Author: Laura Hunter
Publisher: Bluewater Publications
Price: $18.95 (Paper)
“Beloved Mother” is as genuinely Appalachian as a novel could be. The action begins in 1923 in the mountains west of Boone, North Carolina, and continues there until up into the 1960s.
The descriptions of food, dress, furniture, folkways and the dialects used are entirely convincing and one assumes accurate without the feeling that recipes or idioms have been looked up.
Aside from some changes in automobiles and coal mining technique, life remains much the same, and there is a timeless quality about “Beloved Mother” as there is in mountain culture.
The epic story line follows three generations of women, their mates, children, husbands, lovers, neighbors and in fact the pets in the house and the wildlife outside, rattlesnakes, weasels, and owls. In this novel, all life is integrated, woven together, the humans, animals, even the earth itself. The women are often treated badly by their men, but are themselves capable of lustful infidelity, considerable violence and a powerful will to live.
This cast of characters includes Cherokee Indians, coal miners and their wives, storekeepers, coal magnates, the brain-damaged, good country people, and an herbalist who functions as midwife or abortionist, as required.
Besides the regular mortal humans, speaking parts are given to Great Spirit, Sister Sun and Brother Moon, which adds a mythic dimension to the novel.
Not only do these spiritual entities comment on the action below them as a Greek chorus might, god-like they occasionally participate in the action, putting their all-powerful fingers onto the scale, sending a violent storm, allowing some actions to be perpetrated in the dark, say, or shining an extra bright light on others.
Hunter likes her spirit-characters and has a good time with them. At one point, Great Spirit turns from following the action and announces to the others: “Catch me at the All-Star Baseball Game in Kansas City. I need a break from all this.”
The relationships among these characters are complex. Children may or may not be the offspring of their mother’s husband. At least one child is unclaimed by his father, and in these small, isolated, one might even say claustrophobic hollows, incest is always an accidental possibility.
These lives are, by any standard, desperate. Life is more than difficult; death is potentially everywhere, from the sepsis of a simple garden hoe injury, childbirth, the bite of a rattlesnake by the side of the path, lightning, to diseases of every kind. There is no margin for error. These characters with almost no resources are vulnerable, every day.
We begin with Mona Parsons, 13 years old, who runs away from home with Jackson Slocomb, a man we know to be evil because he is named after the killer and remover of the Cherokees. Slocomb seduces Mona, then enslaves her, scars her cheek with his knife and rapes her repeatedly on a bed of thorns, enjoying her pain.
Mona is saved by a young Cherokee, Tall Corn, and his mother, the Beloved Mother, who is the anointed one, the healer. Adopted by her, Mona will learn the healing secrets and become the Beloved Mother herself, then teach her secrets to another young woman, Lily.
Tall Corn adopts Mona’s child, Briar, and thus begins some generations of confusion over who is related to whom.
Mona, Ruth and Anna are three sisters, who become so estranged as to lose track of one another even in this very small geographic space. At one point there is even a shock of recognition when an older woman realizes she is talking to her niece.
Hunter’s story moves these women, and their men, most of whom are rotten or damaged, through 50 years of hardships. Some endure and, indeed, survival is the only triumph available.
This is an ambitious, complex and very impressive novel and, although Laura Hunter, a retired English teacher in Tuscaloosa, now fiction writer, chose to publish with Bluewater, a small press in Alabama, “Beloved Mother” has already been awarded not only the first novel award but also the Grand Prize in Fiction from a national organization, the Next Generation Indie Book Awards.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” His most recent book is Belles’ Letters 2, a collection of short fiction by Alabama women.