Of the gifts my parents gave me that I couldn’t lose, break, or tire of, the gift of language reigns supreme. I can’t remember a room in my childhood that didn’t contain a shelf of books, and being read to, reading to others, and reading to oneself were all activities highly encouraged by Mom and Dad. They wouldn’t buy me jeans from Abercrombie & Fitch, but I don’t recall them ever saying “no” to a book purchase – even if the book was Vol. 2,102 in the Babysitters Club series, and not War and Peace.
When I was very young, my parents enforced a 7pm bedtime for the three of us kids, and now that I am 30 and expecting a child of my own, I can understand that taking a few hours at the end of the day to engage in adult conversation, possibly about books, perhaps over a glass of chardonnay, has probably contributed to the longevity of their marriage, now 35 years in the running. But as I grew older, I resented that early bedtime with a vengeance that foreshadowed what a teenage pain I would turn out to be. Skilled generals on the battlefield of Parenthood, my parents struck a compromise with me: I had to go to bed at 7pm, but I could stay up as long as I wished in my room, as long as I was reading.
As a result, I think it is fair to say that I am widely read, that a life without books is unthinkable to me, that if I have no one to chat with and no internet connection, I will read the back of the cereal box at breakfast. Recently, United stranded me at some-airport-or-another, and so I picked up a new book to read: My Old True Love, by Sheila Kay Adams.
The cover of the book is what caught my eye, as it reminded me of my childhood spent in the shadow of the Blue Ridge mountains, and of the years I spent in law school, living down in a hollow in that tumbled green space, streaked with coal, where Virginia, West Virginia, and Kentucky all clasp hands.
The contents of the book caught me by the heart – it is presented as the story of one family’s hardscrabble existence in the Appalachians – and of course, of thwarted love – during the War Between the States (that’s the Civil War to you Yankees), but it is not a typical novel about this time period – you won’t find a hoopskirt or noble cause in its lyrical pages. Rather, Ms. Adams, like so many talented Southern writers before her, sticks firmly to a tale grounded on that all important sense of place – but not the rolling cotton fields, leading to the graceful plantation house. Rather, she writes of the mountains, and their stores of rhododendrons, spring snows, and lions. The hills of Appalachia are ever present, an unnamed protagonist in this book, and without them, the mountain dialect and personas of Ms. Adams’ characters might fall flat, or be incomprehensible to Appalachia-outsiders. But woven together by Ms. Adams, this mountain yarn resonates with veracity, and beauty.
Another quality that puts My Old True Love in a category of its own is the author’s use of music in the novel – apparently, Ms.Adams is a celebrated performer on the clawhammer banjo, and has recorded several albums of what I grew up calling “mountain music.” Ms. Adams’ familiarity with the cadences of Appalachian folk music create a back rhythm to the storyline that is always authentic, adding to her tale but never distracting from it. She includes the lyrics of several ancient ballads that tell the age-old stories of heartbreak, betrayal, and love – these words were already time worn in the 1860s, but they still ring true today.
My Old True Love is beautifully written, and a little different. If you’re looking for a new read, this might be the ticket.
I’m always looking for a new read – what do y’all recommend?
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