This scrupulously lyrical first novel, a winner of the AWP/Thomas Dunne Books Award, is based on a real-life incident that occurred in the mid-1930s in rural Virginia.
Even reveals the event through the consciousnesses of several involved viewpoint characters, the most important being recent college graduate Elsa Childs. Accepting a job with a county “development project,” Elsa soon finds herself obliged to help evict William Wesley and his sister Cora, the black caretakers of a riverfront estate whose land is needed for a proposed industrial plant. Further investigation reveals that the Wesleys’ “quitclaim deed” makes them de facto owners of the entire property, thanks to a will “rigged” to punish its late owner’s heirs. Even balances Elsa’s growing disillusionment with the authority she represents against William’s resentful memories of racist injustice, and the views of such townspeople as a misanthropic “horse doctor,” Elsa’s own weary father (a passive underachiever), and the Wesleys’ canny lawyer Oscar Wedge (a character a younger Orson Welles might have played). The story is distinguished by vivid atmospheric imagery and precise descriptive writing, often lit up by ingenious metaphors (rain falls in “tantrum fits”). But its dialogue vacillates uneasily between colloquial plainness and naked authorial exposition ineptly disguised as summary conversational exchanges (mainly between Cora and William)—and its overload of extended flashbacks unfortunately calls attention to the narrative’s curious structure: its first half is seriously underplotted, its second quite furiously overplotted). For all that, Bloodroot (whose title denotes a deep-rooted flower that appears to “bleed” when pulled from the earth) offers striking characters, a powerful sense of place, and dramatic revelations of the fateful actions of people who “want to believe they’re better than they are . . . to believe in their sinning, . . . [that] it’s something else altogether.”
A flawed but more-than-promising debut.