Queen of the Turtle Derby
by Julia Reed


Random House, 2004. ISBN 0679409041.
Reviewed by Duffie Bart
Posted on 01/24/2005

Nonfiction: Cultural/Gender Focus

For those of us who are fascinated by the women of the South and the unique lives they lead, Julia Reed's Queen of the Turtle Derby is the ideal book. A senior writer at Vogue and a contributing editor at Newsweek, Reed grew up in Greenville, Mississippi, and still spends half her year in New Orleans. She knows the South, its women and its men, as well as I know the back of my hand. And she isn't shy about telling it like it is.

I laughed on almost every page. At times, I thought I was reading about a foreign country. The manners and mores of the characters are so different than my own. Yet at times, I could imagine myself living there because I love the friendship of women. The women Reed writes about are utterly loyal and devoted to one another, no matter how diverse their personalities or how much they gossip about one another.

Many years ago, I was a guest in the home of a friend from Jackson, Mississippi, for only a week. I was reminded of my time there when I read the notion of the author's columnist friend who says that to successfully adjust to living in the South, just "Don't think you know what is going on." That was a feeling I had frequently during my week with my friend. I was there. I was showered with gracious attention; yet I couldn't help but feel very much the outsider.

Reed reminds us that the rules and regulations in the daily life of every young Southern woman are entrenched traditions which must be followed to the letter of the law. However one might feel about them. For example, "Memphis girls don't wear a lot of black and they wouldn't be caught dead in public without their makeup." At the same time, she tells us that Southern belles are tough as nails and hold every bit of power over their spouses...that all their "softness" (of which they are so proud and go to such lengths to maintain) is little more than a veneer...a veneer to let the fellows feel they are the ones in charge. Talk to any Southern belle, Reed says, and she will tell you it works.

Another fact I read with interest is that the FBI has released statistics which show Southerners to be the most violent people in the country. Apparently, they own the most guns and will shoot one another at the drop of a hat. One example we are given is the stabbing of a husband by his wife on Thanksgiving Day. "They had been fighting over the last piece of turkey, some dark meat, and the victim had made the mistake of taking it."

The author provides many other examples of their trigger happiness, which, henceforth, might make me think twice before disagreeing with anyone from the South. "The South leads the nation in murders of lovers, spouses, and other relatives (though we don't kill our children any more than most people do)," her source assures us. "But really, we'll shoot just about anything." At the same time, Southern women are the most church-going people in the country.

Another fun subject is Southern food. A homecooked dinner might consist of fried catfish, okra, turnip greens, lima beans, green onions, potatoes, cornbread, sliced tomatoes, corn on the cob and tea. Not just some of these, but all. Reed also explains which foods "must" be served at funeral receptions—hams, roasts and, of course, tenderloins, not to mention dozens of casseroles topped with crushed Ritz crackers, crushed potato chips or canned Durkee's fried onions." She is appalled when families resort to Chinese takeout or deli sandwich platters on plastic trays. I doubt that my daughter, who insists that her children eat only organic and wouldn't dare touch anything resembling a potato chip or anything out of a can, would last even a day in that part of the country.

Then there is the matter of drinking. Reed once asked a friend why he thought Southerners drink so much. "Because we lost the War," he said. But the author insists that Southerners drink less than the national average, and she points out that their rate of suicides and mental illness are lower. Though she readily admits that the definition of mental illness in the South is given a great deal more lattitude than in the North.

These are only a few examples of this author's heartfelt appreciation of what makes her countrymen/women different from the rest of us. Indeed, they have their own special genre of unconventional behavior—a love of food and partying, a zest and passion for life that is as endearing as it is often "over the top." I suspect that if I lived in the South, I would be watching from the sidelines with great pleasure.

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