I traveled to Nashville recently for a conference. Driving through Smoky Mountain national park and the small towns along the way, and then the highlight of my trip — stopping in Ann Patchett’s book store — made me excited about reading Tennessee. I didn’t end up reading a book set in Nashville, but I did read a great novel set in the Appalachians, along with one set in the western part of the state, in Memphis, and one set in the eastern part, in Knoxville.
Author: Amy Greene, born Morristown, TN
Setting: Appalachian mountains, Tennessee, Great Depression to modern time
Set on Bloodroot Mountain in Tennessee, Bloodroot is the story of a cursed family who suffer generations of fiery love with bad men, each passionate beginning ending in death or abuse. There’s a wildness in the mountain folk, especially Myra, whose story is central to the novel, and with each generation the children come closer to being good, loveable, and loving. The final two chapters, from Myra’s point of view and from a an abuser’s point of view, are th emost compelling. They kept me up late reading to finish the book.
Bloodroot excels at putting us in the mountains of Tennessee, with dialect and descriptions of nature and housing.
Chickweed Holler was a wild place with the mountains with the mountains rising steep on both sides. From Grandmaw’s doorstep you could see a long ways, wildflower fields waving when the summer winds blowed.
The cave smelled of algae and minerals and wet stone. Within the sun’s reach the limestone walls were mottled with moss, shaggy near the top with russet-colored roots like the pelt of some mythical forest animal.
Novel: This Side of Eternity
Author: Rosalyn McMillan, lived in Memphis, TN
Setting: 1960s-1990s Memphis
Set in Memphis in the 1960s with the sanitation workers’ strikes and the killing of two workers in a garbage grinder accident, the novel follows the family of one of the killed workers, and particularly follows the women who were left behind.
I love the way the author weaves in the news of the decades — two of the characters are nwspaper women — and how it impacts Memphis and these women’s lives. I also love how it’s a universal women’s story, written by a woman, in the sense that it has all the elements that the majority of classics written by men and about men have — those novels accepted as universal human experiences even though they are men’s experience and are not universal to women. In This Side of Eternity, the women have thier own needs, their own sexuality, their own expectation for intellectual stimulation. They also have their caregiving responsibilities, and their experiences include abuse, harrassment, and disempowerment by men. It’s not the best written book I’ve ever read, but I appreciated the grounded realism of it.
I read this book in one day, really in less than 12 hours, starting in the Roanoke, Virginia airport and ending in Amsterdam.
Novel: A Death in the Family
Author: James Agee, born Knoxville, Tennessee
Setting: 1950s Knoxville, TN
Set in the 1950s in Tennessee, this is the story of a “normal” white suburban family: a husband who works, a good housewife who is dedicated to God, and two kids, a boy and a girl. The dad is fun and sweet, and he also drinks too much and drives too fast.
A Death in the Family shows the mundane day-to-day of the afternmat of a death of someone in the prime of their adulthood — too young to be taken and too many people depending on them. It shows the days after for a spouse, for children, and interestingly, who gets left out becuase of God, and really all the percieved roles God plays.
That – that butterfly has got more of God in him than Jackson [the priest] will ever see for the rest of eternity.
Unfortunately, it didn’t captivate me enough to really focus on what it all means, though. I know there is more depth to it than I absorbed. I got bored by some of the long italicized seqeuences I knew the editors plopped in because there weren’t sure where Agee intended them to go — the novel was published after Agee’s death — as those passages didn’t make sense to me. I could tell the book was good and literary, I just wasn’t that into it.