Celebrated Appalachian folk singer Sheila Kay Adams distinguishes an otherwise tired Civil War love story with the tragic ballads and backwoods rhythm passed down through generations of her family in her first novel, My Old True Love. Hackley and Larkin are rivalrous cousins raised as brothers in the North Carolina mountains and bred on the songs of their ancestors. Predictably, they both fall for Mary, a singular Appalachian beauty. Hackley soon wins her affections and marries, only to be whisked away by the Confederate draft. Left in Larkin's care, Mary swoons for the other cousin, inviting tragedy into their country lives.
Loosely based on the author's family history, a fine first novel about doomed love and hardscrabble lives in a 19th-century Appalachian mountain community. Narrator Arty Norton begins her tale in 1845 with her widowed aunt's death in childbirth. The extended family takes in orphaned Larkin; nine-year-old Arty becomes his beloved surrogate mother, her scapegrace younger brother Hackley his closest friend. Later, the two young men fall in love with Mary Chandler, who marries Hackley but fails to stop his womanizing. Larkin is still yearning for her when the inhabitants of Sodom, North Carolina, are swept up in the Civil War, scathingly depicted by Arty as a brutal conflict with no meaning for the poor people who are forced to fight and suffer in it anyway. Hackley dies, and Mary marries Larkin, but the wounds of the past cannot be healed so easily. Adams (stories: Come Go Home with Me, 1995) is a well-known performer of the traditional ballads brought by settlers from the British Isles to Appalachia, and her text is permeated with the same tragic vision and keening rhythms. She has an equally faultless ear for the cadences of ordinary folks' speech, particularly as voiced by her narrator. In contrast to her religious Mommie (their contentious yet loving relationship is one of the many richly nuanced portrayals here), Arty is salty, sexy, and sharp-tongued. Marriage at 14 and a subsequent flock of babies don't smooth her edges or dull her intelligence as she observes the intertwined lives of her kin and neighbors. Looking back from the vantage point of 1919 ("I am older than God's dog"), she remembers hunger and hardship, good deeds and bad, jealousy and hatred but most of all love, "the greatest of all...it ain't always been easy, but Lord has it been worth it." Deeply satisfying storytelling propelled by the desires of full-bodied, prickly characters, set against a landscape rendered in all its beauty and harshness.
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