The Whispering of the Willows by Tonya Jewel Blessing

The Whispering of the Willows

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Following a life of poverty and abuse, a young Appalachian woman strives to gain independence, strength, and hope to overcome the wrongs committed against her in this debut novel.

Emerald “Emie” Ashby grew up in the Appalachian Mountain area of West Virginia in the 1920s. Now 14, Emie loves to visit her Auntie Ada (“Ada was a ‘love & pick aunt.’ She wasn’t related by blood, but by heart. Since Emie was little, Auntie had been her confidant. She had no fear of willow switches, growling tummies, or shushing”). Desperate to make money and gain help on their farm, Emie’s parents trade her into marriage—a common practice of the time. While attempting to navigate her coming-of-age—a pivotal point in any girl’s life—Emie is burdened by abuse at the hand of her father (who wields willow switches), as well as the man she is supposed to marry. But her beloved brother Ernest is determined to help her, making trouble for his treacherous sibling Lester and their tyrannical father. Along with Emie’s besieged mother, Alma, and a sympathetic doctor, superstition and religious faith are characters in their own right, as these concepts are often catalysts for action. Blessing thoroughly captures Appalachian life: from the language and dialogue of her characters to their day-to-day activities that reflect a narrow view of the world. She presents her players’ strong belief systems as forces that give them strength and guidance, which aligns with the novel’s setting and tone. This tone is consistent throughout and allows readers to become well acquainted with Blessing’s landscape. The sprawling story focuses on the minutiae of daily Appalachian life, which serves a purpose to a point, but gradually turns to tedium as readers anticipate a climax. When a major conflict occurs more than halfway through the narrative, the author offers disproportionately simple resolutions that are difficult to accept as realistic. The matter-of-fact approach—while fitting for the characters’ way of life—presents readers with information too easily, allowing them to skip the imaginative steps typically sought when reading fiction. The story’s religious undertones—while historically and geographically authentic—seem to extend beyond the pages, potentially reflecting more than just the players’ beliefs, becoming forced as the tale progresses.

A fictional account of 1920s Appalachia that provides insight into the culture, but lacks dynamic pacing and a convincing plot.

Pub Date: Feb. 2nd, 2016
ISBN: 978-0-9971625-4-7
Page count: 396pp
Publisher: Capture Books
Program: Kirkus Indie
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