South of Broad Summary

Pat Conroy

South of Broad

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South of Broad Summary

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South of Broad (2009), a novel by Pat Conroy, carefully and precisely narrates the life of Leopold Bloom King, a resident of Charleston, South Carolina. In addition to being a coming-of-age story and character study, the novel also functions as a love letter to Charleston and all its unique residents.

The story follows Leo from his childhood to middle age. Divided into five parts, it begins in 1969 when Leo is in high school. Though he is a shy and sensitive young man, Leo has several close friends, including the twins Trevor and Sheva Poe, a recently desegregated boy Ike Jefferson, a pair of orphans named Niles and Starla Whitehead, and the wealthy children of the city’s oldest families, Chad and Fraser Rutledge and Molly Huger. Despite their racial and socio-economic differences, the group becomes quite close and friendly.

Leo discusses his family life, including his doting father and strict mother, as well as his job delivering papers. When Leo’s father passes away suddenly, a priest named Monsignor Max becomes his mother’s confidant and advisor. The family is still reeling from the suicide of Leo’s older brother, Steve, several years previously. Leo was the one who found his brother’s body—a shock, leading him to spend time in a mental hospital and getting in trouble with the law for drug possession.

However, Leo’s friends prove to be a stabilizing influence on him. A leisurely flashback follows the exploits of the group during their senior year of high school. The secrets that haunt each member of the group are revealed, including Trevor and Sheva’s escaped-convict father and Niles and Starla’s traumatic upbringing that led them to run away from home.

The novel then flashes ahead to the 1980s. For the most part, the friends at the heart of the story have gone their separate ways. Leo is living in Charleston working as a newspaper columnist, having married and subsequently separated from Starla. He is now in love with Molly, who is distant from her cheating husband, Chad. Sheba, who has become a Hollywood star, returns to Charleston, prompting the group to reunite.

Sheba has come looking for help. She has lost track of her brother, Trevor, who is gay and living in San Francisco. Sheba knows that Trevor has AIDS, and she is worried that he is sick or already dead. The friends agree to travel to the other coast to help her look for her brother.
After traveling to San Francisco, Leo volunteers at a food bank that caters to the gay community. He is shocked by the conditions of the gay community in San Francisco. AIDS is rampant and many people with the disease are unable to work or find access to healthcare. By speaking with people in the community, the group of friends finds Trevor near death and takes him back to Charleston with them. The experience brings Leo and Molly closer.

Back in Charleston, secrets from the past begin to come to light. Trevor and Sheba’s homophobic father begins to threaten the twins with increasingly violent letters. Sheba, who wants to give up her life as a Hollywood star, begs Leo to marry her, but he demurs because he is in love with Molly. However, the event gives him the courage he needs to finalize his divorce with Starla, even though it goes against his Catholic beliefs. He later learns Starla, who was mentally ill, has committed suicide.

Sheva remains in her childhood home in Charleston. She is found murdered one day, her father having finally made good on his violent threats. The killer goes on the run from the police; the manhunt to find him is put on hold by the approach of Hurricane Hugo. After the storm, Leo makes a frightening discovery: Sheva’s father had hidden in the shed behind Niles and Fraser’s house, with the intent of killing the group during the hurricane. Before he could get the chance, however, he was drowned in a surge of floodwater.

The friends dedicate themselves to rebuilding. Molly and Leo decide that they cannot be together romantically, but vow to remain close friends. Leo also takes over caring for Trevor, who begins to make a recovery. Trevor reveals a devastating secret to Leo: shortly before his suicide, Steve was sexually assaulted by Monsignor Max.

Leo attempts to confront the aged Max, but the priest dies before he can provide the closure Leo is hoping for. In a long column for the newspaper, Leo reveals that Max was a criminal. After publication, he voluntarily checks himself into a mental hospital so he can recover. During his stay in the hospital, Leo dreams of all the important people in his life, living and dead. He wakes from his dreams feeling refreshed and ready to face the future, no matter how uncertain or difficult it may be.