How has your life been touched by mental illness? Do you know someone who struggles from depression, anxiety, OCD, ODD, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, PTSD, or eating disorders? Maybe that person is in your own family. But if not, you don’t have to look far.
Facts from National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI)
- 1 in 5 U.S. adults experience mental illness each year
- 1 in 20 U.S. adults experience serious mental illness each year
- 1 in 6 U.S. youth aged 6-17 experience a mental health disorder each year
- 50% of all lifetime mental illness begins by age 14, and 75% by age 24
- Suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death among people aged 10-14
If you want an accurate picture of how mental illness can impact a family, you’ll find it in T. I. Lowe’s novel Under the Magnolias. Even if that doesn’t appeal to you, read it anyhow.
We need more stories like this. Mental illness is all around us, maybe even something we struggle with ourselves. How do we cope? How do we reach out? Especially when there’s still so much stigma surrounding mental ailments. Particularly in Christian circles where compassion can get crushed by undue judgment, assumed superiority, and warped notions of spirituality.
But there’s hope for people with mental illness. With the right diagnosis and ongoing treatment, there can be healing and improvement. However, the most effective treatment happens in the context of community—a place of acceptance and loving support.
The first step toward that acceptance is knowledge and open dialog, to grasp the facts and reduce stigma. That’s what fiction can do. Stories that show the devastating effects of mental illness on a family. Stories that also provide hope and healing by shining a light on the right path.
Stories like Under the Magnolias.
Under the Magnolias was a 2022 Christy Award finalist.
This night not only marked the end to the drought, but also the end to the long-held secret we’d kept hidden under the magnolias.
Magnolia, South Carolina, 1980
Austin Foster is barely a teenager when her mama dies giving birth to twins, leaving her to pick up the pieces while holding her six siblings together and doing her best to stop her daddy from retreating into his personal darkness.
Scratching out a living on the family’s tobacco farm is as tough as it gets. When a few random acts of kindness help to ease the Fosters’ hardships, Austin finds herself relying upon some of Magnolia’s most colorful citizens for friendship and more. But it’s next to impossible to hide the truth about the goings-on at Nolia Farms, and Austin’s desperate attempts to save face all but break her.
Just when it seems she might have something more waiting for her―with the son of a wealthy local family who she’s crushed on for years―her father makes a choice that will crack wide-open the family’s secrets and lead to a public reckoning. There are consequences for loving a boy like Vance Cumberland, but there is also freedom in the truth.
T. I. Lowe’s gritty yet tender and uplifting coming-of-age tale reminds us that a great story can break your heart . . . then heal it in the best possible way.
This coming-of-age piece of Southern fiction is set in 1980-1987 in South Carolina. Despite the heavy themes of a father’s mental illness and a mother’s death, there’s plenty of humor to be found here, such as when Austin visits the funeral home, and when she helps Vance recover from tobacco sickness after helping with the harvest.
Austin (AKA Ox), the oldest daughter-turned-caregiver, interacts with folks around town:
- Foxy and Jinx at the County Fair. Foxy is a fortune teller who has been the victim of numerous hate crimes when she lived in Louisiana
- Miss Wise’s delectable home-made chocolates bely the fact of her traumatic past in Germany during the war
- Morty works at the funeral home and has been rejected by his family
- Tripp was wrongly jailed for murder for three years
- Walynn has a reputation with the men while trying to make ends meet at the beauty shop
- Vance Cumberland, the mayor’s son, walks a tightrope between family expectations and personal interests
Over time, they all end up at Dave Foster’s church, as a result of his outreach. Austin sees them every week when her pa preaches. That is, when church isn’t canceled.
At first I wondered how some of the scenes with these folks fit into the plot, but just wait. Everything ties in eventually. Everything matters.
This story covers Austin’s life from ages thirteen to twenty. In high school, Vance, the mayor’s son, takes a shine to her, even though they’re on different sides of the social tracks. His life is full of traditions inherited from his political family. She’s a farmer’s daughter whose free time is squashed by family demands while playing the role of mother to six siblings–on top of caring for her father.
Pa at his best is a loving, thoughtful father. But there’s no predicting his moods. He misses his wife terribly, but that’s not his only problem.
At first I thought I wouldn’t be able to keep track of all the kids. But after a while, I felt like I was living with them and knew them quite well with their unusual names and unique personalities.
Though I have many, my absolute favorite scene is toward the end, but I can’t share it without giving up any spoilers. It’s beautiful, and made any difficult parts all the more meaningful and poignant.
The only thing I didn’t care for was the prologue, and I generally like prologues. I never skip them like some readers do. I liked several passages in the prologue, but I wouldn’t have used a 1987 scene there, since the rest of the story begins in 1980. Without the context, it was more confusing than not. I only bring it up in case that’s off-putting to you. The main thing is: press on.
At the end, check out the book club discussion questions and the playlist inspired by book.
Join me for some Q & A with T. I. Lowe.
Questions about Under the Magnolias
What was your inspiration for writing Under the Magnolias? What’s your personal connection to the setting or situation? In particular, what led you to write about a character with mental illness?
Back in 2017, a few headlines caught my eye about a few prominent male leaders in church or community who had committed suicide. It broke my heart that they didn’t reach out for help. I began researching and stumbled upon many stories similar to that, which led to an eye-opening exploration of mental illness. I hope by writing this story that it leads others to open up and share their story, to start conversations so that others will feel comfortable reaching out for help.
Why did you choose the 1980s as the setting as opposed to the present day? And why did you choose a seven-year span as opposed to a year or two?
Sometimes for us to really understand something and put it into perspective, we need to put some space between us and the situation. I thought setting this book in the 1980s would be beneficial. From my research, mental illness isn’t a short journey but a long one. I felt that in order to do this subject justice, I had to tell the story in a long time span.
How did you develop your heroine Austin Foster (AKA Ox)? What would Austin have to say about you?
I grew up in a tobacco farming community in the 80s where young girls worked just as hard as the boys. I wanted to highlight that with Austin. She had a lot to tell me, how vulnerable and helpless she felt even while pushing through and taking care of her family.
Do your characters hijack the story or do you have full rein? Which characters would you be least and most likely to get along with?
Oh, honey, they totally hijack it and they know I’ll let them. I think, for me, that’s the exciting part of writing. To see where the story leads day to day while writing. Even though I loved Peg to pieces, I’d probably butt heads with him the most. He’s stubborn and mouthy, but I’m not sure how much I could put up with. Ha! I would love to sit down for a cup of herbal tea with Foxy or watch Miss Wise make her beautiful chocolates.
What unusual thing did you do or discover while researching for this story? Did you already know much about mental illness or harvesting tobacco?
Tobacco grows all around where I live. My first job was to work tobacco so I know all about it. While writing the book, I stopped by a tobacco field and swiped a leaf so that I could touch and smell it to help me remember.
Questions about writing
What books have been most influential for you as an author?
Redeeming Love. Francine Rivers showed me you can write about hard things in a respectful way. Life is full of grit but it can be full of grace as well.
Where do your story ideas usually originate from—character, plot, setting, theme, or a combination? Share examples of how one of your stories grew from an initial idea.
They typically begin with something I want to understand better, such as mental illness with this story. Lulu’s Cafe was my first book. That one began because of a loved one who was in an abusive relationship and I didn’t understand why she wouldn’t leave her abuser. That book was so eye-opening to research and write. I fully believe if we don’t understand something we need to educate ourselves. Everyone has a story, we just need to be willing to listen.
You’ve written a lot of contemporary romance, some humorous, and others dealing with gritty issues and/or coming of age. Do you have a favorite topic, trope, or genre? Which book of yours would you choose to introduce yourself to a new reader?
Life is so heavy, so I always gravitate to humor as a coping mechanism. The lighter romances I call my vacation writing. Even the writer sometimes needs a break from the heavy. I think Lulu’s Cafe is the one I would recommend, because this is the one that started it all for me.
Please share something about a current project or the direction you want to go as an author.
I just released Indigo Isle and it’s my southern take on Beauty and the Beast meets Prodigal Daughter. I also just finished Lowcountry Lost, which is set to release summer of 2024. It’s about a ghost town in South Carolina and woman who is determined to restore it. She’ll restore aspects of her life along the way. And of course, I’ve already started my next book. It’s in the early stages, so I’ll wait on sharing about it.
If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?
Just write like nobody is watching. Don’t hold back. Tell the story laid on your heart to tell.
Back to Laura . . . On a similar note . . .
If you need help or want more understanding of mental illness, check out these resources:
- National Alliance of Mental Health
- National Institute of Mental Health
- BP Hope—A great resource for anyone with bipolar disorder
- Chris Morris: Redefine Normal—Discover Hope—balancing faith and mental illness
- Whispers in the Pews: Voices on Mental Illness in the Church, by Chris Morris
- Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission, by Amy Simpson
- Afraid of the Light, by Cynthia Ruchti–a novel about a counselor who works with hoarders, featured on my blog in February, 2022.
I have two pre-published novels dealing with mental illness. I’ll let you know when they’re available. Sign up for my newsletter if you want updates. Meanwhile . . .
If you like Southern fiction or stories about family secrets and small town dynamics, you might enjoy my novel All That Is Hidden. Set near North Carolina’s Smoky Mountains in 1968, the story spotlights the bond of family and the connections of a tight-knit community. Northern exploitation threatens as a father’s hidden past catches up to him and tests family ties. Learn more and watch the trailer here.
All That Is Hidden awards:
- Winner of the Artisan Book Reviews Book Excellence Award
- Semifinalist in Serious Writer’s Book of the Decade contest
If you like fiction set in the 1980s and/or early 1900s, you might enjoy my dual timeline novel, Fifteen Minutes with Mr. Baum. This story spotlights L. Frank Baum, author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Set near Holland on Lake Michigan and Lake Macatawa, this pre-published novel is rooted in a girl’s childhood friendship with Baum and how it impacts her over the decades. Read more and watch the book trailer here.
I invite you to join my monthly newsletter for writing updates, freebies, and giveaways. Sign up and I’ll send you a free gift: www.StandoutStoriesNewsletter.com
T. I. Lowe Bio
T. I. Lowe is an ordinary country girl who loves to tell extraordinary stories. She is the author of nearly twenty published novels, including her recent bestselling and critically acclaimed novel, Under the Magnolias, and her debut breakout, Lulu’s Café. She lives with her husband and family in coastal South Carolina. Find her at tilowe.com or on Facebook (T.I.Lowe), Instagram (tilowe), and Twitter (@TiLowe).
Join me next time for a visit with Mollie Rushmeyer.
Meanwhile, have you read Under the Magnolias, or any other novels by T. I. Lowe? Which novels have you read that incorporate mental illness? Answer in the comments below.
Sign up for my monthly newsletter to receive tips, recipes, freebies, giveaways, and the prequel for All That Is Hidden: