Wow! This is a wonderful book that evokes all the senses and immerses us in the North Carolina mountains of 1939. There are birds–with calls and local names–there are flowers and herbs, there are trees and loggers riding them downriver. There are descriptions of traditional crafts–woodworking, weaving and spinning–as well as day-to-day facts of life like the springhouse for keeping goods cold, and even the long, slow process of bringing modernization to the mountains. The setting in this one is so good it sucks you in and only releases you slowly back to your computer and electric lights and indoor plumbing. This is a fantastic read for our challenge!
I am reading my way across the USA–5 or so books set in each state, with an emphasis on those where the setting is another character in the book, or where we learn something about the geography, history, and/or people of that state. This is our first book for North Carolina, and I’m gushing.
I should add a caution for rape and abuse. I felt it was handled discretely (if that’s the appropriate word). The description is not graphic–the flashbacks in We Were the Mulvaneys were more graphic despite only being snippets–but it is there. The rape takes place between a married couple and we see both points of view. Brodis quotes scripture verses about a woman being ruled by her husband and about them becoming one flesh. While he sees it that way at the time, part of him knows better–we see him later wrestling with his guilt. Irenie’s feelings are clear, though at times she admits it would be easier if it had been a stranger rather than this man who she fell in love with and is tied to.
But throughout the book we get a wonderful sense of connection to the mountains in North Carolina (though, to be fair, the book probably could take place most anywhere in the Appalachians). Some of the loveliest passages are the seasonal descriptions, like this one of spring:
It was that moment in the year when winter still tightened the earth but spring snuck in from overhead. Robins and warblers and purple martins were back, and the flax birds had switched out their gray feathers for yellow. The trunks of the sassafras and sourwood ran wet and black with sap, and the fingers of the service trees had swelled but not budded.
Or this one about winter:
Winter didn’t need dogs. The earth was packaged yet, drum-tight. Its creatures still slept, the white-footed mice curled into the cracks of the barn, the voles buried beneath the beech leaves, the yellow-painted box turtles drawn up tight under winter-rotted logs, the snakes like hairballs in the roots of trees. Likewise the bears suckling their newborns high in the silver-lichened beeches.
And the descriptions are not just of the land itself, but also evoke the time and the technology of the era–the way things were changing, sometimes not for the better–like this description of fires started by the trains hauling logs.
They remembered the summer of 1925 whenever they’d watched the coal-fired locomotives and Shay engines loose showers of sparks as they chugged their way up the mountain toward the logging camps, and they’d heard about the sheet of flame that roared up the hillsides, exploding five hundred year old trees. They remembered standing on the roofs of their homes and dumping bucket after bucket of water that evaporated like alcohol.
We also see Irenie’s musings about the switch from subsistence farming to growing tobacco.
Low clouds flocked in the north. It occurred to her that now, when the sky was blue as glass, and the first chicory flowers starred the roadside with blue, and the wind blew apple blossoms across the hard-packed yard, now was the time to shear sheep. Except that there were no more sheep. Nor were there any more lambs to be born. Years ago, she’d stopped carding and spinning and weaving. Nor was there planting of cane or flax, nor cradling of wheat, nor bundling and stacking, nor mowing of hay. In place of it all, the shaggy mops of tobacco lined the fields, row after leafy-headed row, as if all the growing world had put its energy into this one lurid plant.
I was surprised to hear that the US government–the Department of Agriculture–was the one encouraging these farmers to switch, but that’s what Franks says.
They had two agents to work at the USDA office now, two men and now the woman. The men had come five years ago, in ’34, then commenced holding meetings and visiting farms in both counties. From the get-go they’d been selling the idea of tobacco. And there were people that had switched.
Of course in 1939 we were not as aware of or concerned about the dangers of smoking. But still–I wondered if the tobacco companies had influenced the USDA to encourage the switch, citing the profitability.
It seems that big tobacco actually conspired to drive the price down, and the federal government stepped in during the Great Depression to prop up the price by instituting production quotas among other tactics. These quotas limited the amount that could be sold by each farm–which encourages lots of small farms rather than a few large farms. This federal price support program was in effect from 1934 until 2004, and in 2004 North Carolina and Kentucky produced 65% of the US crop.
But the other concern the switch raises is that of putting all of one’s eggs in one basket. If you’re raising a variety of crops it’s harder to lose everything to a bout of bad weather. If a hard frost kills the apple blossoms before they set, hopefully you haven’t planted the beans yet or you’ve been able to cover them or can replant. Irenie alludes to the inherent weakness of a single crop.
The sameness troubled her. Where once there’d been whispering cane and melon vines, the heads of tobacco pushed up in absurd formation, greedy for water and potash and food. Their leaves grew broad and white-veined and springy. But Irenie knew the lie of that abundance. The roots were shallow and gave up life to the hoe or the wanderings of deer and pigs. Brodis had to set a barbed wire fence and check it every season.
It also requires an outside buyer–you can’t eat tobacco if the market is flooded and no one is buying. You’re just stuck with it. There is also some discussion of the tobacco worms–Irenie says the chickens got sick after eating the big, fat worms, so she collects and burns them in the firepit. Again, if you have multiple crops then a big surge of potato bugs isn’t necessarily going to destroy your entire livelihood. But tobacco hornworm caterpillars can destroy a whole field pretty quickly, and–much like Monarch caterpillars that taste like the poisonous milkweed they eat–tobacco hornworms ingest nicotine from the tobacco leaves, so birds leave them be. The worms even breathe out a poisonous nicotine-laced cloud that deters insect predators.
Over the Plain Houses is also full of birds, “A wren’s voice see-sawed the morning air. Teakettle, teakettle, teakettle,” and, “The preacher birds had returned and taunted without stop. Over here, whaddya want? Tell him no. Whaddya want?” There’s a horrifying (and symbolic) scene where one of the traps Brodis has set takes off the feet of a red-tailed hawk. There are whippoorwills, jays, and owls. In several cases–like the preacher bird above–she uses what I assume are local common names that I’m unfamiliar with. I’m hoping to do a flora and fauna post to clarify some of those names so we can add the birds to our Life List of Birds in Books, which has been somewhat neglected of late.
There are animals as well–many of them symbolic–wild boars, clever foxes (including vixen caring for kits), tamed snakes and well-trained dogs, skunks, bears, mice and voles, turtles. As I’ve mentioned before, these are the details that really make the setting come alive–literally!
Although the story seems transferable to other areas of the Appalachians, Franks does give us a pretty specific location. She mentions the Pigeon River, Waynesville, and Haywood County. The town of Eakin–as far as I can tell–is fictional, and Brodie and Irenie live outside of town anyway. I’m assuming that they live northwest of Waynesville, as Brodie rides further up the mountains over the border of Tennessee to consult with a fellow preacher. Two of our other selections for North Carolina take place in the same area. Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier, takes place in Haywood County, about 15 miles southwest of Waynesville, in an area of Pisgah National Forest (on the map below, Dillsboro is about 20 miles from Waynesville). And Serena by Ron Rash begins with the couple arriving at the train station in Waynesville then travelling to their logging camp in the mountains a few miles to the northwest; the fight to establish Great Smoky Mountains National Park features in the book.
Speaking of the logging camps, Over the Plain Houses features some wonderfully detailed descriptions of the loggers riding the timber down the rivers–Brodis worked at that before he married Irenie, and it was an accident while doing that work that twisted his foot, leaving him with a permanent limp. He continued to work seasonally in the camps to earn extra money, even after he could no longer ride the logs on the river.
Some of the wood came down the river in flotillas, and with it the log drivers, stepping from trunk to trunk as quick as squirrels, each with his pick pole held loose across his thighs, now and then tipping the end against another log to push it away or steady his balance. … Each driver approached the pitch the only man alive, bent at the knee and feet spread, pick pole ready, eyes reading the water in front of him until the log nosed itself over the edge down and down into the boil, burying itself and the fellow’s knees, and then bobbed up at the edge of the foam pile.
From Stump to Ship: A 1930 Logging Film can be viewed on YouTube for those interested in the logging process. The film discusses logging in Maine, so the seasonal aspects may be a bit different, but there are a few moments in the beginning that show the loggers jumping around the floating logs to give us a feel for what Brodis experienced. But starting at around 7:00, we really get to see the men running across the logs floating downriver, keeping them from piling up.
Over the Plain Houses is a Southern book, and as a linguist, I’m always interested in how authors portray a particular accent. Here Franks is working with not just a Southern accent, but also a mountain flavor. I’ve just started Ron Rash’s Serena, and the characters have already made the observation that the mountain flavor has an antique sound to it. (This article on JSTOR gives a good overview with some audio samples.) Franks isn’t one of those authors who hits the reader over the head with the accent; it’s subtle. It’s mountain, with “might could”s and minor oddities like “his eyes vigiled the others,” and “how come you to know that.” It reminds me of the year I spent living in West Virginia.
Another mountain oddity is mentioned briefly when Irenie brings a song book with her for Ginny to play on the piano. The shape note system of musical notation that is said to make sight reading easier is primarily an Appalachian (and Appalachian church) phenomenon. Of course, Ginny can’t read it, and that’s the only mention of it.
I’m hesitant to get into the religious aspects of the book here. I will say that I respect the beauty of many of the Biblical passages and am impressed by the sheer number of those passages and references. And I will also say that it was somewhat chilling how convincingly Franks makes Brodis’s case, combining those quotes with coincidence and fear and a warped sort of logic. In some ways I would have liked to have seen an opposing–more optimistic–religious viewpoint. One that takes those coincidences and puts them together with hope to find everyday miracles instead of devilry. If anyone could do it, I’m convinced Julia Franks could, and I’d love to read it!
Overall, Over the Plain Houses by Julia Franks was a wonderful way to start our adventures in North Carolina! I hadn’t realized that three of our books take place so close together, but I’m hoping they are different enough to be worth the extra coverage. I’m enjoying Serena so far (although this one is superior, setting-wise) and am looking forward to more of North Carolina!