If Wuthering Heights had been set in Southern Appalachia, it might have taken place on Bloodroot Mountain, where Amy Greene’s debut novel by the same name unfolds. Brooding, dark and beautifully imagined, Bloodroot (Knopf, $24.95, 304 pp.) tells the story of a young girl raised in a family blessed with second sight. When she falls in love with a boy from off the mountain, his murderous passion for her comes close to destroying everything in its path.
Greene, a native of Eastern Tennessee who grew up in the foothills of the Great Smokies, has filled her book with the sights and sounds—and the “granny women,” or healers—of the wild, untouched landscape of her childhood. These wise women have “the touch”: a gift for working with herbs, curing disease, delivering babies, and foreseeing the future. Used for good, the touch is a benign power in harmony with nature, but it can “draw ugly things to you if you’re not right with the Lord.”
The Bell sisters of Bloodroot Mountain once performed everyday magic that earned them respect for miles around. But a jealous cousin cursed them long ago, and the only one who can lift the family’s run of bad luck is a baby “born with haint blue eyes … a special color that wards off evil spirits and curses.”
When blue-eyed Myra Lamb comes into the world, her grandmother Byrdie sighs with relief that the spell has finally ended. Myra has inherited her great-great aunts’ gifts, and soon shows an ability to commune with birds, horses, and other wild creatures: A neighbor finds her asleep in the leaves one day, a kaleidoscope of butterflies covering her like a blanket.
But like many a human girl, Myra falls for the wickedly handsome John Odom, son of a store owner in nearby Millertown, and she’s willing to do whatever it takes to win him—even if it means resorting to a love charm she knows is taboo:
“The instant Granny went to the pantry I tore into the bird’s chest and pulled out its heart. I crammed it into my mouth and it was awful, small and slick, sliding down my throat. I coughed and gagged, the heart struggling to come back up.”
Byrdie knows what’s coming as soon as Myra’s sweetheart appears on the mountain, “just about the prettiest thing I ever seen, walking across the yard toward me with the light in his eyes. The devil can fool a body that way.” From then on, the touch swirls through Bloodroot like a deadly undercurrent that drags Myra under, along with everyone she touches, thwarting their efforts to love and be loved. Though her devotion to Odom is steadfast, it brings out all his demons, and it will be a long time before what he does to her can be undone.
Divided into four sections, the book alternates between different characters who move the narrative back and forth through time. Byrdie’s matter-of-fact, lively account of her own history, beginning at the turn of the century, alternates with the perspective of Myra’s childhood playmate, Douglas, to bring the story to a midway point, when Myra leaves the mountain with John Odom.
Myra and John’s children, Johnny and Laura, carry the story forward from their childhood in the 1970s to the present. Underscoring their innocence and cultural isolation, the characters’ local dialect is a poetic reminder of their attachment to the mountain and to each other—as when Laura first describes how she and her her future husband share a kinship: “I reckon that might have been what brung us together, the way we both loved fish. We must have seen each other’s secret scales glinting under our skins.”
Not until Myra tells her side of the story in the book’s third section, do we grasp the true horror of her marriage to Odom and the odor of evil that permeated their world. To escape, she commits a horrendous crime that will haunt her even after she finds her way back to Blood Mountain. Sadly, the familiarity and safety she once knew there eludes her, and for Myra, whose sensitive, psychic nature leaves her vulnerable in ways she barely understands, the touch turns into more of a curse than the one she was born to lift.
Bloodroot is a finely crafted, mystical look at a vanishing culture and its healers, once revered for their wisdom and faith. Greene’s enchanted mountain world doesn’t offer the lighthearted, sexy magic realism of novels like Chocolat (Joanne Harris) or Garden Spells (Sarah Addison Allen), whose goddesslike women infuse candy and food with supernatural powers. This is rough magic, unromanticized and fierce, that came down from the Scots-Irish who first settled the high hills, bringing their folklore and spells with them in hopes of surviving a harsh environment. Through examining the many nuances of the touch, the author also mines the elusive connections between people and what happens when those connections fail—or are never developed properly.
Now threatened by a cycle of abuse, poverty and ignorance, the descendents of the granny women and men Greene writes about must find the “touch” that enables them to survive in a different world. For Myra’s son, Johnny, who becomes a writer, poetry guides him to what’s still alive in his past “that might be rescued.” With this new beginning, the real curse is finally lifted.
(This review ran in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Jan. 18 2010.)