By Amy Greene
291 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $24.95
By LISA FUGARD
Don’t be misled by the dreamy pastoral image on the dust jacket of Amy Greene’s first novel. “Bloodroot” takes place in Appalachia, and, yes, Greene lovingly describes its mountains and hollows, its waters filled with bluegills. There’s also much talk of healing and magic and backwoods folk wisdom. But this story is really about the fraught, sometimes dangerous, bonds between children and their mothers, and the appalling spillover of violence from one generation to the next.
A scene about halfway through, when a pregnant Laura Odom Blevins is being harassed by her wildly possessive, drink-addled mother-in-law, captures this dark legacy with wrenching clarity. “I ain’t never had nobody,” the older woman sobs, after she’s finished hurling insults. “When I was little they was always passing me around. Didn’t none of them want me.” But the pity Laura momentarily feels is banished when her mother-in-law grabs a jack handle and begins smashing Laura’s husband’s car. “I was sorry,” a shaken Laura confesses after another tussle sends the woman limping away, “but most of all I was worried about my baby. I thought something had broke inside me, the way it broke in Mama.”
Laura’s mother, black-haired, blue-eyed Myra Lamb, is one of the characters the novel follows through three generations of domestic strife. She’s first encountered through the recollections of Byrdie, the grandmother who raises her on Bloodroot Mountain, and Doug Cotter, a shy young neighbor who falls in love with her — both of whom feel her slipping away, lured by an ominously attractive man named John Odom. Although Greene strains a bit in these passages, using the awkward symbolism of Wild Rose, a horse that can’t be tamed, to echo Myra’s free spirit, she succeeds in capturing the intimate relationships many of her characters have with the natural world. “The whole mountain belonged to us,” Doug declares, “and we knew its terrain like our own bodies, every scar and cleft and fold.”
In unadorned but assured prose, Greene then takes her readers to the hardscrabble world of foster homes and juvenile detention centers, of life in a blue-collar Appalachian town as experienced by Myra’s children, the twins Laura and Johnny. While Laura struggles to move beyond the traumas of their childhood — when social workers removed them from their mother’s home — Johnny can’t forget the years they spent with the reclusive Myra. At one point, he hikes up Bloodroot Mountain with a friend who has promised to show him a witch’s house. Dilapidated, hidden among the trees, it looks “like a toy I could hold in both hands, a dirty white box with black window holes and the roof a flake of blood.” It’s his childhood home, and the witch in question is his mother.
When, in the novel’s last section, Myra’s voice is finally heard — searching back for the first “whispers of fear” she felt after meeting John Odom — the effect is chilling. Here Greene uses gothic overtones (sometimes too heavily) to capture the crippling atmosphere of Myra’s marriage. The smell of sulphur and dead rats permeates the air outside the Odom house; her sisters-in-law are “tired and colorless”; her husband looks “almost foreign, hair and eyes black as soot.” She captures well the electric emotional snap of a woman about to break free from an abusive marriage, the charge of adrenaline in that “exhilarating moment when I knew it would end for me one way or another.”
Greene layers the novel with references to Myra’s incredible magnetism, and it’s said she has “the touch,” a kind of ESP. There’s also mention of a family curse. But this somehow detracts from the tragedy of her life. Myra is most compelling as an all too ordinary woman trying to escape an inheritance of violence and poverty. “It’s not right, what we’ve put on her,” one character remarks. “She’s made out of flesh and blood, just like anybody else.”
Lisa Fugard is the author of a novel, “Skinner’s Drift.”