AMY GREENE’S debut novel is one that sticks with you, gets under your skin, and wrenches your gut. It enchants with the magic of legend, and chills with the meanness that can fester in people. Greene writes a world both delightfully fanciful and painfully real, a testament to the strength of deep roots and the fragility of old ways in an increasingly paved-over world.
Somewhere in the hills of Appalachia, the folks of Bloodroot Mountain live in relative isolation from the town twelve miles below. Their children are raised on mountain lore and nurtured by the landscape they know “like [their] bodies, every scar and cleft and fold,” and men and women are variously endowed with mystical qualities, like the ability to heal people or commune with animals, or, for the cold-hearted, to dole out misery.
Byrdie Lamb is the keeper of a family that has suffered the loss of husbands and children ever since a ne’er-do-well relation put a curse on her people, way back when Byrdie was a child. It is said the curse can only be lifted “when a baby is born in our line with haint blue eyes.” That child is her granddaughter Myra, nymphlike and wild, precious to the grandparents who raise her, the doting neighbor boys who flank her sides, and even the woods that cradle her as she roams, leaving no creek, rock, or hollow unexplored.
Though Myra’s story is central, the narrative is spun by six voices spanning four generations, all bearing a southern dialect that feels comfortably authentic, given Greene’s eastern Tennessee roots. Here, Greene’s storytelling shines; all are complex, empathetic characters, whose unique sensibilities evolve as their accounts unfold. The novel moves back and forth in time, and the reader must be willing to retrace plot elements that have already been covered, keeping faith in the value of insight only a new perspective can provide.
When Myra grows up, her attention is drawn away from home — down the mountain — and instead of marrying a “mountain man, who knew the sting of briar scratches” and “the teeth-rattling shiver of cold creek water,” she chooses to love a “devil” named John Odom. Leaving Byrdie’s cabin for a dumpy house near the railroad tracks in town, the girl is abused rather than cherished. As she teeters toward insanity, we begin to wonder about that curse — if the spell was, in fact, lifted, or whether there ever even was a curse. Stripped of the magic and mystery of folklore, the novel offers a stark portrait of poverty in a small town where opportunities are few and those of the youngest generation — Myra’s twin children — have to invent their own paths amidst the slow decline of the mountain culture that gives old women like Byrdie strength and wisdom.
Bloodroot is an epic tragedy, a realm of extremes where people love ferociously and manifest their fears with violence. Like the root of the bloodroot flower, whose red sap is both a cure and a poison, love here is beautiful and treacherous, and the most wild and lovely things can’t be possessed without being shattered.
Though change comes hard, weighing heavily on the bonds of family and tradition, the one constant is Bloodroot Mountain, alive in Greene’s lush, mesmerizing prose and in each character’s bone-deep connection to the Earth.