Ellen Ann Fentress - THE STEPS WE TAKE: A Memoir of Southern Reckoning - in conversation with Katy Simpson Smith

Join us for with Ellen Ann Fentress when she presents and signs her recent book, The Steps We Take: A Memoir of Southern Reckoning (Willie Morris Books in Memoir and Biography) . She will appear in conversation with author Katy Simpson Smith.

"Ellen Ann Fentress, like many civic-minded, community spirit-filled southern women before her, has spent her life doing good. But in The Steps We Take, she has dared to ask the perilous question: Did she do good enough? Even more daring and perilous is her answer: No. Over the course of the narrative, she confronts not only her personal past, but the dark and complicated past of the region of the country in which she grew up and still lives. This is a courageous and tough-minded work. It is also an important one." -Lili Anolik, author of Hollywood's Eve: Eve Babitz and the Secret History of L.A.
"Fentress’s book is an attempt not only to tell her story but to offer a way forward from the blindness and consequent harm caused by the easy acceptance of inequality in American society. Always the hope is that exposure to such earnest stories will persuade others toward the type of self-reflection and change in individual attitudes and behaviors that will move the needle on America’s racial and gender issues in positive directions." -Paulette Boudreaux, author of Mulberry: A Novel
"In this arresting and clear-eyed memoir of help offered and help denied, Ellen Ann Fentress lays bare the southern systems that pollute our best impulses: Christian coercion, entrenched racial hierarchies, and unrelenting female self-sacrifice. While the message is stark and at times heartbreaking, the messenger is Fentress's confessional, warm, and often hilarious prose. Reading The Steps We Take, I felt both exposed and embraced, as after any honest conversation with a true friend." -Katy Simpson Smith, author of The Everlasting: A Novel and The Weeds: A Novel

A clear-eyed account of white southern womanhood

Ellen Ann Fentress is a veteran writer for the New York Times, the Washington Post, and The Atlantic. She’s also a seasoned southern woman, specifically a white Mississippi one. “Women do a lot for free, no matter the era, no matter the location,” she observes in The Steps We Take: A Memoir of Southern Reckoning. As a good southern woman, Fentress felt a calling to help others. As a teenager, she volunteered as a March of Dimes quarter collector and sang hymns at a soup-and-salvation homeless shelter. Later, she married, reared two daughters, renovated a 1941 Colonial home, practiced her French, and served as the bookkeeper for her husband’s business. She followed the scripts she was handed by society.

But there were the convenient lies and silences that she and most southern—make that American—white women have settled on in the name of convention and, to be honest, inertia. For Fentress, her dodges both behind her front door and beyond became impossible to miss. Eventually, along with claiming a personal second act at midlife, she realized the most urgent community work she could do was to spur truth-telling about the history she knew well and participated in. She was one of the nearly one million students in the South enrolled in all-white “segregation academies,” a sweeping movement away from public education that continues to warp the Deep South today. To document and engage with this history, she founded the Admissions Project: Racism and the Possible in Southern Schools, which has been featured in the Washington Post, Slate, Forbes and other publications.

The Steps We Take tells how one woman reckons with both a region’s history and her own past. Through a lens ranging from intimate to the widely human, through moments painful and darkly comic, Fentress casts a penetrating light on what it means to be a white southern woman today.


Ellen Ann Fentress is a journalist, filmmaker, and podcaster. She produced and directed Eyes on Mississippi, a 2016 documentary on iconic civil rights journalist Wilson F. Minor that has screened at universities and institutions across the country. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, the Washington Post, The Baffler, Oxford American, Scalawag, storySouth, and New Madrid, as well as on Mississippi public radio, where she was a reporter.

Katy Simpson Smith was born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi. She is the author of the novels The Story of Land and Sea, a Vogue best book of the year; Free Men; and The Everlasting, a New York Times best historical fiction book of the year. She is also the author of We Have Raised All of You: Motherhood in the South, 1750–1835. Her writing has appeared in The Paris Review, the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Oxford American, Granta, and Literary Hub, among other publications. She received a PhD in history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars. She lives in New Orleans.


Event date: 

Saturday, March 9, 2024 - 3:30pm to 5:00pm

Event address: 

Octavia Books - 513 Octavia Street
New Orleans, LA 70115
The Steps We Take: A Memoir of Southern Reckoning (Willie Morris Books in Memoir and Biography) By Ellen Ann Fentress Cover Image
$25.00
ISBN: 9781496847751
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: University Press of Mississippi - August 23rd, 2023

The Weeds: A Novel By Katy Simpson Smith Cover Image
$27.00
ISBN: 9780374605476
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Farrar, Straus and Giroux - April 18th, 2023

A Best Book of the Year at The New Yorker
A Must Read at The Boston Globe, Literary Hub, The Millions, and Garden & Gun

“[A] lyrical incisive novel . . . [about] a changing climate, the invisibility of women’s work, and the perseverance of unofficial histories.” The New Yorker


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