Bloodroot by Amy Greene

Byrdie Lamb, the first narrator of Amy Greene’s Appalachian story, shares time with Doug Cotter in the Part One and relates the history of her family. She is primarily concerned with the female lineage which stretches from “Grandmaw Ruth” and her two sisters, Myrtle and Della, in the early 1900s down to the present day. Byrdie Lamb is the grandmother of Myra Odom, the central character in this family saga. Byrdie tells of the gifts passed about in the family, sometimes skipping generations.

All the neighbors thought the world of Grandmaw and her sisters. They was what you call granny women, and the people of Chickweed Holler relied on them for any kind of help you can think of. Each one of them had different gifts. Myrtle was what I’ve heard called a water witch. She could find a well on anybody’s land with her dowsing rod…..Della was the best one at mixing up cures. She could name any root and herb and flower you pointed at. Another thing she was good for was healing animals. She could set the broke leg of the orneriest hunting dog and it wouldn’t even bite her.

Grandmaw Ruth had a gift too, “the best gift of all.” She could send her soul out of her body to wherever she wanted to go. Byrdie explains that people with “the touch” tend to find each other. Also, though the gift tends to pass along family lines: “You can never tell who’ll turn up with it.”

Lou Ann, a cousin of Grandmaw Ruth’s, was also “a granny woman.” In discreet language, Byrdie reveals that she would use her gift to perform abortions. Lou Ann was something of a black sheep and, therefore, was denied the choicest property when the patriarch of this touched family died. She cursed the three sisters “until there was a baby born in [their] line with haint blue eyes.”

Haint blue is a special color that wards off evil spirits and curses. Grandmaw said, ‘That old devil knows ain’t nobody been born with blue eyes in our family for generations.’ It was true, all of us had brown and green eyes.

Byrdie’s granddaughter Myra is born with “haint blue” eyes.

Byrdie’s family history is broken up with Doug Cotter’s recollections of his childhood friendship with Myra. Doug’s story of romantic ardor (on his part) and chaste affection (on Myra’s part) lets slip that Myra had the touch as well. By the time Myra has been born, the descendents of Grandmaw Ruth who are important to this story have moved from Chickweed Holler to Bloodroot Mountain. The Cotters also live on Bloodroot Mountain, which is where Myra meets the Cotter boys, Doug and his brother Mark. Myra is something special, with her haint blue eyes, and the brothers fall for her. She shares the eyes and spirit of their father’s horse, Wild Rose, and cannot be fenced in by either.

Byrdie and Doug give way to the youngest generation (born in the 1970s) in Part Two. Myra narrates Part Three by herself leaving only an Epilogue. It would be a spoiler to say who narrates the Epilogue. This shifting of voices creates an almost pointillist effect. Nearly so, except that Myra’s narration connects the dots for the reader. Up to that point, the effect was a bit like Coetzee’s Summertime in that it provided the perspective of others about a primary subject. It was unlike Coetzee’s work in that the different perspectives meshed more than clashed. I am tempted to say that Greene was too meticulous in ensuring the witnesses did not contradict one another. But to say she should have changed her story is merely to say I would have enjoyed a different novel than Amy Greene set out to write.

The strengths of the novel are Greene’s evocation of geography and culture and the voice. She writes the kind of story that makes you feel you have visited a place. It may help that I have visited the area and that my ancestors on my mother’s side came from that area, but Greene brings a palpable authenticity to Bloodroot Mountain and its inhabitants. It is a place for me now. The change in voice from narrator to narrator was usually subtle, if I noticed it at all. Whether the voices changed much, they were engaging without being hokey. At least, no more hokey than required for authenticity. Greene knows the people who narrate the novel and it shows.

While Amy Greene trades on the superstitions of the Applachian mountains, she is wisely coy about committing. The stories of witches and healing and curses are all just that, stories. Byrdie believes them. Other characters do too. However, some narrators and characters do not believe them or are agnostic. This gives the reader the luxury of buying in (which is easy) or not. The story hangs together whether the curse is real, whether the touch exists, or whether it is a backwards backwoods fiction.

Much like its first round rival in the Tournament of Books (The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake), the theme of this novel is the passing of heartache from generation to generation. The ambiguity regarding whether the novel requires some suspension of disbelief regarding the supernatural enhanced, at least for me, the power of the book. The toil and trouble of Grandmaw Ruth and her progeny is more about the culture and geography of their community than any witch’s brew.

The story itself is most engaging while Myra is offstage. She is more intriguing as a character in others’ stories than as a narrator. I almost felt that Greene was too sympathetic to Myra or too afraid of melodrama to subject her to too much hardship. Though the decision to try to avoid melodrama is a good one, the manner in which Greene seems to try gives Myra’s narration an anticlimactic feel at some points. Oddly, it is this gentleness with Myra that creates the greatest sense of unreality. Byrdie and her traveling soul has a solidity Myra’s relationship with John Odom lacks.

This novel about Appalachia and family legacies enchants with its dense atmosphere and wiling voice. Bloodroot largely achieves what it seems Greene set out to achieve, which is a way of saying the novel lived up to my modest hopes for it. There are worse things to say about a book than that it does well what it attempts. Greene should have little trouble finding her ideal audience.

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6 Responses to Bloodroot by Amy Greene

  1. Although I loved this book – and count it among my favorites of 2010 – you make a great point about Greene being almost too sympathetic to Myra. Hadn’t thought of that, but it’s pretty clear once you point it out. That said, I’m still sure it’s gonna upset Lemon Cake in the ToB. 😉

    • Kerry says:

      If I was judging, it would upset Lemon Cake. In some ways, they are very similar books, so a direct comparison should be particularly revealing, I think. This is the one first round matchup where I would give the odds to the lower seed.

  2. It sounds well done, but it sounds much more like general fiction than literary fiction (not that I know where I’d draw that line or how I’d define the difference).

    Generally this doesn’t seem (from a distance admittedly) so far like a literary prize – in that none of the books seem particularly literary in nature or ambition.

    How many more do you have to go? What are your thoughts so far?

    • Kerry says:

      I would agree that this is best classified as general fiction.

      The prize, and I think Kevin (from Canada) would agree, does tend to be more populist in nature, which I find to be a drawback. The top seeds (which I generally still have to read) tend to be more literary fare. The number one seeds are:

      Freedom, The Finkler Question, Super Sad True Love Story, and Misrule. Throw in A Visit From the Goon Squad and Skippy Dies, the Tournament has some legitimate literary works. Also, the history of winners suggests a literary bent in the judging (if not the initial selections):

      Wolf Hall, A Mercy, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, The Road, The Accidental, and Cloud Atlas.

      My hunch is that the Tournament tries to pull in readers and an audience by including pablum like The Help and Savages, while being designed (in the selection of judges) to favor the literary. My ideal would, of course, be to include literary heavy-hitters as the top seeds and fill the lower halves of the brackets with relatively unknown, perhaps experimental, literary authors (Kira Henehan, for example).

      So, yes, there is a populist tilt to the shortlist, but literary works tend to percolate to the top.

  3. I loved Lemon Cake. I found the poverty and cruelty in Bloodroot somewhat tiring, but maybe that’s because I’ve read too many books of this nature lately.

    • Kerry says:

      While I did not love Lemon Cake, I understand why others did. I can also see how the relentless exposure to the Appalachian underbelly would begin to grate. Though both books are capable of pleasing a reader, I liked Bloodroot because it pulled me into a world in a way that Lemon Cake did not.

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