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Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Day of Small Things, by Vicki Lane, c2010 ($7.99)

Vicki Lane has a way of giving Appalachia an other-worldly atmosphere. In The Day of Small Things, she mixes romance and Appalachian myth and magic in stories set in the 1930s and the present time. And, yes, it does eventually qualify as a mystery book; there are criminals.

The two stories, which each take up half the book, have very different tones.

In the 1930s, Fronie Gentry tells everyone that her daughter, Least, is simple. Between beating and belittling Least to keep her submissive, Fronie is determined to keep one of her children with her to help on the farm. Life is very hard, no doubt, in Appalachia in the best of times, but this is also the Depression. Mortality rates are high and it's not uncommon for children to die young. Going along to get along, however difficult, is the path of least resistance for Dark Holler families. Despite Fronie's oppressive thumb, Least manages to make a young friend and, before it's too late, to make the acquaintance of her grandmother. Granny Beck is a canny woman, full of Cherokee secrets, spells, and herbal knowledge, all of which she passes along to Least. Then a calamity pitches Least out on her own. Although she is an innocent afoot in the world, she actually makes it no further than a few miles down the road and becomes a semi-prisoner in a local dance hall/house of ill repute. The story gets darker and deeper from there. This part of the book is full of Appalachian cultural details that are intriguing. The chapters switch between various characters' points of view. They are written with an Appalachian voice that is endearing and catchy.

The second half of the book is about Birdie, a woman who has lived in Appalachia all her life. When Dorothy's grandson is kidnapped, she asks her friend Birdie to use her "powers" to help find the grandson. The problems and conveniences described in this part of the book are all too modern. From cell phones to meth to gated estates, the outside world has come to Dark Holler.

Lane has a way with tone and prose that sinks her story right to the heart. Small Things is about family and love and ancient hate. There is a strong mystical and spiritual element, so if that's not your bag, walk on by this book. However, Lane isn't preachy or silly with its use. She received an Anthony nomination for In a Dark Season several years ago. That's not surprising. Her writing is strong and evocative. This book reminds me of Ursula Le Guin's fabled series, beginning with The Wizard of Earthsea, in how it addresses balancing the forces of the natural world.

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