Everybody, it seems, is reading Hillbilly Elegy, the recent memoir by J. D. Vance. I read it myself and thought he did a good job of conveying his background story. I’m very curious to see where his life will go next – and I’m not alone in that. Right after reading the Vance memoir, I turned to Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America and am making my way slowly and carefully through this excellent, eye-opening, carefully documented piece of work that will surely be a classic of American history for as long as the United States of America lasts. I’ll have much more to say about this book in the near future.
That I received the other day an advance reader copy (ARC) of a novel set in Appalachia, among “the forgotten folks” of Baines Creek, North Carolina, in 1970 – that was purely coincidental, but like so many coincidences in a reader’s life, it was serendipitous, given what I’d already been reading. The characters in this novel by Leah Weiss are unschooled and hardscrabble poor. They live high on a windy ridge, where the air is thin, and so is the soil. As if the Civil War ended only last week, they still despise Yankees. The very people Vance in his memoir and Isenberg in her history described, Weiss brings to life in her fiction.
She’s not an opportunist riding a hillbilly bandwagon, either. Her mother grew up with fourteen siblings in an unpainted house without electricity or plumbing, and the first chapter of If the Creek Don’t Rise began as a short story entered in a writing contest in 2011. Weiss worked on the novel through 2014 and put it in the hands of an editor in 2015. The interview at the end of the book made me happy: here is a writer who not only understands but loves the hard work of revising and rewriting, which she calls “polishing the silver.”
But, how about the story?
Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge inspired the novel’s structure and enriches it in ways that are impossible to exaggerate. The book opens with pregnant teenage bride Sadie Blue, beat up again by her husband of fifteen days, moonshiner Roy Tupkin. Roy himself has a turn at narrating, but not before we’ve heard from Sadie’s grandmother, an aunt by marriage, the community preacher, the preacher’s sister, the new teacher enticed to the mountain by the preacher’s entreaty (teachers come and go fast in Baines Creek, and no one expects this one to last any longer than the others), and a boy who lives in the woods by hunting and fishing. Kate Shaw, outsider and new teacher, also has a guardian angel in the person of an herbalist midwife neighbor some might call a witch, and Birdie gets to tell her story, too.
Character names beg the reader to pronounce them aloud. Along with Sadie Blue and Roy Tupkin are Gladys Hicks, Marris Jones (proud to be named for the famous Mary Harris “Mother” Jones), Eli and Prudence Perkins (brother and sister), Tattler Swann, Billy Barnhill, and Birdie Rocas. Pharrell Moody looms large in the preacher’s story of his calling. Weeza Dillard is one of Kate Shaw’s little pupils. The store proprietor is Mooney – and only “Mister” if he’s in trouble with the law.
An important gain in having multiple narrators is that we see all of them not only as they see themselves or even as an author might wish to portray them, out of sympathy or lack of it, but as other characters see them. For example, Birdie Rocas at first looks like an urban homeless woman to Kate Shaw, but when Birdie has a chance to tell her story we learn why she wears so many wool skirts at once. Eli Perkins hints at his sister’s excessive martyrdom, her bitter devotion to living poor than she needs to live, but only when we look through Kate Shaw’s eyes do we see Prudence’s dirty neck and fingernails, clothes like rags, and shoes tied together to keep the soles on. The most unlovable characters in the book, we learn, have their own secret heartaches and pain.
Kate Shaw is far from perfect herself. “Book smart and mountain dumb,” is the way Sadie Blue puts it. But what I really appreciate about this book is that Kate Shaw does not come into the community as Sadie’s savior, nor is she shown up as an incompetent fool with all her book learning. Kate recognizes that “the mountain” has a lot to teach her and that the mountain people are not the only ones with needs. She needs a purpose and a place to belong as much as the Dillards need food, Eli needs intellectual companionship, and Sadie needs to find her way to a better life.
If the Creek Don’t Rise country is rich with homemade quilts and watermelon pickles, herbal remedies and colorful stories. It is also home to wife-beating, near-starvation, falling-down houses, and mine accidents that can take breadwinners out quick as snuffing a candle. Leah Weiss captures the rhythm and wit of Appalachian speech without resorting to incomprehensible spellings and a blizzard of apostrophes, and the reader is drawn eagerly and easily into a world that is, for most of us, as remote in experience as the mountain where its characters live is far from the rest of the country.
You’ve probably heard something about studies showing that reading fiction increases empathy. Well, a lot of Americans these days are having a hard time feeling empathy for one another, aren’t we? Feeling bruised ourselves, we rush to judge each other rather than trying to see the world from another’s point of view. If the Creek Don’t Rise just might be the novel to provide a breakthrough perspective to many. Already I can hear lively book club discussions as members exchange opinions on different characters, why they are the way they are, and if they can or should try to be different!
The book is not scheduled for release until late summer, but put it on your list now, or let me know if you want to pre-order a copy.
If the Creek Don’t Rise
by Leah Weiss
Available August 2017