Hauntingly Beautiful

Our newest Pop Theology contributor, Jessica Margrave Schirm (read more about her on the Contributors page), reviews the recent novel, Bloodroot, after the jump.

To say that Amy Greene‘s debut novel, Bloodroot, captivated me from the first word isn’t entirely accurate – truth is, it had me at the dust jacket. Although I was not raised in Appalachia, the majority of my extended family calls the Appalachian mountains home. I spent many a childhood summer chasing horses through the fields, picking blackberries in the hollers and splashing in the creeks as I visited family in Eastern Kentucky. As a result, I felt immediately at home on Bloodroot Mountain, as if Greene’s characters were my own kin, telling their unique stories of tragedy and miracle. Bloodroot Mountain, the setting for Greene’s tale, derives its name from the bloodroot plant, a potentially poisonous herbal remedy purported to cure a variety of illnesses from poison ivy, to croup, to cancer. The magical plant, named for its long, finger-like root that oozes blood-red sap when cut, foreshadows the novel’s complicated consideration of the human capacity to poison or to heal.

Bloodroot is the multi-generational account of a family’s search for meaning, freedom and connection. Greene’s tale centers upon Myra Lamb Odom a free-spirited, mystical girl with haint blue eyes who captures the hearts of all who know her. In addition to her own voice, Myra’s story is told by Byrdie Lamb – Myra’s grandmother who raises her after tragedy befalls each of Byrdie’s own five children; Dougie – Myra’s childhood confident who spends his life longing for Myra’s love; John Odom – Myra’s deceivingly beautiful husband who attempts to contain Myra’s spirit and nearly succeeds; and Johnny and Laura – Myra’s children who continually search for their mother, even when she is by their side. Using these voices, Greene demonstrates her command of the Appalachian dialect as she explores the juxtaposition of hope and pessimism in a way that is both haunting and beautiful. Her characters bring authentic perspective to the misguided Appalachian stereotypes that continue even now.

Several key themes guide Greene’s tale – the complicated love between mothers and their children, the tangled web of romantic affection both unrequited and undeserved, and the often blurry line between freedom and imprisonment. Although Bloodroot is not overtly theological, Greene incorporates several significant characteristics of Appalachian religiosity – fatalism, superstition and perseverance. The pace of Greene’s writing mirrors the Appalachian culture she explores. The story gently meanders drawing us deeper into the complex narrative. As readers we are invited to contemplate the characters – to mull their thoughts, to embody their emotions, to grieve their losses, to pray their prayers and to glimpse the ever elusive hope that compels them forward.

Although there are a host of positive things to say about Bloodroot, it is important to note that Greene leaves a significant amount of loose ends that I, ultimately, found frustrating. From unresolved bit characters, to several unfinished thematic threads, to a not quite believable tidy ending, Greene left me wanting more and not necessarily in a good way.

With all that said, Bloodroot is certainly worth the read. Greene’s story telling debut is a dark and complicated journey into the often unexplored corners of the Appalachian culture. Through Myra Lamb Odom, and those that love her, Greene demonstrates the complexity of human relationships, the interconnectedness of all living things, and the potential in all of us for the tragic as well as the miraculous.