Fate and fortune sing in new novel
Spartanburg poet and nonfiction writer John Lane has broken out of his comfort zone and journeyed into the netherworld of the novel and Appalachian noir. Joining company with Ron Rash, Charles Frazier, Wayne Caldwell, Wiley Cash, Pam Duncan and David Joy, Lane has maybe even raised the bar a bit by dovetailing the upstate South Carolina textile mill culture with that of the Western North Carolina farming communities. Talk about conflict! In Fate Moreland’s Widow, conflict crosses state lines and cultures and embodies the tensions and inequities in characters redolent of the haves and the have-nots and of labor unions vs. the business elite on both sides of clearly drawn lines.
Lane, who is a recent inductee into the prestigious South Carolina Academy of Authors, has lived and worked in Jackson and Swain counties here in Western North Carolina and owns land in the Caney Fork community in Cullowhee, knows first-hand of life and legacy from both sides of the Blue Ridge escarpment. This knowledge shows up in vivid detail in his tale of mystery and mayhem set in the fictitious mill town of Carlton, South Carolina, in the 1930s.
Ownerial greed and an unsolved boating “accident” up in a mountain lake that claims the lives of a father and his two children are the storylines that drive Lane’s knowing narrative. Based on stories he heard from his mill-working mother growing up, Lane uses his natural gift of oral storytelling to craft a fiction fine enough to have garnered the attention of none other than Pat Conroy, who says of Fate Moreland’s Widow, “What John Lane does better than anyone I have read is explore the interrelatedness of both the millworker and the mill owner, trapped by the desires and abuses of unchecked power. In the widow Novie Moreland, Lane has crafted a masterfully nuanced new symbol of male obsession and female resilience poised to become the Circe of the Carolina foothills.”
As the saying goes, “the devil is in the details,” and Lane has done his homework. His saga of Depression-era mill uprisings and early 20th century mountain life is like a coal-bin of history ready to ignite. And ignite it does with carefully choreographed writing that is cleverly understated and unpretentious in its mysterious attack upon the book’s storylines. As Pat Conroy has pointed out, nothing is more mysterious than Lane’s character of Novie Moreland, as evidenced in this passage spoken by the book’s narrator Ben Crocker:.
“All the men turned to watch the new widow depart, but not out of condolence. My gaze was a little too long and obvious. Her beauty was an open secret.”
Lane keeps Novie Moreland just out of sight and just tight-lipped enough to tease the reader toward temptation. In fact, teasing us toward infatuation and possibly even more. Lane’s Novie is counterpoint to Rash’s Serena. And as Ben Crocker insinuates, we can’t take our eyes off of her or wait for her to appear again, even if 50 pages hence. I can already see the headlines in the movie tabloids of young leading ladies queuing up to read for this part.
But Fate Moreland’s Widow is not a romance novel, it is, rather, a weaponless incarnation of the Civil War played out via the story of the Scots-Irish from the North Carolina mountains migrating to the neighboring South Carolina hill country out of work-related necessity. With no shots fired, what we get instead is wave after wave, volley upon volley, of mature prose and explosions of dialogue coming from characters such as legendary local hero and union organizer Olin Campbell.
“It’s like I already told these boys, McCane can’t fire me for being in the union, and he sure can’t throw us out of our homes without legal papers. Is against government settlement. We’re staying if there is any hint that McCane is breaking the law. You tell him to come back with the sheriff. My rent’s paid up. I don’t have anything to fear. You know the difference between right and wrong, Ben, between a rule book and playing sandlot.”
This, contrasted with the greedy pontificating of the family-monied mill owner George McCane.
“Union men? You go back up there and you get them out of my house. I don’t care if it is Labor Day weekend. Labor Day, hell.”
And so the story goes, with George McCane’s trial for the possible murder of Novie Moreland’s husband and two children, and the palpable tensions of a long courtroom scene that rivals those in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.
As Lee Smith says on her back-cover quote: “John Lane has written a cracker-jack page-turner. I couldn’t put this book down.” And neither could I. I was up until 1 a.m. reading the final 50 pages to get to the end of the story. To get the full flow and to find out how this epic ends, you’re gonna have to read the book yourself. You won’t regret it. Scout’s honor.