As She Lay Dying
By Howard Frank Mosher
Sunday, October 13, 1996
On a stormy night in the remote hill country of western North Carolina, the aged storyteller and matriarch Annie Barbara Sorrells lies dying. She is attended by her loving daughter, Cora; Cora's husband, Joe Robert Kirkman; and their son, Jess. "If we lose your grandmother," Joe Robert tells Jess at the height of the tempest, "a world dies with her."
It's true, and what a rich world it is, as remembered by Jess Kirkman and recorded by novelist and poet Fred Chappell in his powerful and entertaining new novel. In "Farewell, I'm Bound to Leave You," Chappell has created an entire self-contained universe of isolated hollows and tiny farm hamlets, inhabited by mountain people like Annie Barbara, whose like won't be seen again, in the American South or anywhere else. Above all, this is a place whose natives are linked by love: love of nature, of community, of music and tradition and vividly idiomatic language and, most important, of one another.
To begin with, there's the abiding love of Annie Barbara for her near and extended family. In the early chapter "The Shooting Woman," Annie recounts to Jess the wonderful and hilarious saga of her part in his parents' courtship. Years ago, when Cora Sorrells set her cap for the free-spirited Joe Robert, Annie instructed her daughter how to win Joe's heart -- with the aid of a scarlet silk petticoat, a 12-gauge shotgun, and a wedding-night unveiling like none (and this I'll guarantee) you've ever heard of before.
"Farewell, I'm Bound to Leave You" is structured as a collection of linked family stories, in the tradition of such novels as Amy Tan's "The Joy Luck Club" and Louise Erdrich's "Love Medicine." Courtship is a recurrent theme throughout the novel. Chappell uses his enormous fund of Southern folklore and humor with great skill in such stories as "The Shining Woman," in which Little Mary Talbot, neglected and unrequited in her loveless marriage, returns from the grave to claim the attention due her from her hard-bitten husband; and "The Feistiest Woman," whose two-fisted heroine, Ginger Summerell, packs a revolver. When Ginger's fiance begins to panic over the idea of marriage and commitment, she actually challenges him to a duel with his choice of pistol, rifle, revolver, or knife, to defend her honor.
Several of my favorite stories in the novel explore love in the form of friendship -- a refreshing and rather unusual theme in contemporary fiction. "The Fisherwoman" celebrates an unlikely angling partnership between a fatherless young girl and a misanthropic old fly-caster with a temperament "as barbed as blackberries and as gnarly as willow roots." "The Silent Woman" chronicles the mysterious and enduring affection between two women of utterly opposing personalities: stately Selena Mellon, who never utters "so much as a lonesome syllable," and wild, redheaded Lexie Courland, in "her flaming forties," who if she likes the looks of a man is "after him like a chicken hawk on a hatchling."
At the same time, Chappell doesn't romanticize his special place and its people. Often enough, in the Carolina hill country of Annie Barbara Sorrell's youth, "horses and cows and sheep got better doctoring than people did" and better treatment as well. There isn't a speck of sentimentality in Chappell's stories; and we're never allowed to forget that the love that binds his characters together is constantly threatened by violence, in a region where, until well into this century, women caught out in the woods alone were routinely "bigged" -- raped and made pregnant by mountainmen who then, in accordance with this barbaric custom, possessed their victims for life.
"It is passionate affection or sorrow that makes most of us poets," Cora Sorrells Kirkman tells young Jess in "The Wind Woman," a marvelous evocation of a mother's love for her son. What elevates the stories in "Farewell, I'm Bound to Leave You" from folklore to literature is the author's passionate affection for his characters, combined with his sorrow over their passing. From the legacy of their lives, Fred Chappell has created the most affecting work of fiction about place and love that I have read since "A River Runs Through It."
Howard Frank Mosher's travel memoir, "North Country," will be published in 1997.
© 1996 The Washington Post Co.
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