In the case of Over the Plain Houses by Julia Franks, what we have is for the better. Better in every sense of the word. Better conception. Better creation. Better written. Better editing. In a book written about life in Madison County, North Carolina, in 1939, the author has created not only a living landscape familiar to anyone who might have lived in these Blue Ridge hills at that time, but a landscape of characters that caresses our imaginations to the point where imagination and reality become one.
Up in a cove, on a mountain farm not far from Marshall, a man and his wife and son have lived for many years. The man (Brodis) is a Pentecostal preacher. His wife (Irenie) is the daughter of the man from whom her husband has bought their farm. The son (Matthew) is intelligent and sensitive to the point of being out of place in this place with this set of parents.
Immediately at the book’s beginning, Irenie meets a young female agent who works for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and is introduced, much to her delight, to an urban feminism as well as a modern form of femininity. This creates an eventual conflict in her marriage, which has already begun to go awry with her preacher husband and his apocalyptic fears and his literal interpretation and reverence for scripture. And from there the plot thickens and gets thicker still.
Instead of the usual brutally honest Appalachian noir scenario, Franks turns her story into a kind of psychological thriller that is, in fact, a mental chess-match between husband and wife. Culminating with a surprise “checkmate” at game’s end as Franks writes her quietly fused storyline, a kind of lurking silence, with an explosive finale. “The sun blackened like sackcloth of hair, and the moon was as blood. A line of fire traced against the flinging skies, and the burnt smell of it, its char, boldened him to turn his face to God”
In Over the Plain Houses Julia Franks has added something new to Southern Appalachian fiction. It’s all about descriptive detail and dialogue. This book is long on detail and description, spare on dialogue. A winning combination. A savvy and welcome strategy. What Franks gives us is a kind of antithetical brilliance reminiscent of, but opposite to, Harper Lee’s amazing talent for conversational fiction which is heavy with dialogue.
In fact, not since Cold Mountain, Cataloochee or Serena have I read such convincing and transporting Appalachian prose, where so much attention is paid to surroundings, landscapes. In Plain Houses, Franks’ characters stand amidst a landscape that is sometimes even more important than what they say or do. A sublime achievement. In some ways it puts me of a mind of another first novel released in the last year or so, Painted Horses by Malcomb Brooks. While these two books have totally different landscapes, both books are more akin to a symphony than a song.
In the following passage in the early goings of the book (which reminded me of my boyhood years over in Graham County, in Robbinsville, and living across the street from the Bemis Lumber Co. mill pond where we used to play), we flash back to an earlier time in Brodis’ life, which serves as a good example for the point I am trying to make as to Franks’ fluidity of style:
“The new-formed lake was a depthless gray, the statues of broken stumps protruding through its mist, a field of timber floating motionless on its surface. Bracket booms like stationary rafts channeled floating sticks toward the sluiceway. ‘Don’t do nothing else either.’ Dewey commenced unbuttoning his woolen shirt, and for a moment Brodis thought he was going to take a swim. Then he stepped onto a slanted rock and, without checking his pace, onto a peel-slick log. The wood dipped with his weight, but then he was in the middle, and then he’d already stepped onto a she-balsam. Now he footed from timber to timber, as nimble as strolling through a meadow in the morning gloom.”
This from a world where logging was a possible option for some and tobacco the county’s only real supporting economy — “as if all the growing world had put its energy into this one lurid plant.”
A little later on we find ourselves in the company of Irenie on the farm and doing her daily chores:
“Irenie opened the springhouse door and stooped into the subterranean fog, the ancient cool of the stone creeping through her boots. It was a weak spring, but Matthew had built such a wide basin into the floor that it kept the temperature the same winter or summer, chatter-cold but never freezing. On the bottom shelf a block of butter hardened next to a bucket of milk and a pitcher of cream. On the upper shelves spilled the greens, the strawberries, rhubarb and peas. She cupped the bowl of peas against her hip and returned to the house.”
Eventually the story moves from Madison County to a copper mine and its codependent town in the mountains of Tennessee. Traveling by way of the Graham County Railroad and a 1930s train ride with a desperate Irenie, who is both running from her past as well as her future.
Only to return again to Madison County and the book’s eventual grand finale as eloquently introduced on page 259 of the 270-page book.
“The smithy’s shop was battened and still, though the place still leached a pent up heat, as if it too could never be cooled. The saw mill was closed, the conveyer empty, the rotary blades and steam engines silent, the great arm of the McGiffert loader motionless above the scene like the poised hand of God. Wood dust hung in the air, golden in the evening light.”
In a publisher’s interview with Julia Franks, she spoke of her background and her connections with the Southern Appalachians in general and North Carolina in particular, which explains much of the detailed descriptions of the environment in which her novel takes place. “I’ve actually moved around a lot, but my family roots are in the Carolinas and West Virginia. I also keep coming back to this part of the world. I’m pretty outdoorsy and it just feels like where I’m supposed to be. In 2008 my then husband and I bought a farm in western North Carolina. The old homestead built in 1865 was still standing. Pretty soon we found out that the lady who’d lived there had a husband who was a preacher — somewhat eccentric and notoriously rigid and who had a reputation for preaching fiery sermons. And these stories and details eventually found their way into my writing.”
So move over guys, there’s a new girl just moved into the neighborhood. A 21st century Virginia Woolf who has a room of her own. A fragile feminist? An author-activist? No, just a damn good writer whom we will, no doubt, be hearing much more from in the future. She visits City Lights Bookstore in Sylva for a reading and discussion on the evening of June 25 and again on Aug. 18 for a special writers workshop hosted by the North Carolina Wilderness Society. Both events are open to all interested parties and are free of charge.