By: Amy Greene
Audio book, full cast

This is one of those rare books that, while being a perfectly delightful book in its own right, is made even better by virtue of it being read by exactly the right people exactly the right way.

The story is simple, if disturbing: it traces three generations of Smokey Mountain hill people, who seem to pass a sort of curse and a blessing along from mother to child: a curse of dysfunction and distress, and a blessing of a deep and even mystic tie to the mountain on which they are all born, and perhaps even a kind of magic that springs from that relationship to the mountain.

The story centers around Myra, a kind of wild child who comes of age in the early 70s, (though it might as well have been the middle of the previous century). She is raised by her grandmother, a "mountainy woman" of the old school, who knows the plants, the animals, how to wring a chicken's neck and have it ready for that night's supper, who can birth a baby, tend a "gash," stitch a quilt, and heal a broken heart. Her granny has little reason to go off the mountain, and rarely does, her neighbors bringing her salt and sugar and coffee every so often, or carrying her to the co-op or church in their truck.

When Myra is born, she is expected to be something special, with her wild black hair and sea-blue eyes. At school, she meets John Odom, handsome and self-assured (though, it turns out, from a family where no love ever warmed its hearth), and, in a moment of perhaps foolishness, perhaps willfullness, she works a mountain woman's magic on him by eating a chicken heart whole in order to secure his love.

She gets a little more than she bargains for, though he does, indeed, become infatuated with her. The main part of the story is about Myra and John, and later their (perhaps) twins, Laura and Johnny, who ultimately bring a kind of peace and redemption to the troubled family.

The story is told in the voice of several characters: Byrdie Lamb (granny) and Doug Cotter (Myra's rejected but ever-faithful suitor); Myra Lamb; John Odom; Johnny and Laura Odom. Each character has a distinct voice as written, but even more so as performed by the excellent actors. One disadvantage of having listened to the audio version of this book is the fact that Greene writes the book "out of order," beginning with Granny as she cares for Myra as a young child, teaching her about the mountain, then jumping to Johnny and Laura (Myra's children) before returning to Myra and her story. So where a reader might thumb around the book a bit to get a sense of who is what to whom, the listener remains a bit confused for a while, as the generations and relationships are sorted out.

Then there is the mysterious Ford tossed into the mix, a sort of mystic writer, whom, it just might be, fathers one or both of Myra's twins, and passes his gift of writing on the violent and unhappy Johnny Odom, which gift ultimate saves him and even brings him honor and respect, while Laura, a widowed young mother, nurtures her baby in a way that no mother in the book until her is able to do.

Running through it all is a reference to the bloodroot plant, a tuberous, flowering plant, whose root, when cut, "bleeds" a red sap. The sap has morphine-like qualities, but when applied to the skin, can cause permanently disfiguring lesions. Nevertheless, the flowers are beautiful, and grow profusely as the rhizomes spread shallowly under the soil.  So the bloodroot in this book acts as a kind of symbol of the inner poison of the family in question: Myra marrying the abusive John Odom, who, himself was abused. He tortures her into near-insanity, and she finally flees to the mountain to bear the  twins with which she is now pregnant.

She does her best to keep them safe and sequestered, but eventually they are sent to foster homes, where it appears they'll continue the curse they were born into. How this changes, and why, isn't exactly climactic, but part of a slowly stitched family quilt of stories - a bit here, a bit there, a memory, a scrap of lore, an accidental meeting, a notebook found moldering in a shed.

Greene clearly knows the region and its language, its mysteries, colors, and textures. The food, the scents, the way something is phrased (a child clings to a skirt-tail, not the hem of a skirt, for example); she never misses a beat, and the actors convey all this in their pitch-perfect accents and characterizations. They are never melodramatic, always believable, and even the "villains" among them are to be pitied and sorrowed for, rather than judged.

I have to admit to a life-long penchant for finding and exploring old, abandoned country houses, and listening to this book was a bit like poking through one of them. While I creep through an empty house, its wallpaper peeling, scraps of clothing left to molder in a closet, empty flowerpots sitting on a windowsill, I can't help wondering who lived here, what woman lovingly hung the wallpaper and set the flowerpot on the windowsill to catch the sun; listening to this book was like getting some of those answers.


Amy Greene said…
I love this review. Beautiful. Thank you!
Nancy Roberts said…
Thank YOU... wonderful book! I loved every minute of it.

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