Under the Magnolias
Tyndale House (2021)
Reviewed by Cynthia Hammell for Reader Views (2/2021)
“Under the Magnolias” by TI Lowe is a bittersweet story of family, love and mental illness.
Austin Foster is the oldest daughter of a North Carolina tobacco farmer/ preacher. He leads a small congregation which people joke is “The First Riff-Raff of Magnolia (p.6).” She has three brothers and a sister, all named after U.S. cities. Her older brother Boston, “Boss,” is mentally challenged, and younger brother Phoenix lost his leg in a tractor accident. In 1980, when Austin is thirteen, her mother dies giving birth to twin boys. After this event, her father Dave goes through major depression and mood swings. Even though he can function for periods of time, it is Austin who holds the family together. She loves her open, big-hearted father, but resents the toll his illness is taking on her and the family. Austin’s crush, Vance Cumberland visits the church and spends time with her older brother. Vance appears to be interested in Austin, but she tries to brush him off, in case he learns the truth. Is he as perfect or as superficial as she thinks he is? He sure is persistent. Austin finds out that no one has it all together and that sometimes we need to accept help.
Lowe’s descriptions are vivid, and the dialog feels real and heartfelt. The first -person narration lets you know exactly what Austin is feeling. One example is when she realizes how much her Mom held her “Pa” together, when he takes to his bed. “I talked hard, whisper-yelling, ‘You need to stop acting like a baby!’ When that didn’t work, I tried talking even meaner. ‘You should be ashamed of yourself. Mama would be so disappointed in you for doing this to us young’uns.’ Tears burned my eyes, but I refused to release them. ‘So, suck it up and get your sorry tail out of this bed’ (p. 21).”
Fans of Lisa Wingate may appreciate this book. The author’s notes mention that Lowe wanted to explore why good Christian people, even church leaders can experience major depression. She wants to raise awareness so that people and their families who suffer from mental illness will look for help. There was even less known bipolar disorder in the 1980’s which is the novel’s setting. Austin and her family suffer in silence for years.
“Under the Magnolias” by TI Lowe is an emotional rollercoaster which is effective for the subject matter. It is also a story of hope coming out of despair. There is a clear message that mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of and that the first step to healing is getting help.