Joan Brooks Baker

We are constantly confronted with choice, a choice that often lies between the seductive path of safety and the riskier road of standards that we believe are our very own. The first path suggests that by following the rules of conduct, in this case, the unwritten "Magnolia Code," we will land in the mythical sphere of happiness. The latter path tells us that fulfillment in finding our true selves is the worthy goal but beware, the risk could place us on the outer rim of belonging. The essence of this story is in finding the balance.

- Joan Brooks Baker


To live outside “The Code,” was to question the rules of society that had governed families in the South for generations. To discover one’s unique identity and live life true to one’s self was not encouraged, especially for a girl.

The Magnolia Code

This is the story of Joan Brooks Baker. In her memoir, The Magnolia Code, a name she and her sister gave to the unwritten rules they were expected to live by, Baker takes the reader on her personal journey - growing up privileged as the Yankee daughter of dyed-in-the-wool Southerners, in the post–World War II New York City - to finding where she belonged, as a photographer, living in the high desert of New Mexico.  The Magnolia Code decreed that appearances are more important than truth, and the desires of men always trump those of women. Neither sat well with Baker. She might have succumbed to the promise of easier safety the Magnolia Code offered; instead, she persevered in her desire to find her own way, navigating the paradox of the diverging paths of security offered by “the code” and her own sense of who she wanted to be in the world. 


Within each chapter, Baker narrates her life story from childhood, as the feisty “Cactus Pete,” to the present day. She examines relationships within her primary and extended families, some amusing, some enlightening, many defying “the code” to find role models in rebellious women, including her Aunt Billie, who challenged her to be herself regardless of the consequences. Ultimately, Baker discovers who she is and where she belongs through her work as a photographer. As she witnesses and documents women’s lives in other cultures, she sees herself reflected in their eyes. She begins to make peace with her upbringing, to reject The Magnolia Code without abandoning her family heritage, to balance the darkness with light.


Baker’s memoir will find an audience with women all too familiar with the constraints of society, class, and a culture that has not honored their personal experiences. Baker’s tale, both humorous and poignant, of a woman coming into consciousness could not be more perfect for these times. The Magnolia Code is a current and universal story for those interested in exploring life’s dualities. Hear more from Joan. 

June 2020

Fresco Books

$28.00   Paperback

ISBN: 978-1-934491-68-3


Upcoming Events


Book Launch

A conversation with Hollis Walker

Thursday, July 16, 6:00PM MST

Collected Works Bookstore

View the Recording

Photo by Joan Brooks Baker

Book Reading & Signing

Fall / Winter 2020

The Corner Bookstore

1313 Madison Avenue

New York, New York 10128

Praise for The Magnolia Code

With intelligence and elegance, Joan Brooks Baker asks the difficult question of how we should live our lives. Her answer: with honesty and compassion. Brava.


author of Cost: A Novel; Georgia O’Keeffe: A Life


Photo by Mitsue Nagase

About Joan

Joan Brooks Baker was born in 1944, and brought up in New York City by dyed-in-the-wool Southern parents. At age eleven she was taught how to make a pinhole camera with a shoebox, which she took, along with her deep curiosity, down the city’s streets, Central Park or just simply the subway.  She came to understand that she was making mental snapshots in order to create sense out of the chaos in her life.


Joan has exhibited her photographs and photographic monoprints in several galleries, mainly in Santa Fe, New Mexico and New York City. The United Nations “70 women from 50 countries” exhibit featured Joan's images of India’s female garbage workers. 


Her work has been featured in Cross by Kelly Klein, Searching for Mary Magdalene: A Journey Through Art and Literature by Jane Lahr, Ms. Magazine, Men’s Vogue and Town & Country magazine, The Dead Mule of Southern Literature; Symbols of Faith, A Visual Journey to the Historic Churches of New Mexico, to name a few. Her last photographic project, and one that spanned several years, was of The Black Madonna.  In her search to find the meaning of this icon’s legend, Joan began to relate the Black Madonna’s narrative to women she admired and to herself.


It was through the Black Madonna presentation that she was inspired to write her memoir, The Magnolia Code.

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