South of Broad by Pat Conroy is a book within a book. It is the story of Leo King and his coming of age in the summer of 1969. It is also a story about Leo's love affair with his city of Charleston, South Carolina. If you have ever been to Charleston, you will understand. I am prejudiced, since I have been to Charleston and think it is one of he most beautiful cities in our country. If you haven't, this book will convince you to pay Charleston a visit.
The story begins in May 1969 with Leo describing the events that will shape his adult life, and the lives of his new friends. He meets them all in the course of one week. His new neighbors are Sheba and Trevor Poe, twins who live with their alcoholic mother. Three orphans, Starla, Niles, and Betty are added to the group. Then there are three Charleston aristocrats: Molly, Chad and his sister Frasier. To round out the group there is the son of the new black football coach at their high school, Ike Jefferson.
Leo is just about finished with his probation after being caught at a party with a bag of cocaine in his jacket. The cocaine wasn't his, but Leo refused to rat out the high school football star that asked him to hold it. The football star was a stand up guy and never said a thing. He ended up playing quarterback for Clemson the next year, and Leo went through the legal system. He disappointed the hell out of his parents, but that is not the only reason. His older brother, Steve, committed suicide when he was thirteen. Steve was their golden boy and Leo could never replace him. In fact, Leo's nickname, the Toad, pretty much confirms this. Oh yes, his mother is the principal of the high school Leo and all his new friends attend as seniors that fall.
Leo is the glue that holds all these disparate people together, and the one who forges their lifelong friendship. Starla and Niles are from the mountains of North Carolina and have been in orphanages since they were very young. They are wounded in spirit and wary of everyone. Sheba and Trevor have been abused by their psychopathic father, and have become consummate actors in order to deal with reality. Chad, Molly, and Frasier live 'south of Broad' which means they are a geographic, genetic, and cultural part of old Charleston families that consider most other people beneath them.
The other story is about Charleston and its location on a peninsula between two rivers that empty into Charleston harbor and the Atlantic Ocean. Charleston is a beautiful city that has a European flavor with its narrow streets and hidden gardens. According to Leo's father it is "The Mansion on the River." The descriptions of the city reveal a love that is palpable. The entire ambiance of the city as portrayed by Leo--the people, homes, gardens, smells, the water--make Charleston unique. This beauty provides a vivid contrast to some of the terrible events that occur in the book.
Please check out Pat Conroy's web page at www.patconroy.com for a summary of the plot and more reviews. I can't say enough about Pat Conroy. If you have read any of his other books you know what I am talking about. Read South of Broad, you are in for a great experience.