Yet that’s exactly what happens in Amy Greene’s much anticipated second novel, Long Man (Knopf, $25.95), a story about a handful of characters facing the end of their 150-year-old way of life.
Like Ron Rash, Greene has cultivated her own corner of the universe, a place in which people have been tied to the land as far back as they can remember. She writes about an American culture on the brink of extinction—the folkways, kinship, and sense of place once common to East Tennessee, where Greene grew up.
Greene introduced this territory in her first book, the gothic, brooding Bloodroot (2010), with a tale of an Appalachian family that shared mysterious powers handed down for generations, a “touch” that could be used for good or bad. Their spirituality, based on an age-old reliance on nature and ancestral beliefs, collided with the soullessness of the outside world and in the end, survived only in memory and story.
With Long Man, Greene leaves folk magic behind in favor of a realistic, historically accurate portrait of a doomed community during the summer of 1936. At the height of the Depression, the Tennessee Valley Authority has teamed up with the local power company for a land grab of epic proportions, relocating everyone in the fictional town of Yuneetah to make way for a hydroelectric dam.
The waters of the dam’s reservoir will eventually swallow the town. “By the end of the year lagoons would be made from clefts in the mountains. Fish would swim in dens once inhabited by foxes.” But not everyone has agreed to leave.
Greene folds the events of the book into a taut three days seen through the eyes of several members of the community, including Annie Clyde Dodson, a young wife and mother unwilling to leave her farm; Amos, a vengeful troublemaker fond of defying authority and righting injustice; Sam Washburn, the power company’s agent; and 85-year-old Beulah, the town’s midwife, healer and fortune teller.
As the floodwaters spread, Washburn arrives to grapple with Annie, who refuses to relocate and keeps chasing off the authorities with her shotgun. She and her three-year-old daughter, Gracie, have stayed behind while her husband, James, has begun the process of moving the family to Detroit, where he’s already found work.
When Annie’s little girl suddenly disappears, suspicion falls directly on Amos, whose agenda is questionable, his history with the community contentious. Torrential rains add to the suspense, as the river is rising and only a handful of people remain to help search for the child.
On the face of it, the race to find Gracie is the ticking clock that drives Long Man to its dramatic end. But the real story here is the clash between tradition, personified by the as-yet untamed river—its life-giving properties embodied in Annie, its inevitable destruction brewing in Amos—and the sweeping changes that promise an easier, better life.
Woven into the novel are flashbacks—to Annie’s childhood and relationship with James, her aunt Silver’s romances with Amos and the sheriff, and Amos’ long-ago rescue by Beulah, his adoptive mother—that capture the harsh realities of rural life and how they shaped and sometimes broke generations of dignified, often misunderstood people.
The old ways, Greene tells us, can be both comfort and trap, curse or blessing, and she looks at both sides with sensitivity and an understanding born of experience—Greene’s grandfather was a farmer, her parents left home for more lucrative factory work.
“The river had formed them,” Beulah observes of her neighbors, “as sure as it had the land. The young might be able to take other shapes” but not those who’d spent their lives there. “There was no more give to them, worn stiff as hanks of rawhide. It might be hard to love a place that had used them up, but it was what they knew.”
In language as unadorned and lovely as a country quilt, Greene marks what will be lost. Long stretches of luminous prose and interior monologues convey a solitude broken only by birdsong, evoke the flow of the titular river, and invite the reader deeply into the seclusion of the valley and the mountains above.
“The end of summer was near and then autumn. But this season the stinkbugs and crickets wouldn’t come into the houses for warmth. No leaves would blow down the road on the fall winds, no apples would harden under the frost. Pawpaws would go to ruin at the bottom of the lake with nobody around to taste the sweet mash of their middles.”
Maybe Wolfe was right. But there are other ways of going home, and Long Man takes us there in this remarkable love letter to a forgotten time and place, still shimmering at the bottom of that lake.
Read an excerpt from Long Man here, and learn more about Amy Greene’s inspiration for her work here. For Largehearted Boy, Greene talked about the book and the music that inspired her while writing it.