Thursday, June 23, 2011

Great Summer Reading: A Writer to Watch

You’ve no doubt got all your summer reading lined up already; however, it you’re like me, there’s always room on the shelf for another great read. Valerie Nieman’s third novel, Blood Clay, is the deeply moving, elegantly-constructed story of what happens when extraordinary violence happens to ordinary people; however, the story is about much more than violence. Set in the small-town world of Saul County, North Carolina, it encompasses a great deal of history, private and public, as we come to know many of the denizens of Taberville and the surrounding region extremely well.

Tracey Gaines and Dave Fordham, twin protagonists, are single teachers at the A.O. Miller Alternative School. Living across the road is Orenna Sipes, a single African-American mother raising her two daughters. Artis Pennell, whose farm abuts Tracey’s, is, like her, a divorced newcomer; but, unlike her, he has custody of a teenage son, Jim. Through the fates of these interwoven characters, Nieman works out the timeless theme who am I and where do I belong?

An “Ordinary” Tragedy

Events are set in motion early on when Tracey witnesses a tragedy involving a child. Her involvement—what she did and didn’t do—not only disturbs her conscience but interferes with her ability to assimilate into a community worlds away from her urban Ohio and Pennsylvania. While the tragedy sets Tracey and her two neighbors on a collision course, Neiman thankfully takes her time getting there. And, despite the tragedy at its center, and its serious after-shocks, this well-wrought story contains much joy and pleasure for Dave and Tracey, hence the reader as well. Nieman never sacrifices the likely, the probable, the inevitable in favor of easy sentiment. Any grace found in this “blood clay” is hard-won. That’s never more evident than in the court scenes when Tracey gives a deposition, then takes the witness stand, nor in the shattering finale, which is satisfyingly real.

Insiders vs. Outsiders

Setting is character here. Extremely enjoyable are scenes inside Tracey’s aging farmhouse, simultaneously her albatross and salvation. We’re also taken down country roads, into tobacco fields, inside the alternative school, and in the process we’re driven deep into Carolina soil. “Blood Clay” is as apt a title as it is evocative. Blood is shockingly but never gratuitously spilled in the course of this hard story. History envelopes these characters; Tracey herself is a teacher of history, while Dave Fordham, the man she comes to know and love, is living history, his ancestors among the earliest inhabitants of the region.

It’s one of the novel’s many ironies that a man whose roots go as deep as Dave’s is almost as uncomfortable here as Ohio-bred Tracey, due to his having left North Carolina for the big city years ago. A brash, ambitious English teacher determined to save the world, Dave returned an emotional and physical cripple. While Dave translates the region’s history to the Northern outsider, Tracey, in turn, helps Dave face his own secret tragedy: what happened while he taught in Baltimore to make him forever afraid of his own students.

A Teacher’s Story

A community college teacher of over thirty years, I found Nieman’s handling of the school scenes one of the novel’s greatest strengths. Having taught graduates of schools like A.O. Miller, I can say the author nails just what it is like to face wounded students full of rage, with painfully low self-esteem—who can, as chickens do after seeing a spot of blood (an observed weakness), pick apart a teacher without sufficient armor. The climactic classroom showdown between Dave and his student Jim would’ve been payoff enough for me even without the final, inevitable scene when Artis shows up to confront Tracy and Dave. Without giving anything away, I’ll just say that Nieman can be completely trusted to surprise and satisfy the high emotional stakes she raises without resorting to cheap tricks or gratuitous violence.

Real People

In this character-driven novel, there are no stereotypes. Tracey is no mere victim of cruel, hypocritical, back-stabbing Southerners. Urban born and raised, she has some rural roots from her grandmother and is quite capable of knocking down walls inside her farmhouse or excavating a dump on her land to divine its history. Likewise, Dave may be empathetic and tender, but he can wield a shotgun and take a punch from brawling students. Furthermore, Orenna Sipes, the mother of the child at the story’s heart, is perfectly believable in her chilling responses to Tracey. Even Artis Pennell, a man under enormous pressure, remains remarkably restrained, even sympathetic, never becoming a predictable, one-dimensional stalker bent on vengeance against Tracey, his accuser. I found myself greatly touched by Artis’s motherless son Jim, who carries his father’s—as well as much of Tracey and Dave’s—pain.

Poetic Prose

Not only her nuanced plot, setting and characters but also Nieman’s poetic language brings her world to life. She paints the setting with precise, laser-cut visuals: “A flower slipped from the blanket covering the casket, and the preacher lifted it high before the congregation, and there was nothing to say or to respond.” Her metaphors are often breath-taking: “A frightening thing, how a touch, a look that goes on too long, could burn right through three, four lives. Like that soft white metal they kept in a jar in the chemistry lab, sodium, or magnesium; if taken from the fluid that damped its nature, it would flame up in the air and couldn’t be put out.”

Insights and Identity

This is the stuff of fine literary fiction, and Nieman’s journalistic background shows in her tight economy of construction. She offers a near-sociological view of this world, involves the reader deeply with several living human beings and provides true, aching insights about identity, both personal and cultural, asking whether they can finally be separated—and she does so in 196 pages. Not a word, image or event is wasted. These characters dip their arms up to their elbows in this blood clay, this rich soil that grows a plant requiring as much labor and love as tobacco—and so does the reader, who’s deeply affected by these characters’ suffering and joy. If there’s a flaw in Blood Clay, it’s that the novel is over way too soon, leaving me waiting to see what this talented author writes next.

(A version of this review was published recently in the Charleston (WV) Gazette).

2 comments:

  1. Wow, I'm flattered and very happy to have such good words from the latest winner of the Hackney Award!

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  2. I saw a piece of this in ms at Queens when Val and I were students together. That scene that you are so carefully not revealing, Ed, is riveting. So, I won't say more, only that I give this book a thumbs up.

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