By Amy Greene
One of the best things I can do for myself as a writer is read. Good writing is such a wonderful teacher. Bad writing can teach, too, of course, but who wants to read it? The best lessons come from writers who write for the love of a story.
Bloodroot is a lesson in storytelling much like books by Faulkner, Robert Penn Warren, Alice Walker, and the like. From the beginning, we are plunged into a world most people don’t know about or think they do depending on what stereotype they choose to believe. Amy Greene loves this place, these people and it shows in her writing. I share this love. My family history goes back to parts of North Carolina and Tennessee and these stories hold a special place in me.
The Lamb and Odom families live in the Appalachian (Ap-uh-LA-chun) Mountains of TN. We’re not sure what the time period is at first, which can be typical of an isolated area such as this. There’s no talk of cell phones or who is President or what team won the Super Bowl. People are used to their own ways, their own traditions, and culture. They do things and believe things that have always been. This lifestyle and belief system can be traced back to early settlers and in some cases, not much has changed. Greene captures this feeling of a world on its own, or a world stuck in some time and place long forgotten. From the moment we step onto Bloodroot Mountain, we realize the air is different; something magical is happening in this place. But where the ethereal lives, the sinister stalks.
This book is written in several characters’ voices during different times in the families’ histories. The language is superb and smart. It isn’t easy to capture the voices of a people who are on their own in the world and like it that way, people who still speak with evidence of Scottish and Irish roots and aren’t keen to change. Greene has done it, though, in a way that a reader can understand the characters. Even the oldest, Byrdie, who speaks with the most colloquialisms, is understandable and, honestly, is believable because of it. It is as if my great-grandmother were sitting in the room with me.
Byrdie is telling the story of when her husband Macon and she found a bloodroot flower on the mountain. Macon pulls the white flower from the ground showing her the round roots. He cuts open the roots and shows her how it runs red. She says,
Macon was my home and as far as I was concerned any wedding we had was just for show. I’d done cleaved myself to him right yonder under the trees, kneeling over that bloodroot flower. Looking at its red root sap, I was overcome with something that felt like the Holy Ghost. I seen all the generations that would come out of me and Macon. I seen our blood mixed up together, shining there in the gloomy light. (p. 42)
It’s a story about family legacy, loyalty, and love. It’s about sociological strangle-holds that are persistent and tangible today. There are male characters that are ruthlessly dark and complicated and, even so, appealing in some ways. The female characters, specifically Myra Lamb and her grandmother Byrdie, are examples of two very different life-paths laid out by the magic of the mountains or by God, or both, as belief in magic and God are not at war with one another in these parts. In fact, they are accepted as compatible and, perhaps, even reliant on each other. Myra’s daughter Laura struggles with the love she has for her mother and the fear of becoming her. Johnny, Myra’s son is haunted by his mother and the mystery of his father.
The book asks if a person’s family history is her destiny. Is the blood that runs through our veins what determines our future? Do we even have a chance?