It's 1936 in the forgotten Appalachian town of Yuneetah, and a manmade flood is on its way. The men in suits from the Tennessee Valley Authority talk about progress and electricity, but a few stragglers aren't buying it. They're staying on the land, and the clock is ticking.
In Tennessee author Amy Greene's second novel Long Man, a few weary Appalachian souls must reckon with two implacable forces: nature and the federal government. And while protagonist Annie Clyde Dodson is standing her ground, Greene is careful not to present either the government or Mother Nature as a monster.
"It was a death," Greene writes in an early passage about the TVA dam project. "But it was the kind of death that had to come before a resurrection."
Greene lives in Russellville, Tenn., just 10 minutes from the farm where she grew up. Like her bestselling debut novel Bloodroot, Long Man is filled with the people she knows and set in the mountains she loves. In this case, the stubborn, reserved Annie Clyde faces a terrifying problem: Just days before the Long Man River rises and Yuneetah gets blotted from the map, her three-year-old daughter Gracie disappears. Racing against time, Annie Clyde and husband James must figure out whether Gracie has simply run off or whether she has been kidnapped by Amos, a mysterious drifter who just rolled back into town.
Most of the elements of Long Man are tried-and-true conventions of Appalachian literature: the flooding valley, the reclusive mountain woman, the promise of comfort in the big-city factory job. The first page alone is packed with peculiar mountain vocabulary: brogans, oxblood, piney bluffs. Greene, a longtime fan of the genre, embraces the tropes and makes them her own.
"I think of writing as an act of discovery, in a way, and with these characters, they did come to me almost as archetypes," Greene says. "You have the hermit and you have the fortune teller, the drifter, the lawman, the farmer. What began to happen as I got deeper into the story and began to learn these characters is that they started to become human. That was something that kept me going."
Greene took an unorthodox route to the writing life. Married straight out of high school, she had her first child when she was 20 and did not attempt college and a writing career until she was 27 years old. "I've always wanted to write, but I guess I had this idea that I had to be from New York or L.A. to be a writer, and nobody would care about you otherwise," Greene says.
She remembers the day her life began to shift. It was a snow day in 2003, and her young son was bored. So Greene went down in the basement and brought up a box full of stories she had written at his age. "This is what you do when you're bored," she told him. "You can write stories." Just then, a sadness overtook her. She remembered the little girl who had always said she'd be a writer when she grew up.
So she went back to school, enrolling in a low-residency undergraduate program at Vermont College in Montpelier, Vt. While she was there, she started working on Bloodroot.
"When I went to Vermont, that's when I learned I was Appalachian," Greene says. "I had no idea I had an accent at all, but nobody could understand what I was saying. Everywhere I go, I take the mountains with me."
Greene's stories carry the anxieties of her grandparents' generation — about being steamrolled by some government leviathan, about losing ancestral land, about dying alone in a secluded mountain hollow.
"She could catch a fever and not recover," Greene writes of the reclusive mountain woman Silver Ledford, Annie Clyde's aunt, "or break her leg out hunting and lie unfound until the crows picked her bones clean and the possums dragged them off."
In describing the last holdouts against a TVA project, Greene also portrays something of her grandparents' politics — a politics that she has inherited in some ways.
"Back in the '30s, Roosevelt called Tennessee a part of the country that was forgotten by the American people, and sometimes I think that's still true," Greene says. "I definitely imbued this story with my own frustrations and my own resentment of that idea. I think there's sort of an idea in this world that some people's babies and some people in general don't matter as much as others or aren't worth as much. I think that the working poor are devalued in this country."
Greene's generation didn't face the hardscrabble life of her grandparents, a fact that she says she owes to the TVA. Still, she remembers a childhood with a wood-fired stove and a garden out back, plucking horn worms from the plants with her mom, and she says she finds herself pondering the idea of ancestral memory.
"I felt the echoes of it," Greene says. "It's part of our experience. The echoes of the land, they seep into my work."