Rivers make capricious neighbors. For several years, I lived and taught in Elsah, Ill., a small village on the Mississippi across from St. Louis. Watching the sun melt into the water as I drove along River Road produced a daily Emersonian epiphany.
But in the winter, sheets of ice pushed giant shards high into the air, and the river looked cruel. We could hear frozen plates moaning like a watery earthquake that went on for weeks. And in the spring, the river sometimes rose over the highway and seeped into the village. More than once, our house, which sat on piles about 18 inches high, was completely surrounded by muddy water (which eventually rotted out the floors). Other homes, some of which dated from before the Civil War, required a thick wall of sandbags to keep the river away. In the early 1990s, during a terrible flood, neighbors and students from the nearby college worked day and night to save a few stone houses. But the water was patient and relentless, and, one by one, the sandbag walls failed.
I felt immersed in that futile hope again this week as I read Amy Greene’s new novel, “Long Man.” Greene has taken the tale of a Tennessee town condemned by flooding and infused it with remorse and panic to produce an unusually poetic literary thriller.
The story opens in the summer of 1936, deep in the Depression that has already swallowed farmers across the country. The little town of Yuneetah couldn’t be more removed from the strategies and concerns of Washington, but one of President Roosevelt’s plans is about to obliterate these people’s homes and dissolve a community that has survived for generations: The Tennessee Valley Authority has dammed the Long Man River to brighten the whole region with the miracle of electricity. Farmers on the edge of starvation have gladly sold off their land and dispersed to better opportunities.
That process is largely complete as “Long Man” begins, and Greene offers an Appalachian version of “The World Without Us”: The church sits godless and silent. Fields sink into soggy caverns. Considering the ancestors they’re leaving behind, young descendants imagine their dearly departed washing out of coffins, “femurs sailing on eddies, skulls rising toward the surface seeking light after centuries buried, the unleashed river rushing in to fill burrows and trenches like mouths open to drink its alluvial silt.”
But Greene focuses this intense novel on one mother — “a dangerous woman” — who has refused to move, even as the water rises. Annie Clyde Dodson tried starting a petition among her neighbors, but this area has been depressed since the Civil War, and they were grateful for the government cash. Annie has been brandishing a rifle to scare off the appraiser and the caseworker. She can’t prevail, of course: The dam’s gates are closed. “Yuneetah was already dead,” Greene writes. In three days, the sheriff plans to drag her away in handcuffs, but the rain may sweep her away even before then.
Annie knows all this, but she wants her 3-year-old daughter, Gracie, to see that she fought for her 40 acres. “From the time she realized she was expecting, she had dreamed of her child roaming the fields in summer,” Greene writes. “Annie Clyde couldn’t bear to think of Gracie not knowing the closeness to God she had found in this valley.” That futile devotion to a hallowed place and a primitive way of life provides the story’s mournful base melody. “The farm was part of her,” Annie thinks. “She knew the lay of its land like her tongue knew the back of her teeth.” Her father planted alfalfa and wheat in these fields. “Losing the farm would be like losing him all over again.”
But soon that fear of loss is submerged in a much deeper one. While cooking her last apple pie, Annie feels something amiss: “Where’s Gracie?” she asks her husband. He knows their daughter must be playing in the yard with the dog, but “he felt the first inkling of worry.” He and Annie run around the house in the rain. They check the barn. Reminding themselves of other times when she played hide-and-seek, they struggle to control that spring of terror every parent knows: “There was no sign of Gracie.”
All the energy Annie put into saving her farm immediately triples into finding her daughter, and anyone who can’t match her devotion is liable to be burned away by the force of her fury. She understands the politics and the finances of this search. Why aren’t the newspapers sounding the alarm? Why isn’t the dam being opened to reduce the flooding? “What if her last name was Lindbergh?” Annie asks the power-company man. Whose missing baby is worth turning over every stone — and whose isn’t? In these searing pages, it’s impossible not to feel the anguish in this mother’s rage.
But Greene wisely modulates that panicked pace by periodically shifting the novel’s focus to a few other characters remaining in Yuneetah. Chief among these is Amos, a one-eyed homeless man who has just wandered back home. He was raised by a mountain woman who makes medicines from wild herbs and tells the future with a string of bones around her neck. Although she’s happy to see her old foster son, his timing is disturbing. Amos was always erratic and capable of shocking acts of revenge. Could he have snatched Annie’s only child?
Among the most alluring characters is Annie’s aunt, a skittish, almost feral woman who has lived alone in the woods for years. The town sheriff still pines for her, though he knows she’s hopelessly out of reach now. As the story moves along, Greene repeatedly fades into the past, filling in the complicated relationships between these neighbors and relatives, friends and rivals.
In summary these mountain folk sound as hackneyed as the Country Bear Jamboree, and as the rain falls and the river rises, the potential here for melodrama is high. But Greene is too fine a writer for that. As she works in the stylistic territory of Bonnie Jo Campbell and Ron Rash, her sentences seem to rise up from the soil of this harsh, beautiful land. She gives voice to the aching desires of unsophisticated people who possess a complex, profound understanding of themselves and their doomed way of life.
With an engrossing blend of raw tension and gorgeous reflection, “Long Man” washes all kinds of horrors to the surface: dreadful secrets and lifeless bodies. The cost of progress seems impossibly high as it submerges this forgotten place and threatens to drown a mother’s last hope.
Charles is the deputy editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.
By Amy Greene
Knopf. 272 pp. $25.95