Reading the South
New Fiction by Regional Authors, September 2002
by Hal Jacobs
for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
"Eighty years after the removal of Native Americans
from the Appalachian Mountains, a Cherokee woman falls in love with
a white man and starts a new life with his people. The year is 1917,
and Vine has everything she needs in Silas House's A Parchment
of Leaves (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, $23.95). She has
strong hands to work the soil, she has the love of a good man and soon
enough, she has a daughter.
What Vine doesn't need is a brother-in-law whose infatuation with her
grows into obsessiveness, eventually leading to a scene of terrible
violence. In the mountains, there is a season for everything, and Vine
must endure a long winter before her heart can feel light again.
I breathed in winter air and imagined it was spring. I conjured
up the smell of dogwoods and redbuds, the warmth of an April rain
upon my face. It had been so long since I had felt the sun on the
back of my neck, but I nearly wished it into being.
In his second novel, House writes with simple eloquence about life
in the isolated mountain hollows just as the first mountain homes and
roads begin to appear. He captures the rhythms of a woman's life, the
passages from courtship to marriage to motherhood. And he adds the wood
smoke, stars and the sounds of a fiddle, guitar and banjo on an October
I imagined the music drifting over the creek like mist on an autumn
evening, spreading itself out with its high notes pressed tight against
the mountains. I felt like a bird had been let loose beneath my ribs.
House, afrequent contributor on National Public Radio, lives in Lily,
The bodies of the dead, once buried, should stay
buried. But in the south Georgia town of Swan, someone has dug up the
corpse of Catherine Mason and left it lying beside the gravesite. Frances
Mayes' debut novel, Swan (Broadway Books, $25), looks
at the fall-out of this shocking crime on friends and family. As they
draw closer to grieve, unexpectedly, they find new sources of strength.
(For the record, the novel was written before the discovery of human
bodies strewn around a certain north Georgia crematorium.)
The Mason family was once the ruling elite in Swan. More than 100 years
ago, they built the cotton mill that turned a railroad crossroads into
a thriving town. These days, however, the mill is closed, the town's
future is uncertain, and the Masons are scattered to the winds. J.J.
spends his days hunting and fishing, disappearing in the nearby woods
and swamps for weeks at a time. Ginger works on an archaeological dig
in the Tuscany hills, examining Etruscan coffin lids by day, enjoying
her Italian lover by night. She and J.J. have turned inwards, still
reeling from the apparent suicide of their mother almost 20 years ago.
The desecration of their mother's body brings them back home to confront
a crime for which there are no suspects. When new evidence turns up
the possibility that Catherine was murdered, they begin to revise their
understanding of their mother - and themselves.
Mayes tells the story through the eyes of many characters, including
the maiden aunt who raised the children, the aging mistress of Big Jim
Mason (family patriarch), the sheriff (a grandson of the sheriff who
investigated the crime), various housekeepers, shop clerks, unemployed
mill hands, and others. When the Italian boyfriend compares Ginger's
family life to those "labyrinthine, plotless Faulker novels,"
he almost hits a bulls-eye.
In her fiction debut, Mayes describes the deeply entangled relationships
of a small southern community with both a poetic sensibility and traditional
gothic touches. She's adept at observing the nuances of the small-town
elite, whose feelings of being connected to the land are as intense
as their utter self-absorption.
From the crests of the rises, she looked down as she drove into
a green sea of expansive longleaf-pine forests. As far as the eye,
as if she did not exist. The smell blew through her hair, deeply fresh,
one of the scents most basic to her memory.
Mayes is the author of Under the Tuscan Sun and five books of
poetry. She is a Georgia native who divides her time between San Francisco
and Cortona, Italy.
For anybody who needs a reminder that summers
in the deep South are perfect for growing cotton and swapping tales,
George Strange's collection of short stories in Generations
(Mercer University Press, $24.95) provides fresh evidence.
In the first story, "Connecting Generations," a young boy
becomes intrigued by his great-great-grandfather, who killed a man in
a duel and later slipped away in a cloud of fireflies, never to be seen
After rummaging around his grandmother's basement during a family get-together,
the boy finds a stashed-away portrait of his infamous ancestor. Before
long, fortified with a jar of moonshine, he is sharing drinks and hanging
out with the old killer in an apple tree.
In the apple orchard above the noisy clatter of people passing
a year's news, the boy and his great-great-grandfather leaned against
two tree trunks and looked down at their other relatives.
-I'm not sure, the boy said, but I think Granny Zell is really
lonely after these years of looking down from the mantel all by herself.
And talk about looking. Your son spent his life looking for you.
A later story, "Fireflies," describes the night of the duel
from the point-of-view of the boy's grandfather. It's a riveting account
with a surreal twist: a boy watching his father climb inside a steamer
trunk that will soon be loaded onto an Atlanta-bound train.
Ma threw me up on the wagon and told me to look inside. In all
the years since, in all the closings of coffin lids, I have never
seen anything as frightful as that. Him alive and hunched up in a
red shirt. His eyes moving back and forth almost as if they were out
of control, speeding almost, except for that one moment, that one
long moment when they held me with such heat I began to sweat.
In these simply crafted stories, Strange describes a place that thrives
on connections - good or bad -- between generations. In his world, the
past stays alive as long as people continue to feel deeply about their
heritage and pass down their stories.
Strange divides his time between Pearson, Ga., and Wolf Gap Hollow,
Peggy Payne's Sister India (Riverhead
Books, paperback $14) is a reissue of a last year's "New York Times
Notable Book" selection. The riveting story is set in the holy
city of Varanasi, India, where pilgrims come to bathe in the River Ganges.
Against this modern backdrop of Eastern spiritualism and violent clashes
between Hindus and Muslims, Madame Natraja, a North Carolina expatriate
who traveled to India and never left, rules over American travelers
(including a young Atlanta business woman) at her guest house.
Twenty years ago, when Estelle arrived in India, she was a young and
lithesome. But the ensuing years have transformed her into a grotesque
character, weighing over 400 pounds and exuding sweat and hostility
and, far beneath the surface, surprising tenderness.
While the Americans venture out of the guest house and confront the
turbulence on the crowded streets and river, Payne slowly reveals the
details behind Estelle's transformation into Natraja. Just as violence
and hatred now flow in Varanasi, similar emotions once spilled over
her North Carolina home.
Payne, a freelance journalist and travel writer, lives outside of Chapel
An edited version of these reviews appeared in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution,
Sunday, Sept. 29, 2002.