Tag Archives: Appalachian fiction

CHELSIE DUBAY’S MONDAY BOOK

Book Review – Clay’s Quilt

bookcover_claysquiltI assigned Clay’s Quilt, by Silas House, as part of an Appalachian Literature course I was teaching, without ever reading it. I recognize House as a major player in the modern Appalachian Literature movement but sadly, I have read only a small sampling of his work. I chose Clay’s Quilt based solely on its name. Superficial, yes. My hope was that House titled this work not only as a clever homage to Appalachian cultural practice but also as an attribute of how the story unfolds.

Clay’s Quilt is an authentic representation of modern Appalachian life and culture. The novel follows Clay Sizemore, a young miner living in rural Kentucky, through his young-adult years. A flashback scene serves as the novel’s opening. In this scene, we learn that Anneth, Clay’s mother, died when he was only four years old. Since his mother’s death, Clay has been searching for the comfort and peace that can only be found at “home.” For Clay, however, the road that leads him to this proverbial home is as winding and untamed as the old coal roads that deliver him into the dark, foreboding coal mines each day.

Through House’s narrative, the reader is able to piece together Clay’s life and the relationships held within it much like piecing together a quilt. Clay’s character is first established as a bit of a wild party boy. House is able to paint this picture through Clay’s weekly visits to the local bar, the Hilltop, where he and his friend Cake usually end up drunk, stoned, and looking for trouble. Clay’s entire character shifts when he meets Alma, an abused wife and fiddle player with steadfast morals that are deeply rooted in her family’s Pentecostal faith. The story’s greatest tension derives, ironically so, from the internal struggle Alma faces as she considers officially filing for divorce in an effort to foster a relationship with Clay. Alma’s struggles introduce the reader to the violence and drama that provide this story with an interesting turn of events. The story ends in a very generic “they lived happily ever after” way, complete with a final scene that helps support the novel’s title.

I loved the effortless way House uses narrative to embed aspects of Appalachian culture into the story. The ways in which he creates vivid images of place relates directly to the characters’ quest to find “home.” The reader is able to visualize every setting – the feel of a muddy path up to a wildflower field or the smell of home cookin’ in Aunt Easter’s kitchen. Each description is tangible. He is able to articulate the importance of family and close-knit relationships felt within many Appalachian families. House deposits idioms and regional colloquialisms that help establish the work as authentic without seeming fake or forced – an aspect I appreciate above all others.

One of the strengths of this novel is the authenticity of its delivery. Whether in dialogue between characters, descriptive phrasing used to create settings, or the non-abrasive influences of faith, family, and music, House is able to weave together these elements in an effort to create each character’s storyline. The language used throughout the novel seems real instead of forced. House is able to integrate multiple aspects of Appalachian culture, especially in terms of familial relationships and religious undertone, that work together to create the bonds shared between the characters and their homestead.

On a personal note, I reached out to House and asked for help and advice with my own Appalachian Literature course. His response was helpful, optimistic, and timely – all things I can appreciate. He shared in my charge to ensure that this body of work – Appalachian Literature – continues to have a place and a champion in today’s literary cannon.

 

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Filed under book reviews, bookstore management, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, publishing, reading, small town USA, Uncategorized, VA, Wendy Welch

The Monday Book: REQUIEM BY FIRE, a novel by Wayne Caldwell

requiemSorry so many Mondays have slipped past. I have started many books that didn’t make me want to finish them, this past month. And then came REQUIEM, a story so enticing it makes me go to bed early just so I can read.

The book is set in the late 1920s and early 1930s, and focuses on what the establishment of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park did to the people it bumped.

I know these people – Jim the local boy who wants to return home and work, the successful man; his wife Nell who wants to follow in the footsteps of her overbearing mother and get the hell outta there to a place with electricity and running water; Silas the contrarian who will be carried off the mountain feet-first, one way or another; the lawyer who turns on his own people and gets over his regret. They sound like stereotypes, but these folk walk, eat, and most definitely talk like real North Carolinians.

The tension between the people who live on (and off of) the land, and the government officials, some clueless, some very clued up indeed, flows under the rest of the action. Actually, this book is less action than scene by scene contacts between people, dialogue sent against lightly descriptive background. I am a sucker for well-drawn characters having pithy, realistic conversations, and this book is that in spades. Not a fan of a lot of description myself, I nevertheless was hooked by the opening scene of the novel, depicting an act of benevolent arson.

The ending will not be given away in a spoiler because I haven’t finished it yet. This is a book to savor. I’m so glad to have found something that restores my faith in Appalachian fiction!

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Wesley Tells His Tail – Er, Tale

Today’s guest blog is from Wesley and his foster mom Willie Dalton. Willie is the author of THREE WITCHES IN A SMALL TOWN, from which the “dumpster six” take their names: Wesley, Steven, Cerulean, Agatha, Mabry, and Maeve. (Maeve is now of blessed memory). You’d love the book as much as the names. It’s available from Mountain Girl Press.

Take it away, Wesley!!!

wesleyHi, I’m Wesley. My five siblings and I had a rough start. Someone taped us up inside a box and dropped us in a dumpster when we were only a few weeks old. Can you believe it? We didn’t do nothin’ to nobody.

Luckily, a nice lady found us and helped us get the food and medicine we really needed. One of my sisters didn’t make it, and we all miss her. But the rest of us are happy and healthy now. I’m getting bigger and stronger every day!

And I sure am happy I can eat on my own now without having to wait for my foster mom to bring me a bottle and feed all my siblings too. I’m not very patient when I’m hungry. But who is, am I right?

My foster mom is great but I think I’m ready for a furever home. There’s a lot of other cats here and I’d appreciate a little more personal attention. Every time I find a nice warm lap to curl up in, my sister Cerulean comes along and hogs all the cuddles. She’s a bit of a diva.

ceruleanI guess I wouldn’t mind another cat or two to play with if the right family comes along but one I thing I definitely need is toys with feathers, lots of feathers, they’re really great.

Everyone who sees me says how handsome I am with my little white face and pink nose but so far no one has taken me home. Maybe it’s because I snore sometimes. I don’t know what else it could be! I’m cute, playful, cuddly and I have have very tidy litter box habits. I’m a real catch.

Mom says the right family will find me soon and fall in love with me, that sounds really nice. But until then I’ll just be napping on the softy blanket on the couch, ya know, until Cerulean tries to steal it from me.

To adopt Wesley, Cerulean, or any of the “dumpster six,” message Appalachian Feline Friends via Facebook.

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The Monday Book: GRAY MOUNTAIN by John Grisham

tumbsNormally I only do Monday Books on those I’ve liked. This one is a bit half-hearted, but Grisham’s latest is set in our region and tackles the much-ignored topic of mountaintop removal, so almost everyone around here feels an obligation to read it. We need opinions for the church potlucks.

Obligation is a pretty good word. I don’t like dissing authors, or books – unless they’re real creeps, and Grisham isn’t. He just….. kinda didn’t do anything exciting in this book. And, inevitably, even though he spent time in SE Kentucky with some people dedicated to stopping MT removal AND bringing social justice to the Coalfields, he got some important stuff wrong.

It isn’t a big deal that the mileage and directions are way off in his book. It’s fiction. It isn’t a big deal that sometimes he slides into stereotypes even though you can tell he’s trying not to – kinda like a kid learning to ride a bike will guaranteed hit the pothole she’s watching with her whole being, intent on avoiding it. You always hit what you concentrate on avoiding, because you’re concentrating on it rather than the story you have to tell. We don’t mind; it was nice of him to try.

But I knew we were in trouble when Grisham started the serious action of his book with an old “legend” that circulates about SW VA/SE KY/NE TN mountain roads.

The book itself opens with the heroine getting laid off from her high powered-yet-hated legal job. She has a chance to keep her health insurance if she goes to work for a nonprofit, and she winds up taking the “bottom of the barrel” with the only remaining option: in the Coalfields of Appalachia. It must be hard for an author to try not to stereotype while writing about a NYC character coping with moving out of Manhattan. He tried, bless his heart. It made the book a bit flat because at the points where people would’ve been asking some serious questions, the heroine gets all open-minded. Still, his mechanism for driving her to VA is a good one: keep your health insurance if you leave the land of the midnight latte for the exile of rural America. Nice try, Johnny, but your logistics are showing.

Maybe that’s the biggest problem throughout the book. HOW he was trying to tell the story showed as much as the story.

Anyway, she drives into a town thinly disguised as being not-Grundy, VA, and a guy pulls her over in an unmarked police car and threatens her with all kinds of things if she doesn’t come back to the station with him. Including handcuffing and a gun. Turns out he’s the local learning impaired dude who pretends he’s a cop and only pulls over people with Yankee license plates.

We are not amused. You can look up the stories on Snopes, but there really was a rape and murder under this scenario; the guys weren’t handicapped; they were felons. It is not funny to display color local characters in this manner, let alone a town complicit with such dangerous actions. {“Yeah, he’s weird, but he’s ours.”} I began to hate the book at this moment, and probably couldn’t give it a fair read from there forward.

From then on the words skimmed past my eyes very much like an Arthur Hailey novel: all explanation and no storytelling; the facts of mountaintop removal thinly disguised as a fish-out-of-water story; lots of sensational details added about the main characters, a la the unnecessary drama of a Hollywood plot built around a love story. The whole thing just read like… well, like reading the script of your average mid-week 8 pm tv drama. I didn’t care what happened to any of the characters, because I didn’t believe they were real.

Which is annoying, because–let’s give him credit–Grisham is the FIRST big deal author to tackle MT removal, and I don’t care how much I didn’t like the book, I love him as an author for doing that. GOOD FOR YOU MR. G!

But can I add, very sadly, that I wish he’d done a better job of telling a story rather than so obviously trying to talk people into hating the bad guys? The complexities suffered, and so did the communities. But thanks.

mtr

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Filed under bad writing, between books, Big Stone Gap, blue funks, book reviews, folklore and ethnography, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, out of things to read, publishing, reading, small town USA, Uncategorized, VA, Wendy Welch