Battle’s first novel tells the story of a 1930s Blue Ridge Mountains community whose way of life is threatened by the government.
The novel opens with a letter from Bee Livingston to her 3-year-old daughter, Amelia, intriguingly stating that Amelia has been raised to believe that the wrong man was her father. By way of explanation, Bee shares her life story so that when Amelia is old enough, she can judge what kind of man her biological father was, but she adds a warning: “You ought to know there are some downright ugly secrets in this story about your own kin and your mama to boot.” Bee’s story begins in “the Hollow,” the impoverished Blue Ridge region in Virginia where she was raised. Born Ada Anabelle, she was nicknamed “Bee” by her father, as she was always “buzzing around looking for...trouble.” When she’s still young, her father is killed when a religious snake-handling show goes tragically wrong. The girl is left in the care of her mother, but their relationship is like “oil and water.” As Bee grows older, she’s told that her father was a gambler who took out three mortgages on the family home. The state government, in the shape of the repugnant Mr. Rowler, is poised to seize property in the area. Bee’s mother has plans for her daughter to marry the government man—but Bee has her eyes on Miles, a big-shot government photographer, or perhaps Torch, a boy who grew up with her “on the mountain.”
Battle’s storytelling will draw readers in from the opening page: Why is Bee writing her daughter this letter—and who’s Amelia’s real father? The novel draws, in part, on real-life events; in the 1930s, Blue Ridge neighborhoods were indeed cleared to make way for Shenandoah National Park. Battle spends some time re-creating the atmosphere of the “now-vanished” area. Narrator Bee is a straight talker with an easy wit and a wry opinion on everything. When discussing Torch, for instance, she notes, “We came up like brother and sister but once I sprouted hooters, he got it in his head he wanted things to change.” The author effortlessly captures the timing and tenor of Appalachian speech patterns, and she conjures a world that may be unfamiliar to many, where the Hollow folk sing ballads and pass quart jugs of “white mule” (“that’s what us mountain folks called whiskey”). Readers are also introduced to unusual characters, such as Ruth Evers, described by Bee as a “kind of goddess…of wild and helpless things,” who makes medicine for the community using mountain plants, such as “prince’s pine and deadly nightshade,” and secretly keeps stillborn babies in mason jars. The world that Battle creates is unnerving and enchanting in equal measure and always utterly beguiling. The overall Southern drawl may grate on some, but those who are keen to burrow into the overlooked lives of mountain people will find satisfaction.
A vivacious, absorbing, and accomplished debut.