Saturday, January 15, 2011

Bloodroot Depicts Life in Appalachia

Amy Greene's debut novel Bloodroot came out in trade paperback last week, and all I have to say is: here it is -- one more option for a fabulous novel. It may be the only novel I paid the full hardback price for in 2010; it is definitely the only novel I purchased while at the Southern Festival of Books in October. Greene's session (a combination of her speaking + the selection she read aloud from the novel) caused me to sprint out of the Capital (no easy feat, as most doors are locked during the Festival and only the underground tunnel open -- can you say fire hazard?), across Charlotte Avenue, and up the steps at War Memorial Auditorium. I bought Bloodroot in record time, tapping my foot in impatience, and was one of the first standing in line when Greene arrived at the signing plaza.

Our conversation was short, but I said what I had intended. Something along the lines of, "Ohmygosh. I meant to read your book before now, I kept seeing it, but after hearing you read, I had to pick it up, I can't wait to read the rest of it." We chatted about a recent appearance in Cookeville (my current city at the time), and I was off. I flew back along the same route I had just come, half an hour late to one of my favorite speakers -- the highly intelligent Dr. Bill Bass, founder of the Body Farm at UT Knoxville. He and his writing partner, Jon Jefferson, were fascinating and clever, but it was perfectly okay with me to have missed some of their session. I had met Amy Greene.

'For Joanna -- Amy Greene,' from SFB 2010 in Nashville, TN

Bloodroot is the story of Myra Lamb Odom, told from both her perspective and that of the people who loved her. Greene switches narrators as easily as some people change sweaters. She begins with Myra's grandmother, Byrdie. The Lamb family is a family of the Appalachians, much like Greene herself. Byrdie raises first her daughter, then her granddaughter up on Bloodroot mountain. The novel goes forward and backward in time, weaving the story of the Lamb family. Clio was Myra's wild mother; Byrdie her loving grandmother; Doug is a narrator from outside the family -- growing up on the mountain, he fell deeply in love with Myra; Johnny and Laura are Myra's children. Only in the end do Myra and her long-missing husband John Odom speak for themselves.

What makes the novel unique is not its story; although interesting, full of deceit and violence and sadness and joy, it is a story as old as time. As long as humans have lived on the earth, stories like the Lamb family's story have been told. Rather, what makes the novel special is Greene's voice and skill that spill over the novel's pages. She paints a picture of life in the Appalachians that can't be denied.

When I heard Greene speak at the Southern Festival of Books, she spoke about her own struggle with the mountains. She longed, as a teenager, to escape the land of her people and set out on her own journey. Instead, she married her high school sweetheart and settled down in the town she planned to leave behind. She said that the mountains could be a cradle or a curse, and for her it had been a cradle. I had never heard words spoken that were more true than that; when she said that, I knew I had to read Bloodroot. Anyone who could speak that eloquently -- and say so much in so few words -- had to be a good writer. I wasn't wrong; Bloodroot was beautiful and haunting. It is the best of what we call southern literature, as it epitomizes precisely what it means to be a southerner, for better or for worse.

Others agree. Amazon named the book one of its top picks for 2010.



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