Though he teaches at Cornell University in New York, novelist and poet Robert Morgan has adopted none of contemporary fiction’s mannered, middle-class academic angst. An old-fashioned writer, he sets his stories along the mountainous North Carolina/South Carolina border where he grew up. He imagines Appalachians of a bygone day as steadfast, hard-working, honest, religious, and loving, with frailties and cruelties forgivable and forgiven.
In Gap Creek, vagueness about
time contributes to an idealistic, once-upon-a-time quality. The story
occurs sometime after the advent of trains and before cars. Morgan gives
no news of the outside world, mentions no schools or newspapers, and notes
few imported goods besides coffee, tea, sugar, and, of all things, coconut.
That sense of self-sufficiency and isolation is a well-loved myth about
a part of the country that has always been connected, in reality, to the
economics and politics of the state, nation, and the world.
What saves Morgan’s
novel, his third, from a mawkish, Waltons/Andy Griffith sentimentality
is his gripping storytelling, an indelible sense of place, and the flesh-and-blood-and-guts
subject matter. With a finely honed, no-extra-words narrative, Morgan
turns the story of prosaic lives into a page-turner.
The very first lines uttered
by Morgan’s young narrator portend high drama: “I know about
Masenier because I was there. I seen him die.” High drama does indeed
follow, though most of this story concerns a farm girl’s narrow
life: the planting and gathering of crops, clearing woods and making jelly—nothing
extraordinary, except in the telling. Masenier is the little brother of
the teenaged narrator, Julie, who tells her story in a simple but elegant
dialect. She holds the little boy as he dies gruesomely of an intestinal
parasite on the mountainside on a freezing winter night.
That goes for all the outside
work on the farm. She details her labors in an engaging dry-as-dust tone.
She continues in the same unflappable style when describing the exciting
moment that a handsome young stranger, Hank, sees her sweating at one
end of a crosscut saw. Far from being put off by the activity Julie herself
considers unfeminine, he angles for an invitation to call on her.
That suits Julie’s modest
ambition. “I knowed that more than anything in the world I wanted
to be married to Hank Richards. I wanted to live in a house with just
him and me, and I wanted to help him work in the fields and raise chickens
and pick apples to dry in the sun for winter.”
It is an onerous life, but
Julie simply gets on with it. When she causes a kitchen fire that results
in the landlord’s death, she experiences none of the anguish or
guilt or nightmares that might beset a 17-year-old survivor of such an
ordeal. She remains as strong and practical as ever.
The novelist obviously admires
women. He favors hopeful brides as narrators in this novel as he has previously
in The Truest Pleasure and in part of The Hinterlands. These women often
describe birth as well as everyday chores in vivid detail. They are dignified,
without resentment, restlessness, or curiosity about the wider world.
Like Morgan’s other heroines, Julie’s spirituality, sense
of duty, physical strength and beauty, patience, and—remarkably—her
sexuality are all present and in proportion. This is the perfect woman.
When Julie and Hank leave Gap Creek wiser and more prepared, Hank—with his newfound religion and patience—joins Julie as a character too good to be true. A mountain mist softens the sharp image seen through Morgan’s lens. Placing his characters on a pedestal, Morgan robs them of their complexities. Yet, in the hands of such a gifted storyteller, it is worthwhile to give way to the romance and, as simply as Robert Morgan does, to love and honor Julie and Hank and their brave, foolish start in their small world.
Pat Arnow is former editor
of Now & Then and Southern Exposure, former managing
editor of the Journal of the Appalachian Studies Association,
and was the culture editor of In These Times. She is now a research
editor for Reader’s Digest in New York City.
published in the (Raleigh, N.C.) News & Observer,