Chapel Hill, N.C. – 2000
$13.00 (paper) $22.95 (hardcover)
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.
Morgan’s vision of Appalachian people is a romantic one, the flip side of familiar imaginings of the violence and evil, moonshine and madness in the mountains. Though his portrayal may be the kinder of the two, neither image does justice to mountain lives past or present. It can lead to the belief that it is desirable to emulate the past, but it’s a past that never was.
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.
Julie is an exquisite storyteller, but she gives no sense of her own changes, remaining unsatisfyingly static. The death of her brother and, shortly afterwards, her father would in most stories mark the passage to adulthood, but Julie seems to have been born responsible and grown-up, resigned to her fate. As the strongest of four girls in the family, she’s a workhorse. “The job just fell to me, without anybody explaining why,” she says of cutting firewood. “And since it had to be done, I done it, and kept on doing it.”
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.”
The dream is not destined to come true. Hank and Julie do marry and then walk over the hills carrying all they own to a farm on Gap Creek. There Julie keeps house for the cranky widower who owns the place, and Hank works making bricks for a new mill nearby.
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 strain begins to tell on Hank, though. He at least has recognizable emotions. When Julie falls for a scam, Hank hits his pregnant wife and calls her a “dumb heifer” in a predictable domestic violence sequence that has become a staple in books, movies, and television. It’s the only scene in the book that stood out to me as an overworked cliché. Unfortunately, as we know so well from all the facts that have come out about domestic violence, it’s unrealistic to suppose that there would be just one incident of violence in this marriage: Abusers keep abusing. Yet Morgan implies that Hank has learned his lesson and will not strike his wife again. The author’s own evidence does not support him. Hank has a nasty temper. He gets fired from his job, and employers blacklist him because of his outbursts. He is not quite the paragon Julie is.
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.
First published in the (Raleigh, N.C.) News & Observer, October 3, 1999 and in Now & Then, Spring 2001.
I include this review because it shows so well what I tried to do for seven years as editor of Now & Then, the Appalachian Magazine. We aimed to walk along a slim rail–fall off on one side and it’s moonshine and mayhem; fall off the other direction, it’s hardy self-sufficiency. Neither is accurate.
Gap Creek became an Oprah’s Book Club selection and is still in print.