I am not Southern by birth. I was born in north Texas and raised in the west, in spaces known for harsh winds, wide horizons, and voices loud enough to get through the first and reach the second. Because of this I was a stranger in a strange land when I moved to the South and I worried I would always be an outsider. Over several years, I read a barrel load of books on how nuanced, complex and wonderful life here can be here, but no book taught me more or made me feel more at home than Anne Rivers Siddons’s collection of essays, John Chancellor Makes Me Cry.
Mrs. Siddons was raised in a small Georgia town and graduated from Auburn before beginning a career in Atlanta, first in advertising and then as a novelist. Between those two jobs came the essay collection in this book. It is a heartfelt account of adjusting to adult life after the raw newness (and gleam) of one’s twenties has disappeared but before the confidence that comes with seniority has set in. In Passages, Gail Sheehy wrote of this as the age when 30-somethings double down on the mortgage/kids/picket fence paradigm and Ms. Siddons had her home off Peachtree Street and a collection of cats but she she also had the perspective of an outsider in a well-settled neighborhood. As the educated observer, she became a guide I needed to understand modern Southern protocol. From her, I learned to recognize the blue-haired doyennes and their good old boy husbands that still wield power in my city. (The South is the only place I know where cut-throat businessmen and landed millionaires are known as Junior and Bubba). I learned someone’s accent could not always predict their education, net worth or opinions. I also learned that feeling unsure, frightened and unprepared is par for the course but it’s not enough reason to quit.
Anne’s essays detail facing troubles most of us confront sooner or later: fearsome weather, bad fights with the spouse, a lost job, the death of a family member. She also writes of the stresses that come of being a step-mother and second wife, a role I was learning to fill back then. Each of these are explored with respect, sensitivity and gentle humor. There are also the odes to the good and everyday things in life such as the seasons, vacations, traffic, the joys of work (her essay on advertising is hilarious) and the comfort of long friendships. Her voice is intelligent, comfortable, and well-inflected with humor. It’s impossible not to imagine her as a friend.
In the years since the publication of JCMMC, Mrs. Siddons has written many novels and they have sold well, as they should, although calling her the “the thinking-woman’s novelist” is still kind of left-handed compliment. Better is another reviewer’s observation, “One doesn’t read Anne Rivers Siddons’s books, one dwells in them.” I’ve been dwelling in her fiction for a few decades now but JCMMC is different. That’s the book that dwells in me.