In Johnson’s novel, faith and mysticism bring two people on uncertain paths together in the mountains of Appalachia.
On the surface, Amanda Abernathy and Cody Stone have little in common, save their mental infirmities. Amanda is a 17-year-old who, after a serious head injury, now lives with vivid, waking nightmares. Cody, meanwhile, is just another young veteran returned home from Vietnam with debilitating shellshock, his mind ever calling him back to the horrors he witnessed in the jungle. But in their shared “spells” an inexplicable bond emerges, a mystical connection between two people who have never met and don’t even know each other’s names. Their paths will eventually cross on South Mountain at Yellow Bird—the dilapidated bookstore that Amanda inherited from her grandmother—but not before weathering small-town scandals, skirmishes with the local coal company and a disaster of almost biblical proportions. Johnson’s debut is, at its core, a pastoral tale, a celebration of the rustic music and rich traditions of the hills and hollows of Virginia and West Virginia and their ability to offer relief and purpose in a harsh, lonesome world. The narrative employs a unique dual tone, portraying its everyday events and folksy setting with blunt, obtuse language while contrasting that with lyrical, dreamlike prose for Amanda and Cody’s trances. Occasionally the latter is overly vague, but much of the novel’s appeal is in its coyness with details, and since the characters are so willing to accept the strange or the spiritual, the wealth of unanswered questions isn’t as distressing as one might expect. Though the novel is not devoid of action, it’s at its best in the small moments, when characters are talking, sharing stories or enjoying meals. Quaintness is what the novel honors, and in its depiction of this quaintness, the book excels.
Old-fashioned but never stodgy; a charming story about a bygone time where even magic seems possible.