Gary Carden had a hard time getting the Netwest blog to accept his submission for "favorite Appalachian novel," so gave up, figuring we'd have "a bunch" anyway. This morning he sent this to me after learning that we didn't receive any favorite novel posts. I was interested to hear that Caroline Miller was born in Waycross, Ga. My family hailed from the other side of the state, near Albany, and I remember the Campbell family stories that had them migrating down from NC to Georgia, though the came from Randolph County, not one of our mountain counties. KB
Belatedly, here is my selection for my favorite novel. I can edit it, if you wish, or you can edit it.
PULITZER PRIZE WINNER CAPTURES BRUTALITY, BEAUTY OF APPALACHIA
One for the cutworm, one for the crow,
One to rot and one to grow.
- Corn-planting song in Lamb in His Bosom
All book lovers have an impressive list of books that they intend to read…eventually. Usually, this procrastination is due to some real or imagined challenge or difficulty that makes “literature” intimidating. Either the work is lengthy, or “intellectual,” or worst of all, it has been dubbed “a classic.” My list has always included War and Peace, Don Quixote and The Divine Comedy. Then, there is Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, and Caroline Miller’s Pulitzer Prize winner, Lamb in His Bosom. Well, being snow-bound in January gave me courage and I took on the latter.
The first surprise – pleasant – is Miller’s language. It sent me back 70 years to my childhood, and I found myself back in my grandparent’s home in Rhodes Cove with a shoe last under the bed, a metal spider in the fireplace and talk of “painters” and fireballs (both of which were rumored to come down chimneys). It was a world that was closely bound to the heavens, with crops planted by “the signs,” and where an overly active child sometimes “cut a dido” when he/she saw a “coach-whip snake in the woods or a green “measuring worm” (which measured unsuspecting folks for their coffins) on his/her sleeve. Boneset tea was brewed in the fireplace, guineas roosted in the trees and my grandmother caught May rainwater from the eaves of the house to ease the colic and clean a “gaumed up” stain from a dress. It is a world that either no longer exists, or has retreated to isolated coves in rural Georgia, western North Carolina or eastern Tennessee. That is both a blessing and a curse.
Lamb in His Bosom is an encyclopedia of Appalachian customs, dialect and folklore; it captures with a near-painful accuracy a way of living that was both harsh and beautiful. Consider the names in this novel: Sean, Lias, Bridger and Elizabeth; Jasper, Lovedy, Fairby, Margot and Derimad – names that bespeak the streets of Dublin, potato famines, brutal poverty and desperate migrations. Miller’s characters remember their origins. Despite the setting in south Georgia, the old folks still talk of cobbled streets in Galway and Limerick. However, Sean’s parents speak wistfully of “Old Carolina” where they lived briefly and which they came to perceive as a blissful Eden, before they followed the rumors (circa 1830’s) of cheap, rich land in Georgia. It was a move that they came to see as a tragic mistake. Sean’s mother continues to talk about “goin’ back to Caroliny” for the rest of her life.
The way of life lived (or endured) by Miller’s characters tends to be brutal, tragic and short. Women are considered
Old at 40, broken by childbearing and a sort of self-imposed slavery. Indeed some of the most dolorous passages in the novel are given to describing debilitated flesh. Adults, who prior to death, have been rendered mindless invalids, crippled by the hardships of farming. They slowly succumb while raving of hell or dreaming of a mother’s face and the voices of long-dead children. The planting rhyme at the beginning of this review could apply equally to the survival ratio of offspring. The ones who survive the rigors of life on a south Georgia farm in the 1840’s are few. Many die at birth and others are struck down by the vagaries/ hazards of farm life: pneumonia, fire and an amazing number of accidents and injuries that go untended except for the tenuous benefits of folk medicine. Among the awesome catalog of suffering in Lamb in His Bosom, this reviewer will never forget the description of two children who catch fire at an outdoor hog butchering and become two human torches, running through the winter wind. Then, there are the vital young men who are most prized of all family members – the seed-bearers and strong backs – the fair sons who survive only to perish at Fredericksburg or Appomattox in a war that they never understood.
However, the most enthralling aspects of this novel are Miller’s talent for capturing the mind and soul of her characters. The narrative slides effortlessly form objective to subjective description as the author slides into the minds of her characters, like a hand into a glove. She becomes Lias, the prodigal son, vain and arrogant; Bridget the exotic “woman from the coast” who becomes a mainstay in the lives of the Carver family; plodding Lonzo, tongue-tied and awkward behind his oxen, dreaming of thoroughbred horses; and Sean, the shy and obedient wife who sometimes “sulls” behind her spinning wheel, dwelling on God’s harshness.
Miller is concerned with the souls of these people who are in turn, frail, shy, stubborn and willful. How do they perceive the world? God? Sexuality? The purpose of their lives? I find Miller’s conclusions compatible with those of my own grandparents in Rhodes Cove. Life is harsh and the only response to it is forbearance and stoic acceptance. Death is “the dark doorway” that is always near, perhaps in the next room. Mankind is frail, weak, and carnal, and probably deserves all the attending suffering that God sends. We are here to fulfill a purpose for the Almighty, but we usually fail. We must try again.
Both men and women are helpless in the grasp of sexuality, and love comes like a fatal sickness or a sudden storm that wrecks families, alienates friends and blights lives. That can’t be helped. Let us get up and go on.
Miller’s protagonist, Sean, perceives herself, her family, her animals and all mankind as “fertilizer.” We will enrich the soil and create a new life. For Sean, that is our earthly immortality. The earth will go on, serenely indifferent to these temporal life forms that struggle, sing briefly, lament loudly and sink into the soil to make the magnolia trees and new corn flourish. For Sean, she and all her kin are like a shout in a great darkness, gone before the echo fades. In the great scheme of things, we are of little consequence. The sun shall rise and not see us again.
Like most people in this region, I know that Caroline Miller lived in Waynesville until her death in 1992. I did not know that she was born in Waycross, Georgia (1904), and lived for over 30 years in Baxley where she did meticulous research for this novel. Frequently pretending to be looking for eggs and butter, she interviewed numerous farm families who were living in rural isolation. Perhaps her greatest gift is for language – the ability to capture the nuances of dialect that retain the music of Ireland: the love of stories filled with travail, heartbreak and grandeur. Yet, in spite of it all, running through this chronicle of the life of Sean Smith Carver O’Conner, there is a dark joy. The language is frequently lyric and I am tempted to quote passages that ring with a rueful beauty. Perhaps, one paragraph? This is the death of Lias, the prodigal son, in California. He has just mailed a letter, assuring his mother and sister that he is on his way home. Like the ill-advised and belatedly delivered letters in a Thomas Hardy novel, this one is destined to cause untold misery. Lias knows he is dying, but he sends the letter anyway. “I want them to always think that I am coming,” he says.
Sundown was not far off; in the smooth bulging distance, the sun eased himself into the ocean to quench the boiling flame that studs his breast. Shaking water crumpled the gold pavement of the sunset. Lias ceased his praying, for suddenly, the compelling hunger in his breast no longer tortured him. Above his head, he heard the sound of a woman’s soft weeping, and the sound was like the sound of an outgoing tide’s little waves that caress the sands monotonously, sibilant, and as precious as tears.”
Dear reader, read this book. If possible, read it slowly.