Reading Life

Reading Life: What's the most famous book set in North Carolina?

pkelley@charlotteobserver.comNovember 15, 2013 

The headline on my Facebook newsfeed sucked me in, as was its goal.

“This map,” it said, “shows the most famous book set in every state.”

Why a website called Business Insider compiles such lists I don’t know, but I clicked immediately, curious to see the most famous book set in North Carolina. Would it be Thomas Wolfe’s “Look Homeward Angel?” Charles Frazier’s “Cold Mountain?” Or maybe “A Long and Happy Life,” the debut novel that vaulted Reynolds Price to national fame?

Wrong, wrong and wrong. The most famous book set in North Carolina, according to Business Insider, is Nicholas Sparks’ “A Walk to Remember.”

Until it appeared on Business Insider’s list, I had not heard of this 1999 bestseller, which became a movie starring Mandy Moore. Its main character is a teenager in Beaufort who dies of cancer. Sparks, who lives in New Bern, has set many of his novels in North Carolina.

Though I puzzle at this choice, I still like the list because its selections – especially the random-seeming ones – make great conversation starters. ( “The Wizard of Oz” for Kansas? Come on. The book’s setting is mostly Oz. Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” is a totally better choice.)

Also, the list gives a sense of the depth – or lack of depth – of each state’s literary traditions. Surely it was a struggle to come up with a book for a few states. South Dakota, for instance, got Tom Brokaw’s memoir, “A Long Way From Home: Growing Up in the American Heartland in the Forties and Fifties.”

North Carolina, on the other hand, has loads of contenders. When I called Ed Southern, director of the N.C. Writers’ Network, his first thought was “Look Homeward, Angel,” published in 1929 and set in Asheville. It’s a classic, probably the greatest book set in North Carolina. It’s also not read much these days. The “most famous” stipulation makes the choice trickier.

So we kept brainstorming. Southern said he could make a strong case for Charles Frazier’s 1997 Civil War-era novel, “Cold Mountain,” which was a movie starring Nicole Kidman and Renee Zellweger. I recalled that Robert Morgan’s “Gap Creek” became plenty famous as an Oprah’s Book Club pick. We agreed that “Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All,” Allan Gurganus’s 1989 bestselling novel, should be in the running.

If you’ve got another suggestion, let me know on my blog: readinglifeobs.blogspot.com. Also, what do you say about South Carolina? Business Insider chose Sue Monk Kidd’s “The Secret Life of Bees.” I’d go with a Pat Conroy book, probably “The Lords of Discipline.”

Pam Kelley: 704-358-5271; pkelley@charlotteobserver.com

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