Crises abound in a small Tennessee town in 1936, just days before a dam is set to flood it.
The Tennessee Valley Authority was designed to help modernize the state during the Great Depression, bringing electricity to its rural regions. But the TVA only spells destruction for the Eastern Tennessee town of Yuneetah, and Greene’s excellent second novel (Bloodroot, 2010) focuses on the holdouts there who haven’t yet left or who refuse to leave. Chief among them are husband and wife James and Annie Clyde, who’d been arguing over a move to bustling Michigan but who shift their energies once their 3-year-old daughter, Gracie, goes missing. The lead suspect in her disappearance is Amos, a one-eyed Yuneetah native who’s spent much of his life as a drifter connected to violent protests against government projects like the TVA. Greene repeatedly likens Amos to a force of nature, like the Long Man River that runs through the dying town, and the novel thoughtfully touches on the question of how much place shapes our personalities. If there is a way to write about this milieu—Southern, prewar, thick with family and history—without evoking William Faulkner, Greene hasn’t pursued it. But her long paragraphs, sinuous and tonally mythic, aren’t slavish Faulkner imitations either, and Gracie’s disappearance, alongside Amos’ cat-and-mouse game with authorities, gives the novel a welcome propulsion. (The fates of both characters, once revealed, are harrowing, riveting reading.) Two older sisters in town provide windows into the folkways about to be submerged, while a local police officer and TVA functionary represent the transformations to come, but Greene’s imagination is too fecund to make these characters mere symbols. Her novel fully inhabits the contradictions within each character and the ironies inherent in destroying a place in the name of progress.
A smart and moody historical novel that evokes the best widescreen Southern literature.