By Karen Ott Mayer | Author photo by Andrew McNeece
Set in gardens around north Mississippi, “Perennials” by Oxford’s Julie Cantrell is an emotional tale of love, loss, and rebirth.
Lovey and Bitsy.
Names perhaps only heard in the South – or as imagined by author Julie Cantrell in her latest novel “Perennials.” As layered as a perennial garden itself, the story revolves around the complicated relationships often found between siblings, and in this case, two sisters.
As Southern as Cantrell herself, the fast-paced novel takes place largely in Oxford, Mississippi, where one family struggles to overcome their past and bind together during celebrations and heartaches. Weaving literary and horticultural locales from William Faulkner’s Rowan Oak to a New Albany garden, the story introduces the reader to many Mississippi settings – and all things Southern.
“When writing about the South, stereotypes abound. While I couldn’t tell the story of Oxford without exploring football, Sunday School, and heirloom pearls, I hope I managed to add depth to the characters and to examine why these pieces of our culture mean so much to us, what they truly represent when we dare to scratch below the surface,” said Cantrell.
Originally from Louisiana, Cantrell has lived around the country, settling in Oxford about 15 years ago. At that time, she was a mother and wife with no formal published books, but the area inspired her to pick up a pen and become an author. Absorbing details about real life in Oxford and north Mississippi, she not only narrates a lively, emotional tale but her characters resonate with anyone who has lived in the South: a gregarious, football coach father dotes on his wife whose first passions are her girls and garden.
True for many Southerners, it’s the land and garden that becomes the milieu and metaphor for teaching life’s lessons. But Cantrell’s characters aren’t so singular they avoid what Cantrell calls “the same human journey.” As Lovey and Bitsy alternately try to understand each other’s experiences – and fail – they remind that sibling relationships bore certain patterns but change endlessly, especially with age and wisdom.
“I’ve learned that regardless of a person’s wealth, gender, religion, or social status, we all share the same human journey. We all experience love and loss, glory and grief, hope and despair. And ultimately, we all just want to love and be loved. Some of us manage to do that, but some of us don’t. In Perennials, I try to explore life lessons that remind us what it really means to love one another,” says Cantrell.
men’s fiction, literary fiction, contemporary fiction, Christian fiction, romance and inspirational. Her first two novels took place during the World War II and Great Depression periods and lean to historical fiction. To her, it’s not the genre, it’s the story that matters most.
“It’s all irrelevant to me as a writer. I just want to deliver a story that readers will enjoy. And hopefully, through the powerful tool of story, my readers will receive healing, inspiration, hope, encouragement, and a greater sense of empathy in their own lives.”
In “Perennials” gardening remains the pivotal point of the narrative. The garden and memories of childhood times in the garden continually fill Lovey’s thoughts and actions. She struggles with her sense of belonging or lack of it throughout the entire novel. Cantrell’s own personal feelings about a garden mirror Lovey’s, having spent six years on a sustainable farm in Oxford. “I have always loved to work in the flower gardens. Maybe it’s the Southern girl in me, but I consider a day in the sun and the dirt to be good medicine.”
She particularly loves stargazer lilies which inspired her to write the novel. “I also love peonies, dahlias, zinnia, and camellias. I guess, honestly, there isn’t a flower that doesn’t inspire me to stop and to notice all that is beautiful and wonderful about this great, mysterious universe.”
Perhaps the one sentiment Cantrell doesn’t share with Lovey is her dubious perspective on the South, particularly small-town Mississippi. Having spent years out West, Lovey only slowly begins accepting her southern roots after her time at home in Oxford. Cantrell seems to have fully embraced her community and state.
“Mississippians embrace the arts. Life here is a constant celebration of music, dance, writing, storytelling, dramatic arts, visual arts, and cooking – which I do consider an art. We are a people who have learned to transform our pain into beauty, our suffering into story and song. I can think of no more noble act than that, and I have felt proud to call this state my home.”
No stranger to adversity, Cantrell imbues her characters with resiliency even when times are tough. It’s this philosophy that life is simply a choice between a warm open heart and darkness that drives Cantrell and her stories.
“Life will sometimes take us down, leave us in ruins, bury us in a dark, lonely, cold space. When that happens, we have a choice. We can choose to remain broken, lost, hiding away in the dark. Or, we can choose to rise, reach for the light, and bloom again—like perennials. In the end, this journey is all about learning to love one another. Even when it’s hard.”
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