Book Review: “Over the Plain Houses” by Julia Franks
The first sentence of Over the Plain Houses – It was the week before Easter when the lady agent first showed up to church – ultimately proves to be more than an introduction. Virginia Furman, extension agent in Eakin, North Carolina, arrives sans her husband and dressed “… like she’d stepped from the pages of a catalog.” Oblivious to the congregation’s scorn, she pointedly seeks out Irenie, wife of their preacher Brodis Lambey. Scorn turns to suspicion when Irenie, for the first time, sits in the congregation rather than on the altar with the other saved congregants. Unaware of her visit’s implications for Brodis and Irenie, she lights the fuse leading to the story’s culmination two months later.
A former log driver, Brodis had reveled in the dangerous work and the rowdy social life until finding God after an accident. A handsome, laughing man, he had fallen in love with Irenie’s inquisitive nature and settled down to farming. After a family tragedy, he answered a call to preach. To Irenie’s dismay, a glowering preacher replaced her laughing husband. To Brodis, any deviation from his fundamentalist beliefs, especially by his family, is Satan’s influence. If their son Matthew, during nightly sessions, misquotes a passage or questions a scripture, Brodis sends him outside to cut a switch for a whipping. Irenie becomes a possession whose soul he must nurture and protect no matter the cost to her physical existence.
Always curious about life’s possibilities, Irenie had married Brodis fifteen years earlier, believing that, since he had “seen the world,” new vistas would open. Until the tragedy, after their first year of marriage, possibilities loomed as they established their farm and home. Instead, Irenie receded into … the keeper of the house and the yard and the fields. Within, though, she still dwells in possibilities. She slips out of bed at night and walks the forest because The black of night had become a time of possibility. Other women plan family celebrations, but Irenie preserves small moments … whatever was unlikely and surprising that she could call her own. Her treasures include a pristine fox skeleton, a lock of Matthew’s hair, and revival programs. If not for Virginia Furman, Irenie would probably have continued her dreary existence.
As Brodis, from his pulpit, judges Virginia Furman to be another of Satan’s tests, Irenie … [wonders] what it was like to be her. More importantly, she is so grateful to Virginia for offering Matthew a life of possibilities that she … [picks] up the other woman’s hand and [squeezes] it in her own – a gesture judged indecent by her husband.
To Brodis, Virginia represents another evil most assuredly from Satan, an intruding government. For generations, the mountain people survived with field crops, vegetables and fruits, and animal meats and fibers. Then, in 1939, extension agents, including Virginia’s husband Roger, convinced them to replace the crops and animals with tobacco, a cash crop. Too late they realized how easily the government taxes cash crops and how quickly their families starve when the tobacco crop fails.
Brodis fumes, Not that any of the agents had ever farmed a day in their lives. And you couldn’t trust their interest. It was the looking-down kind … The kind born of vanity. And now they had invaded his church and corrupted his wife, who … more than anyone, belonged to the Lord.
Since all of the conflicts spring from Brodis’ fundamentalist beliefs, so does the story’s suspense. Irenie, after meeting Virginia, never wavers in her journey toward possibilities, but Brodis travels a jagged path between delusional self-righteousness and moments of touching concern for his wife and son. Though convinced that Matthew’s “heart ain’t right,” Brodis realizes that the boy is “splintered” by farm life and, after a resounding “no” to Irenie, secretly ponders the alternative offered by Virginia Furman. After discovering Irenie’s night walks, Brodis vacillates between praying that she returns safely and seeking witchcraft remedies. Though seemingly insignificant actions in Brodis’ battle for his wife’s soul, each offers a sign of hope as he battles his demons and madness.
Most writers require years to produce fiction of this caliber, but Franks joined the ranks of admired Southern authors with this debut novel. She draws her readers into the story of Brodis and Irenie by judiciously doling out details. Not until well into the book, for example, do we learn the source of Irenie’s fascination with life’s possibilities. Frank’s imagery ranges from cruel and haunting during the day to mesmerizing as Irenie wanders among the hemlock, the tulip trees, and the Old chestnuts twisted like the red carcasses of tortured ancient kings … at night. Franks boldly confronts social issues still relevant today, including women’s right to self-fulfillment and reproduction issues, child abuse, and environmental destruction. Ultimately, though, excellent writing must draw readers into the characters, images, and ideas. Franks excels; every word, phrase, and nuance so clearly portrays her characters and scenes that reading the story a second time to enjoy her writing becomes mandatory.
Julia Franks has roots in the Appalachian Mountains and has spent years kayaking the rivers and creeks of Tennessee, North Carolina, and West Virginia. She lives in Atlanta, where she teaches literature and runs loosecanon.com, a web service that fosters free-choice reading in the classroom.
View From My Catio
(Tuxedo Cat Par Excellence)
There once was a guy named Trump / Who was such a snarky rump/ That his waste from above / Kept his many lines dumping.
So Trump, therefore, never needed sumping.
If anyone out there in literary land can help me, I’d be most appreciative and will even include suggestions in my column. We just won’t tell Mary, though. OK?
Purrs and cream,