By Annell Gerson
Georgia author Haley Harrigan’s debut novel, Secrets of Southern Girls, is of the “all-nighter” variety.
It is a story that grabs you from the first line of the prologue, “She only has lovers in wintertime,” and continues to twist, turn, circle back, stop, and punch forward, compelling you to read just one more chapter.
Julie Portland is a happy five-year-old living in New York until her parents tragically die, and she is sent to Lawrenceville, Mississippi to live with relatives she doesn’t know, and she meets fellow five-year-old neighbor, Reba. The two become instant best friends and remain so until one fateful night right before graduation. It’s late and raining; a rendezvous is innocently arranged on a favorite, though rickety, bridge; Reba has not one boyfriend but two; a diary is meant to be handed off that will explain everything, as she can no longer love both. But bad timing collides with bad decisions, and Reba dies. Though officials call it an accident, Julie knows the truth; she never deserved Reba, and now she has killed her.
Filled with crushing guilt, sorrow and loneliness, Julie runs to New York and tries to rebuild her life. When the novel begins, it has been ten years since the accident, yet Julie still punishes herself for that fateful night. She repeatedly sabotages all chances of happiness because in her mind, they are undeserved.
And then, he finds her — August, who also loved Reba. August, who also left town right after Reba’s death. August, a young black boy, who loved a young white girl, in a small southern town where such love was not allowed. August tracks Julie down. It seems they are both victims of the same guilt. August cannot shake the shadow of his past because he, too, thinks he is responsible for Reba’s death.
Secrets of Southern Girls is wonderfully textured with the intrigue of secrets, bonds of friendship, intensity of young love, reality of racial tensions and the burden of personal guilt.