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Generally Recognized As True: Sudbury vs. Appalachia: Whitlock's "A Week Of This" vs. Rash's "One Foot In Eden"

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Sudbury vs. Appalachia: Whitlock's "A Week Of This" vs. Rash's "One Foot In Eden"

I've read a couple of books lately that deserve mention because they're similar in ways other than plot. It's not much of a unique similarity -- many books are the same in this way -- but they're just unique in that I've read them both :) They're both fiction, which I don't read all that often, and they're both just as much about describing a way of life as they are about moving the plot forward. They're also the first published books of two authors.

The first book is called "A Week Of This", by Nathan Whitlock. It's been a while in book years since I read this one -- maybe a few months -- so it's not as clear and present in my mind as it could be, but this book was essentially just about small-town life in a particular corner of Canada. That was the plot. I can't remember where the story was situated and whether it was a fictional or non-fictional town, but for some reason I kept thinking of Sudbury when I read it. It was a rather depressing, even-paced book about dysfunctional but necessary family and friend relationships in a small Canadian town. Everyone was white, everyone was just scraping by financially, everyone had uninspiring parents, nobody had a grand plan for life, and there seemed to be no life drawn from any of the surroundings. That's why it reminds me of Sudbury: if I have one distant memory of Sudbury, it is that it was a depressing place with bad roads, no appealing decor, and lots of opportunities to drink alcohol. It wasn't well taken care of and didn't seem to be built by people that cared. It's similar in a way to what I imagine communist Russia to have looked like.

"A Week Of This" is obviously effective, because I think it set out to conjure precisely these images. It wasn't really about anything, other than to explain an environment like the above -- hinting at why it was the way it was without offering a verdict. It suggested that the characters happened into their circumstances through no fault of their own, but I'm not so sure. The conclusion was a consolation prize; none of the characters were sympathetic except, I suppose, from the perspective that they hadn't pulled the plug on their existence and had some willingness to make it work.

But then we come to Ron Rash's "One Foot In Eden", set in the mountainous Appalachian region of the United States and revolving mostly around a handful of rural people that live there and their community. And it hints at what a difference a culture, meaning, and the lack of excuse can do for a people. Though these people had far less money, had to work much longer hours, and had to endure far more physical labour in order to survive, and had far less opportunity than anyone in "Week", there's a richness to life that is completely missing from the Canadian story. There was a sense of ability to achieve -- that nobody would do things for them if they didn't do for themselves -- that was prominent in Rash's story but almost entirely absent from Whitlock's, except for in the most trivial sense of going out to get groceries.

"Eden" starts off being told from the perspective of a small-town sheriff investigating a report of a missing person. The possibilities are so limited and the community so intertwined that he already knows what has happened before he even begins his investigation, but can't find the proof to connect the dots in any meaningful way that would stand up to legal inspection. This is not a case of the good old boys; the sheriff was not turning a blind eye. Not knowing the stories of anyone involved, we are left disappointed that the sheriff can't get his man.

But then the story is retold from the perspective of the accused's young wife, who has only a very brief interaction with the sheriff and who we mostly know through hearsay up until this point. More of the puzzle pieces are filled in by her story, and things are not so simple. This is followed by the story of the accused, which makes the picture more granular still. This is, admittedly, as far as I've got in the book so far, but I already know enough to give it such a good review. I await the ending, but it doesn't matter with respect to the quality of the artistry.

Though we already know the conclusion, each story holds great interest and continuously adds colour to what we've already been told. There is very little wasted space here, and we recognize the points where each of the perspectives cross and where one person assumed motives of the other that were sometimes true but oftentimes misunderstood.

What makes it even more interesting is that each story is told with first-person prose. In doing that, we get to see some of the rich turns of phrase that we so often associate with people from this southern region:

"Her saying that gave me pause, because there's currents that run deep in a woman, too deep for a man to touch their bottom. I'd crawled into Amy's lap. I'd hear her in the kitchen singing the last few months when I came up from my field. Amy had always carried a pretty tune but there was a difference now, a kind of smile in her voice I'd never hear before."
"I stood tall and watching him come as another dynamite stick boomed downriver. He knew well as me that I'd spotted him. There was no use of counterfeiting I hadn't."
Though proudly making their own lives, the same people make mistakes -- sometimes severe -- but they accept them, and live with the consequences both within themselves and without. There are no excuses, just what is and what has to be done. There's a self-imposed justice and tension to the course of action that makes a legal system somewhat irrelevant. Don't harm, and you won't be harmed. Do for yourself and don't take what belongs to someone else. Help those in need, but it has to be offered and not taken with presumption. Judged by the legal system we know, the result in the story would not have been satisfactory. But, from my own point of view (and I suspect the view of many readers), it's a result that's more appropriate than anything that could have been handed down by our self-conscious system of justice that tries to exchange guilt for time and money. When nobody has a sense of entitlement and there are no rights other than those assigned by what you've earned, people impose their own justice on themselves or, failing that, on others. There are exceptions to the rule, but the exceptions should never be allowed to become the rule.

I have already read Ron Rash's secondmost recent book and I had an idea of what to expect because of his masterful portrayal of Appalachian life -- he is, after all, a professor of Appalachian culture -- in "The World Made Straight". But, considering that "Eden" was Ron Rash's first book, I'm not only very impressed but also look forward to everything in between and, of course, his latest book, "Serena".

I'm reminded by the contrast between these two books that I don't have a problem with people making mistakes -- even moral ones. What I have a problem with is when someone makes a mistake and then tries to make believe that it wasn't a mistake at all, or is indifferent to the mistake. The people in "One Foot in Eden" would be considered hillbillies by some -- perhaps with disdain -- but they are better people with a stronger culture and more meaningful history than what we see in Whitlock's book. And, it's true that there's a simplicity to the lives portrayed by Rash, which are uncomplicated by the illusion of impossible choices. But complexity doesn't automatically overrule simplicity. In fact, I think complexity comes about when simple, but viable, things are compromised. It's very important that stories like this are written and that the story of the people from this region is told with care, and I'm glad we have someone like Ron Rash who has set out to do it.

And, finally, I'd like to make a comment on the tone of the two books. "A Week Of This" almost seems like a book of class warfare and is very consistent with the political realities of Canada: the underlying but unspoken suggestion is that these people were born into a situation that they have no control over, and that it is the fact that they're working class that is responsible for whatever problems they may have. In "One Foot In Eden", on the other hand, there is virtually no insinuation that the amount of money you make has any bearing on the quality of your life in any way but a material one. They receive energy from the beautiful things around them, and there's a warmth and a strength to the characters that suggests they'll do fine no matter what and that they are fully committed to their life, no matter what comes their way, while those in "Week" hang by a thread and might only be truly saved by a well-placed lottery win.

Though it's probably entirely evident, I find much more companionship with "One Foot In Eden".

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