Genre: General Fiction (Adult)
Publisher: Sourcebook Landmark
Pub. Date: August 22, 2017
The year is 1970. We follow the story of our heroine, Sadie Blue, a young Appalachian girl in North Carolina. When I accepted this ARC book I was afraid that it might be too similar to the book and movie “Bastard Out Of Carolina,” which was an okay book focusing more on childhood sexual abuse than Appalachia. I’m happy to report that this novel is different, displaying a masterful use of writing that I didn’t find in the former book. We meet impoverished people living in dirt floor shacks without plumbing or electricity, mostly all are starving. Moonshine is treated as a matter of life and death. Might as well have a sign saying “These here are Roy’s stills’,enter at your own risk!” But then again, most of the characters cannot read. Roy is an abusive young husband, who “made the alligators look tame” (thank Elvis for the expression). In this character-driven raw story, Sadie is Roy’s pregnant teenage wife, who was abandoned as a child. Sadie was raised by her unloving grandmother, who has her own husband issues. Each chapter is told from a different character’s perspective, and they all add new pieces to understanding life in Appalachia.
We also follow the story of the town’s new teacher, Kate Shaw. All the other teachers have been harassed out of town. She is over 6 feet tall with cropped hair and has a mannish way about her. She was dismissed from her previous job at a posh girls’ boarding school in North Carolina for not following their strict protocol. She accepted this position because she had nowhere else to go. No one expects her to last a week. She is brought into town by Preacher Eli Perkins. A kind soul who usually fails, but never ceases to try to broaden his congregation’s minds and bring them a better lifestyle, he also becomes smitten with Kate. The reader is in on the joke of his naiveté. The preacher’s sister, Prudence, is a hateful woman and does all she can to sabotage the new teacher, including sending her miles out of her way to walk to the teacher’s shack. This might not sound too cruel, but the reader needs to remember that Kate has never experienced wilderness, wild animals and women smoking corn pipes before. And, they all speak in a language that barely resembles English (I had trouble following their words). We do eventually learn where Prudence’s hatred comes from. It is up to the reader to decide whether this excuses her actions. Another voice and my personal favorite character is the mystical and wonderfully eccentric Birdie, who claims the crows can talk to her through their thoughts. She even has a pet crow who lives on top of her literal bird’s nest head of hair.
Sadie is a sweet and naturally intelligent girl. She longs to learn to read but is forbidden by Roy, who beats her for no reason other than boredom. “The face in the cracked mirror shows another loose tooth, a split lip, and a eye turning purple. I don’t see me no more in that slice of looking glass. It’s a strange feeling thinking the face in the mirror is somebody else.” The townsfolk aren’t blind to Sadie’s struggles, and almost all like her, but feel there is nothing they can do to intervene between man and wife. She is even abandoned by her grandmother, although she sees the bruised Sadie every Sunday at church.
This tale is so good that I was surprised to learn that it is a debut novel. Weiss has published many short stories, but this is her first novel. She catches and weaves together compelling voices from a part of America that many of us are not familiar. It reads like a song by Loretta Lynn, who is Sadie’s idol. Roy once catches her having fun while singing along with Ms. Lynn on their radio, one of their few possessions. He immediately smashes the radio to destroy her only form of pleasure. But have no fear, for Birdie and Kate are keeping an eye out for Sadie. I don’t want to ruin the ending but these two women are not afraid of intervening in a marriage.
Weiss wrote deeply human characters whom I will not easily forget. In fact, her novel has me thinking about how hatred can begin. The characters’ isolation from 1970 American culture leaves them at a disadvantage. They are a racist people simply because this is their reality. The limitation of their world traps them, reminding me of all the hate groups that are in our current headlines. How easy it can be to create a child who grows to believe that it’s a man’s right to beat his wife or hate anyone different from themselves. The author’s roots are simple and deeply southern. She is a mountain girl at heart. Weiss didn’t start writing till her mid-fifties, making her my idol. She states that this book is from her mom’s memoirs. What a haunting, insightful, story her daughter has created giving this reviewer an insightful education in the history of the North Carolina Blue Ridge Mountains.
This is an Advanced Review Copy (ARC
This is an Advanced Review Copy (ARC) book. I received this novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.
Find all my reviews at https://www.goodreads.com/review/list/4793025-martie-nees-record?shelf=read