved into a swamp of alcohol, rampant infidelity, and guns. Adding to the turmoil, Tena understood from a very young age that she was different from her three older sisters, all of whom had been beauty queens and majorettes. Tena knew she didn’t want to be a majorette—she wanted to marry one.
On Tena’s tenth birthday, her mother, emboldened by alcoholism and enraged by her husband’s incessant cheating, walked out for good, instantly becoming an outcast in their society. Tena was left in the care of her nanny, Virgie, even though she was raising nine of her own children and was not allowed to eat from the family’s plates or use their bathroom. It was Virgie’s acceptance and unconditional love that gave Tena the courage to stand up to her domineering father, the faith to believe in her mother’s love, and the strength to be her true self.
Combining the spirit of brave coming-of-age memoirs such as The Glass Castle and vivid, evocative Southern fiction like To Kill a Mockingbird, Southern Discomfort is “an unforgettable southern story… [that] sings brightly to the incredible strength of family ties and the great power of love” (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution) and is destined to become a new classic.
Clark paints a raw and deeply honest picture of her childhood in 1950s and '60s Mississippi. Clark, who is white, writes movingly of her black maid and stand-in mother, Virgie, who was not allowed to eat in her kitchen or white restaurants; of her mother's forced stay at a barbaric mental hospital, at the insistence of her father; of her father's casual and continued cruelty toward her sister, Toni (he hit her when she was a child and insulted her weight gain as an adult); and, ultimately, of the forces that helped Clark to leave her hometown for the Univ. of Southern Mississippi to pursue a career in music and the short-lived relationship that resulted in her daughter, Cody. What Clark shows so beautifully is that the people she discusses, as unredeemable as they may at first seem, are much more complex: her father, never one to shy away from using racial epithets, secretly helped build the local black church; her alcoholic mother, trying to deal with her husband's many affairs, eventually stood up to him; and Clark herself realized at the age of six that she was gay, but she still dressed up like a conventional Southern belle. Clark's narrative draws the reader in to a wonderful story of the South going from old to new.