Sunshine, Tennessee; a small town with farms, a factory, and football on Fridays. For Kaycee (“Kay-c-double e”) Jean McCoy, life is about fitting in with her classmates long enough to escape (relatively) unscathed to college. She navigates the angsty, cliquish social scene with the help of her best friends, Van and Sarabeth. Van is the stylish student council president; his truths are an open secret in town. Sarabeth comes from a long line of Sunshine-ians and has a “place for everything and everything in its place” attitude. The carefully arranged life Kaycee has planned for herself begins to crumble when a magnetic new girl moves to town for their senior year of high school.
South of Sunshine explores how the characters internalize stereotypes, prejudices, and other socialized behaviors. It’s a bumpy ride, as the reader views the world through Kaycee’s eyes. Kaycee’s intense fear of being judged and becoming a social pariah, distances her from anyone she thinks might “out” her by association. She dates guys, allowing herself only furtive glances at the new girl, Bren Dawson. Kaycee is not above labeling her peers. She judges Charlotte, a fellow high school senior, labeling her a stereotypical lesbian based on her “business in the front, party in the back” mullet hairstyle and camouflage shirts.
Sunshine is full of overt racism and discrimination, with students and adults using racial slurs to justify ugly behavior and attitudes. Not everyone in town shares these views. Those who disagree do so quietly or say nothing at all. The silence makes those who do nothing complicit in the negatives. Van’s mother paints a rainbow heart in the window of their video rental business, Hot Flix. The high school librarian, Mrs. Bellefleur, uses a rainbow coffee mug. All Kaycee can hear, however, are the loud declarations and actions of the people who fear change and diversity. It’s a long, awkward, and painful journey towards full self-acceptance, but it’s not without moments of hope, excitement, and freedom.
While the novel is pedantic at times, teaching the reader about how harmful stereotypes and racism are to communities and individuals, it does not break up the storytelling overmuch. As I read, I had to remind myself that Kaycee was telling the story; it is her experiences and perspective that I see when I look out on her world. The characters are at different points in their various journeys through life. Although Kaycee experiences the most growth over the course of the story, Bren is by far my favorite character. She is confident, charming, stylish, and sporty. Her well of patience and understanding spring from a loving and supportive home. If I were to cobble together ingredients for the perfect (first) girlfriend, Bren would be the result.
You might enjoy this young adult novel if you are drawn to novels set in small towns and feature coming out stories (as well as characters who are already comfortable in their identities).
South of Sunshine
Author: Dana Elmendorf
Publisher: Albert Whitman
Release date: April 1, 2016
***I received a pre-publication copy of this title from Albert Whitman & Company via Netgalley***