Saturday, September 22, 2001

Highland Hopes: The Blue Ridge Legacy

Highland Hopes, first in the Blue Ridge Legacy series, begins a story told by 100-year-old Abigail Porter of her early years. Written by Gary E. Parker (published by Bethany House), this historical fiction novel tells an intriguing story about the highlanders, those who lived in the Blue Ridge Mountains during the early 1900s. It is a hard life, and those who live it are well acquainted with death, poverty, alcohol, crime and family feuding.

The Porter family faces tragedy in the spring of 1900, when Rose dies in childbirth. Solomon Porter can never get over the loss of his wife, nor come to terms with his only daughter born in the midst of that loss. Abby Porter grows up feeling alienated from her father and yearns to leave her mountain past behind. Yet despite her urge to tear away from the past, she finds she can never truly escape her highlander heritage.

Spanning nearly thirty years, from 1900 to 1929, Highland Hopes follows the experiences of the Porter family as they move from place to place and then later go their own ways, losing touch with family members. Solomon soon remarries, but Elsa Clack seems to be the only decent member of the Clack family. Meanwhile, Laban, the oldest Porter son, struggles with alcohol and gambling. Luke is slow in the head but gifted musically. His skill as a guitar player more than compensates for his stutter and mental deficiencies. Youngest son Daniel (eight years older than Abby), proves to be a diligent worker and moves up in the world as a hard-working bricklayer in Asheville, North Carolina. Abby determines to get an education early on, and through her harsh upbringing she quickly grows up, reasoning with adult thoughts as early as age ten.

Blue Springs, North Carolina is a small town that only slowly and unwillingly moves into the twentieth century. Progress does not completely escape the holler, and the first World War and the 1918 flu take their toll, but the town and its people continue along, finding faith in God, family, and small-town life. The town’s two churches, a Primitive Baptist at one end of town and the Jesus Holiness Church at the other, meet alternating Sundays each month, and church meetings that last several days are important social events.

The religion of the Blue Springs community tends to the charismatic side, with emphasis on unusual physical manifestations ("touch of the Spirit’s breath") that accompany a person’s salvation experience. Young Abby observes that everyone else in the family has experienced the Spirit’s call and has given testimony at the front of the church. It seems to be expected of all family members as a rite of passage. Solomon Porter calls himself a "Jesus Man" and enjoys hearing the Bible read to him (he can’t read). Abby likewise knows the right and proper Christian way to behave and think, often chiding herself for her wicked thoughts, knowing that "a true Christian person" would not think such things.

Abby’s mother, as she lay dying, wrote a short letter to her newborn daughter, to be given to Abby when she is older. Yet as the family moves from place to place, the letter is misplaced, resurfacing from time to time, but finally seeming to disappear. This letter, and the mystery of what it says, acts as a bridge between Abby and her past. What is in the letter? Does the letter even exist anymore, and will it help Abby?

Highland Hopes tells a touching story about ordinary people and their relationships through the years, against the historical backdrop of the Blue Ridge Mountains highlanders. Abby in particular must come to terms with her distant father and try to reconcile with him. The story brings finality and closure to some problems while leaving several other issues unresolved, presumably to be explored in subsequent books in the Blue Ridge Legacy series.

Saturday, September 8, 2001

The Swan House: Early 1960s Atlanta

Elizabeth Musser's new book, The Swan House, introduces Mary Swan Middleton, a sixteen-year-old girl growing up in Atlanta, Georgia in the early 1960s. Mary Swan has enjoyed a privileged life in the ritzy Buck Head section of town, with all the advantages of wealth including private girls' prep school, society dinners and dances, and a black maid to keep the house in order. Yet in this coming of age story, Mary finds her life torn apart by tragedy and a struggle to bring meaning to her life.

The historical account of the 1962 Paris plane crash, in which over a hundred Atlantans returning from an art tour perished, sets the stage. Mary's mother was on the plane, and the accident sends Mary's world tumbling. When Ella Mae, the family's black maid, suggests that Mary help out others as a way to overcome her depression, Mary discovers a whole new world on the other side of town. Grant Park is a rough, inner-city neighborhood, where every Saturday Mt. Carmel church serves spaghetti lunches to the poor. Yet Carl Matthews, a streetwise black teen, has something that Mary doesn't have. From him and the other blacks in Grant Park she finds both poverty and love, including God's love that goes beyond prejudice.

A school dare, a mystery that Mary must try to solve during the school year, drives the story along. In the process, Mary uncovers the truth about her mother, an artist who suffered from depression. At the same time she encounters the world around her, a world of racial prejudice as well as the hypocrisy and superficiality of the wealthy world. Through Carl Matthews and best friend Rachel Abrams comes discrimination against blacks and Jews respectively. Even Mary's boyfriend Robbie, from a "good family," chafes at the restrictions and high expectations placed on him by his father.

In this turbulent time of the Civil Rights movement, Carl and his friends follow the news of the day, including the incident at University of Mississippi that year, when a black student registers at the all-white school despite the protests. At various times in the story, Carl and his friends attend Civil Rights meetings, are beat up by whites while leaving church, and perform as a band for the "fancy white clubs" in Buck Head.

Part-child, part confused adolescent, Mary Swan enjoys reciting classical poetry and "corrupting" poems with silly rhyming lines, staying up late playing poetry trivia with Rachel. She also eagerly joins her 13-year-old brother Jimmy in schemes to keep rich women (who only want his money) away from daddy, while longing for a closer relationship to her busy and aloof daddy.

Other interesting characters include Miss Abigail, the Christian woman who gave up her wealthy life to live and work in the inner-city, first in Detroit and now Atlanta. Through association with her, Mary learns of the generous help that other wealthy ladies have given to Grant Park, and discovers the reason for Miss Abigail's joy. The Middleton's next door neighbor Trixie also helps out the family, having been close friends with Mary's mother and now someone that Mary can turn to.

The author grew up in Atlanta and currently works as a missionary in France; The Swan House provides a strong background of both places. Coca-Cola and its Atlanta legacy is here, as is the higher society of art appreciation, the influential Atlantans who would bring greater art and culture to the city; also Georgia Tech football games. Many prominent locations are actual historic places in Atlanta, including the Swan House (now open to tours), the High Museum (now part of the Woodruff museums) and Oakland Cemetery. According to the author's notes, a church in Grant Park continues to provide spaghetti meals to the poor every week. Even the Varsity, a fast-food teen hangout, is an actual place still in existence today. Sprinkled throughout are French words and phrases, courtesy of Mary's mother who was part French. Mary enjoys many days in her mother's Atelier (art studio), and makes many references to French painting styles. Painting, she realizes, is good therapy as well as a talent she has inherited from her mother.

It is indeed Mary Swan's story, told in first person from the present day (summer of 2000) perspective while visiting with her daughter Abbie. Mary takes a fresh look back, telling her story to Abbie with fond remembrances of that year, 1962 to 1963.