Greg Isles’ Southern Man – The South Is Still the Old South

In some parts of the United States, the Civil War is not over. On May 10, a school board in rural Virginia voted to reinstate the names of Confederate generals for two schools, four years after those names were removed in the aftermath of the Black Lives Matter protests. In Shenandoah County, the school board voted to rename Mountain View High School as Stonewall Jackson High School, and Honey Run Elementary as Ashby Lee Elementary. The small county, located in the northern part of Virginia, is a consistently conservative Republican part of the state with a population that is 93 percent white, less than two percent Black. The median household income is under $40,000. 

Shenandoah County may be small, but is an example of what is happening in some parts of our country, where people seek to turn the clock back to a time where whites were firmly in control, with Blacks and other minorities relegated to being second class citizens. 

At 963 pages, Greg Isles’ new novel, Southern Man, is not an easy read. But it’s the subject matter that is unsettling. If one theme could sum up the plot it would be that the South is still the Old South, caught in a time warp where “all men are created equal,” only pertains to white male landowners. Everyone else exists to fight every day for their rights and freedoms, and those Blacks who push back risk bodily harm or death.

Fans of Isles’ work will recognize his main character, Penn Cage, an attorney and novelist. Although Isles isn’t an attorney, he shares many similarities with Cage, having grown up in Natchez, where many of the novels are based. Isles, like Cage, also lost the lower part of a leg in an automobile accident. 

The story lines are so current it’s incredulous that Isles could finish this novel before the 2024 election. And one shocker: there’s an even scarier candidate than Donald Trump running for president.

Southern Man takes place 15 years after Isles’ famous Natchez Burning Trilogy. The Penn Cage in this novel isn’t the superman he once was. He’s older, burned out, and very sick. He still has nearby his daughter, Annie, but his mother, Peggy, loved and respected by many, lies dying. A past mayor of Bienville, Mississippi, Cage is now the city attorney, out of loyalty to the current mayor,  Erza “Doc” Berry. Mayor Berry, a Black man, is also a doctor, who has tended to many of the Bienville population. His election is seen as a small victory not only for Blacks, but for the LBGTQ community, since he’s gay. 

Another local has returned to Beinville, sending excitement among some groups, and fear and suspicion among others. Robert Lee White is a former major league baseball player and attorney who is hailed as a war hero having killed a well known terrorist, Abu Nasir. Even though he lost his arm during one battle, he still manages physical feats that would challenge others. His resume makes him an appealing candidate for local or state office. But “Bobby” has his eye on the Oval Office and is running on a third party ticket. Currently, he hosts a popular radio show where his conservative views are on display. While most pundits dismiss White’s candidacy, Cage believes, with much trepidation, that he has the chance to upend the 2024 election.

A musical event planned for the Mission Hill Plantation erupts into violence when local law enforcement storm the gathering, made up mostly of Black citizens. There are many casualties. White, using medical skills he acquired during his time in the army, saves Annie’s life. Cage is, of course, grateful, but his suspicions of White only intensify. 

Following the Mission Hill massacre, plantations, Arcadia and Tranquility, are burned to the ground. A group calling itself the Bastard Sons of the Confederacy, claims responsibility. Annie, a civil rights lawyer, has never heard of the group and she and Penn believe white nationalists are actually behind the arson attacks. Whichever group is setting the fires, the result is that Blacks are being blamed and targeted.

While ill, Peggy gathered information about the Cage family’s history and connections to the Black people who once tended their plantation, Pencarrow. Penn, who had been working on another book chronicling Black lynchings, suspended writing until his mother was finished with her project. Now that she’s died, Penn, his girlfriend, Nadine, and Annie, read through her pages and discover some shocking things about their ancestors. The implication is that there was much mixing between Blacks and whites on plantations and the Cage family is not unusual in finding Blacks among their ancestors. That revelation might have many reading Southern Man sending for 23andMe kits.

Isles tells the story through a first person narrative from Penn and third person narrative involving all the other characters in this sprawling story. Those involving Bobby White reveal his true self and the shocking things he plans to do, not only during the campaign, but after he’s elected president. Even though Cage does not have all these details, he knows enough to become determined to stop White, whatever the cost.

That cost will be high as the violence escalates and begins to claim lives, many close to Penn. Even with nearly 1,000 pages, they turn quickly as the action picks up. The ending is bittersweet, but mostly positive.

Not sure if the real 2024 presidential election will have a similar ending.

Southern Man
Greg Isles

Top photo: Bigstock

About Charlene Giannetti (706 Articles)
Charlene Giannetti, editor of Woman Around Town, is the recipient of seven awards from the New York Press Club for articles that have appeared on the website. A graduate of Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, Charlene began her career working for a newspaper in Pennsylvania, then wrote for several publications in Washington covering environment and energy policy. In New York, she was an editor at Business Week magazine and her articles have appeared in many newspapers and magazines. She is the author of 13 non-fiction books, eight for parents of young adolescents written with Margaret Sagarese, including "The Roller-Coaster Years," "Cliques," and "Boy Crazy." She and Margaret have been keynote speakers at many events and have appeared on the Today Show, CBS Morning, FOX News, CNN, MSNBC, NPR, and many others. Her last book, "The Plantations of Virginia," written with Jai Williams, was published by Globe Pequot Press in February, 2017. Her podcast, WAT-CAST, interviewing men and women making news, is available on Soundcloud and on iTunes. She is one of the producers for the film "Life After You," focusing on the opioid/heroin crisis that had its premiere at WorldFest-Houston International Film Festival, where it won two awards. The film is now available to view on Amazon Prime, YouTube, and other services. Charlene and her husband live in Manhattan.