Appalachian family tragedy unfolds in ‘Over the Plain Houses’

A harsh story, bewitchingly conceived, Julia Franks’s first novel, “Over the Plain Houses,” is a living structure kept together by hardwood pegs; seemingly precarious, it may be the only thing left standing after a cataclysm of hail and dynamite in 1939, the year in which this Appalachian family tragedy is set.

Irenie Lambey lives with her forbidding husband, Brodis, and her precocious 13-year-old son, Matthew, on a hillside tobacco farm, “up a ways from Asheville.” Old Cherokee land purchased from Irenie’s father, its “watersheds and ridges” are not the easiest place to cultivate, but chirping birds and insects sometimes offer odd bits of advice.

As “Over the Plain Houses” unfolds, Irenie has taken to wandering the surrounding woods late at night, contemplating her circumstances, creating a world of her own. One day, when she intentionally springs a hawk trap Brodis has set, she “knew in that instant that that was how you find your earlier self.”

Ten years older than Irenie, Brodis is “tall and long.” He has a “game foot” from an injury in 1924 when he was as a roustabout river-logger. After the accident, he experienced a religious conversion and became an evangelical preacher; each time Brodis enters the pulpit now, “the Holy Spirit showed him a vision of flames.”

For Brodis, the End Times are the good times, but he wasn’t always a trumpet from Book of Revelation. When Irenie first saw Brodis dancing “bent-kneed” across the fallen trees in the river, she was attracted to him “in part because he’d seen the world.” But since finding his calling as a Man of God, “his thinking set, like a churn of milk gone to butter.”

Brodis sees his wife as “an inside-herself woman,” which, of course, she is. He’s unsettled by her mysterious night walks — he suspects the influence of Satan — and is troubled when she chooses to sit in the Sinners section of his little church, which is defiantly “unaffiliated” with any national Baptist organization.

The Lambey’s marital situation is complicated more by the arrival of Virginia Furman, an agent for Department of Agriculture Extension Service, who instructs rural women on modern methods of sewing, nutrition, and “Cooking with Electricity.” Brodis feels threatened by outside experts like Furman; with her “fitted suits,” Brodis regards her as “the looking-down kind.”

Virginia informs Irenie of “a new school in Asheville for exceptionally intelligent children,” like Matthew. So smart he once built “the only scarecrow in the county that moved,” Matthew keeps a notebook describing local plant and animal life. By contrast, his father doesn’t believe in “list-making.” To initiate his boy into the violent ways of the old frontier, he blows up a poaching fox’s den and snaps to death Matthew’s pet snake, Nelson.

Recounting its narrative events in such a way may present “Over the Plain Houses” as a Gothic parody; most definitely, it is not. An Atlanta resident, Julia Franks is a crafty, sophisticated author. She attended Vassar and Columbia University, but she is not the looking-down kind. She grew up with strong connections to the knobbly Appalachian universe, a fabric she remakes as visionary homespun — an elegant cut, too. Her sympathies are clearly with the struggles of the hardscrabble mountain poor in the years between the advent of the New Deal and World War II.

The pathetic Brodis — who rock slides into religious dementia as the rural certainties he has known dematerialize — is handled with a shock of compassion, even as he commits an appalling, unpardonable crime against his wife, the novel’s point of no return.

In the aftermath, it becomes easier for Irenie to think of Brodis “as a creature who’d appeared at the edge of day for the single purpose of making her small.” With Virginia Furman’s help, she organizes her flight to the depraved mining community, Copperhill, Tenn., for a clandestine purpose. Like one of Hitchcock’s spy yarns, spooling out suspense, Franks has Irenie cleverly switching trains in the hill country’s rail system, an arcane maze, to avoid detection.

The title “Over the Plain Houses” is derived from Anne Sexton’s 1960 poem, “Her Kind” (based on the poet’s earlier sketch, “Night Voice on a Broomstick”), which Franks uses to introduce the book: “I have gone out, a possessed witch/ haunting the black air, braver at night:/ dreaming evil. I have done my hitch/over the plain houses … I have been her kind.”

This book seems like it may have taken 240 years to write. At its best, which is all the time, it summons the smoke-swirling wilderness of the Incredible String Band’s “Chinese White,” in which the “bent twig of darkness grows the petals of the morning,” a bowed lute sawing furiously toward the infinite in concordance. Julia Franks digs deep into the “metal earth,” and, if the startling images she retrieves conjure geologic time, she sprinkles archaisms on nearly every page, lending “Over the Plain Houses” an agrarian steam-punk dousing: Peas are “bolted,” eyes have “vigiled,” and shirts are “blousoning in the breeze.”

Franks’ mastery of technical details is daunting, especially in her action-filled account of river logging with its powdermen and walking bosses. She has vivid minor characters, notably Frazier June, a Holiness preacher described as a “zealot with the tinder of insanity lit in his eye.” Iago-like, he places Brodis on his guard: “Satan is the hardest working man around, and I don’t see him letting up anytime soon.”

If the reader suspects that Brodis Lambey, a Biblical avenger, will drag all of western North Carolina into his spectacular personal apocalypse — he nearly does — it must be revealed that “Over the Plain Houses” delivers an unexpected conclusion that looks to a sky “quilted up like cotton batting.” Maybe the witch hazel will bloom again, or the pumpkins will spring up in place of tobacco, “a crop they can’t even eat,” as Brodis used to complain. Irenie never liked the “sameness” of it anyway.

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