A highly readable and adeptly crafted addition to the literature of Appalachia.



A literary novel unspools a multigenerational saga about West Virginia women.

Harshbarger Mills, West Virginia. Lorraine Rhodes and her siblings were abandoned on a sad Easter by their alcoholic mother, who left them to be raised with little support in their judgmental, religiously conservative, small Appalachian town. Now married with children of her own—whom she is raising purposefully to be suspicious of religion—Lorraine harbors an understandable bitterness toward her mother, Carmen Amber Rhodes, who occasionally visits her in dreams. The answers to all of the questions she has about her mother are found in a letter that Carmen finally writes to Lorraine after a quarter-century’s absence, detailing her own life’s struggles with family, God, and alcohol. “I’ve written you many letters over the years but either crumpled them or X-ed out my thoughts,” pens Carmen. “I’m scared, Lorraine, but the best way to fight fear is with the truth. I’m going to tell you the real reasons I didn’t come back, and I can do this without a drink in sight.” The massive letter has an impact not only on Lorraine, but also on her daughter, Jenna Johnson, who has her own adolescent opinions on the whole situation—and predictably, she sees Lorraine as the villain, not Grandma Carmen. Finally, the matriarch of the family has her say: Lizzie McClure McComas, mother of Carmen, who has been buried in the town cemetery for long enough that her bones are bleached white. From beyond the grave, she takes up the story of the McComas/Rhodes/Johnson women, which began with her birth back in the early 20th century, and connects them all through their bloodlines and a curious family heirloom: a silver bottle that has been buried in the ground for 17 years. Spilman’s (Tight Squeeze, 2017, etc.) textured prose masterfully evokes the hard-knock lives and locales that define these women. It particularly shines in the Carmen section, which is both the longest chapter and the spiritual heart of the tale: “I’d have laughed if I’d been capable of it, but all I did was go where I was directed, dragging a shovel and carrying a trowel. The shovel was necessary because someone had donated four dwarf spruces, and I was the best hole digger. One of the men offered to help, but I declined.” Novels that chart families—and their curses—over the course of multiple generations are nothing new, but the author’s inventive structure manages to give the book a feeling of simultaneity, allowing four generations (one of them deceased) to share the present. It also permits resentments and traumas to fuel the plot rather than mere chronology, which helps dispel the sense of inevitability that so often is found in historical fiction. The ending may land with some readers better than others, but Spilman should be commended for making bold narrative choices. Together, these four portraits of West Virginia women—of different times, classes, and levels of opportunity—illustrate the stresses and expectations of small-town womanhood, both from without the family and from within.

A highly readable and adeptly crafted addition to the literature of Appalachia.

Pub Date: Aug. 13, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-79605-134-6

Page Count: 266

Publisher: Xlibris

Review Posted Online: Oct. 10, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2019

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Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

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Inseparable identical twin sisters ditch home together, and then one decides to vanish.

The talented Bennett fuels her fiction with secrets—first in her lauded debut, The Mothers (2016), and now in the assured and magnetic story of the Vignes sisters, light-skinned women parked on opposite sides of the color line. Desiree, the “fidgety twin,” and Stella, “a smart, careful girl,” make their break from stultifying rural Mallard, Louisiana, becoming 16-year-old runaways in 1954 New Orleans. The novel opens 14 years later as Desiree, fleeing a violent marriage in D.C., returns home with a different relative: her 8-year-old daughter, Jude. The gossips are agog: “In Mallard, nobody married dark....Marrying a dark man and dragging his blueblack child all over town was one step too far.” Desiree's decision seals Jude’s misery in this “colorstruck” place and propels a new generation of flight: Jude escapes on a track scholarship to UCLA. Tending bar as a side job in Beverly Hills, she catches a glimpse of her mother’s doppelgänger. Stella, ensconced in White society, is shedding her fur coat. Jude, so Black that strangers routinely stare, is unrecognizable to her aunt. All this is expertly paced, unfurling before the book is half finished; a reader can guess what is coming. Bennett is deeply engaged in the unknowability of other people and the scourge of colorism. The scene in which Stella adopts her White persona is a tour de force of doubling and confusion. It calls up Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, the book's 50-year-old antecedent. Bennett's novel plays with its characters' nagging feelings of being incomplete—for the twins without each other; for Jude’s boyfriend, Reese, who is trans and seeks surgery; for their friend Barry, who performs in drag as Bianca. Bennett keeps all these plot threads thrumming and her social commentary crisp. In the second half, Jude spars with her cousin Kennedy, Stella's daughter, a spoiled actress.

Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

Pub Date: June 2, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-53629-1

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: March 15, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2020

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A modern day fable, with modern implications in a deceiving simplicity, by the author of Dickens. Dali and Others (Reynal & Hitchcock, p. 138), whose critical brilliance is well adapted to this type of satire. This tells of the revolt on a farm, against humans, when the pigs take over the intellectual superiority, training the horses, cows, sheep, etc., into acknowledging their greatness. The first hints come with the reading out of a pig who instigated the building of a windmill, so that the electric power would be theirs, the idea taken over by Napoleon who becomes topman with no maybes about it. Napoleon trains the young puppies to be his guards, dickers with humans, gradually instigates a reign of terror, and breaks the final commandment against any animal walking on two legs. The old faithful followers find themselves no better off for food and work than they were when man ruled them, learn their final disgrace when they see Napoleon and Squealer carousing with their enemies... A basic statement of the evils of dictatorship in that it not only corrupts the leaders, but deadens the intelligence and awareness of those led so that tyranny is inevitable. Mr. Orwell's animals exist in their own right, with a narrative as individual as it is apt in political parody.

Pub Date: Aug. 26, 1946

ISBN: 0452277507

Page Count: 114

Publisher: Harcourt, Brace

Review Posted Online: Nov. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 1946

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