Beyond the Book: Background information when reading South of Broad

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South of Broad

by Pat Conroy

South of Broad by Pat Conroy
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  • First Published:
    Aug 2009, 528 pages
    Paperback:
    May 2010, 544 pages

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Pat Conroy was born on October 26, 1945, in Atlanta, Georgia, to a young career military officer from Chicago and a Southern beauty from Alabama, whom Pat often credits for his love of language. He was the first of seven children.

His father was a violent and abusive man, a man whose biggest mistake, Conroy once said, was allowing a novelist to grow up in his home.  Since his family had to move many times to different military bases around the South, Conroy changed schools frequently, finally attending the Citadel Military Academy in Charleston, South Carolina, upon his father's insistence. While still a student, he wrote and then published his first book, The Boo, a tribute to a beloved teacher.

After graduation, Conroy taught English in Beaufort, where he met and married a young woman with two children, a widow of the Vietnam War. He then accepted a job teaching underprivileged children in a one-room schoolhouse on Daufuskie Island off the South Carolina shore. After a year, Conroy was fired for his unconventional teaching practices - such as his refusal to allow corporal punishment of his students - and for his personal differences with the school's administration. Conroy evened the score by exposing the racism and appalling conditions his students endured with the publication of The Water is Wide in 1972. The book won Conroy a humanitarian award from the National Education Association and was made into the feature film Conrack, starring Jon Voight.

Following the birth of a daughter, the Conroys moved to Atlanta, where Pat wrote his novel, The Great Santini, published in 1976. This autobiographical work, later made into a film starring Robert Duvall, explored the conflicts of the author’s childhood, particularly his ambivalent love for an abusive and often dangerous father.

The publication of a book that so painfully exposed his family's secret brought Conroy a period of tremendous personal desolation. This crisis resulted not only in his divorce, but the divorce of his parents; his mother presented a copy of The Great Santini to the judge as "evidence" in divorce proceedings against his father.

The Citadel became the subject of his next novel, The Lords of Discipline, published in 1980. The novel exposed the school's harsh military discipline, racism, and sexism. This book, too, was made into a feature film.

Conroy remarried and moved from Atlanta to Rome, where he began The Prince of Tides, which, when published in 1986, became his most successful book. Reviewers immediately acknowledged Conroy as a master storyteller and a poetic and gifted prose stylist. This novel has become one of the most beloved novels of modern time; with over five million copies in print, it has earned Conroy an international reputation. The Prince of Tides was made into a highly successful feature film directed by and starring Barbra Streisand, as well as actor Nick Nolte, whose brilliant performance won him an Oscar nomination.

Beach Music (1995), Conroy's sixth book, was the story of Jack McCall, an American who moves to Rome to escape the trauma and painful memory of his young wife's suicidal leap off a bridge in South Carolina. This book, too, has been a tremendous international bestseller.
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This article was originally published in September 2009, and has been updated for the May 2010 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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