When Russellville author Amy Greene sought inspiration for her second novel, she had to look farther than her backyard, but not that much farther.
“Long Man” is set over three days in the summer of 1936 as the TVA’s shining new dam is about to flood a Bean Station-esque Appalachian town.
While the events, town and characters in the novel are fictional, they are drawn from real events.
“My grandparents on both sides survived the Great Depression in East Tennessee and passed down their stories of how the Tennessee Valley Authority improved their lives,” Greene said. “Before the TVA, people here were starving and drowning in floods and dying of malaria, struggling to survive on a few hundred dollars as subsistence farmers. My mother was 5 when electricity came to our mountains, there was one light bulb and one plug in her house back then, she told me, and the electric bill was $1 a month.
“But the benefits of power were immeasurable. The TVA not only ‘modernized’ East Tennessee; it saved lives, bringing flood control and new jobs. We were transformed from an agrarian to an industrial society in a single generation. While my maternal grandfather had eked out a living as a farmer, both my parents went to work in the new factories that came to us a result of the Tennessee Valley Authority. I grew up surrounded as well by the dams they built.”
Greene’s novel explores the concepts of sacrifice and reward, both at the macro level of a small town dying to strengthen the region, and the micro level of a husband and wife struggling with the concept of how much of their own dreams they should subjugate to each other and their small family.
Greene’s Annie Clyde Dodson is a firebrand railing against the dying of her family’s farm, the land she intends to give to her 3-year-old daughter, Gracie. Her husband, James, has no loyalty to the land ruled by the river which took his father and struggles to stand by his wife as she plays an increasingly dangerous game of chicken with the TVA and its seemingly faceless representatives.
Greene said she drew inspiration from the silos that climb out of Cherokee Lake and the old roads that become visible when the water is low.
“I began to think about what else might have been lost – about the sacrifices that must have been made for the sake of progress. When I started doing research, I learned that land that had been in families for a hundred years had gone underwater. The bones of loved ones had been disinterred and moved; historical landmarks were destroyed; thousands of families were displaced,
“I imagined what a heartbreak it would be to some and what a blessing to others, their best hope of starting over somewhere else. Questions came up that I wanted to explore in the writing of ‘Long Man’ about progress and whether or not it’s always a force for good. I found there’s not one answer, no single truth. Each character has to make his or her own determination as the story unfolds.”
The tragedy is heightened when Gracie goes missing in a storm. During the frantic search suspicion falls on a “cur dog” of a drifter, returning to the only hometown he has ever known in its final dying days and on the river itself. Maybe Long Man, as the Cherokee named it, has taken one final victim before being tamed by the gleaming steam rollers of progress.
Greene weaves a compelling narrative and her East Tennessee roots shine through, capturing both the sound and the spirit of her Appalachian home. Greene knows these characters; she grew up surrounded by them, and then developed them to flesh and bone nearly capable of stepping off the page.
In her first novel, the New York Times best-seller “Bloodroot,” Greene was widely praised for her ability to depict the nature of the region in such a way that it becomes another character. In “Long Man” she endows nature with just a touch of mountain mysticism, leaving the option open to the reader that nature itself is rebelling at mans’ efforts to tame it.
Greene further entertains the possibility of supernatural intervention in the character of Beulah, a mountain medicine woman and mystic who casts bones from a pouch she wears around and she tries to divine the future.
“Folk magic has been practiced in Appalachia since the 1700s, when settlers from Scotland and Ireland brought mysticism across the ocean alongside Christianity,” she said. “People here still eat black-eyed peas on New Year’s Eve and carry buckeyes in their pockets to ward off evil. In a town like Yuneetah, where death and destitution are part of daily living, spirituality is essential. Beulah serves an integral role in her community. Without faith in something greater than themselves, without their belief in a divine plan, she knows her neighbors might not survive their losses.”
“Long Man” will be available in hardcover from Alfred A. Knopf on February, 25, 2014. The book will be available at retailers across the country and online.
Copies of “Long Man” and “Bloodroot” will also be available through the Citizen Tribune front office at 1609 W. 1st N. Street and check www.bigdealtn.com for a “Long Man” related Big Deal.