Book Review – Clay’s Quilt
I 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.