Anyone who reads and reviews “Bloodroot” by Amy Greene should feel an accompanying moral obligation. That moral obligation is to post, alongside the cover, a picture of themselves with a box of tissues. This book is brutal and the bookish public should know that prior to consumption. The secondary picture would be like the Surgeon General’s Warning on a pack of cigarettes, except created by a book reviewer to be placed on particularly sad books. It’s the same thing, just with less rat poison.
Author: Amy Greene
Publisher: Vintage Books (USA)
Publication Date: January 04, 2011
Paperback: 365 pages
Is There a Pooka in This Book? Not expressly, but a case could be made for Wild Rose, the blue-eyed paint mare, being a pooka.
“Bloodroot” is the story of three generations of the Lamb family, living on Bloodroot Mountain in rural Tennessee. The focal point of the narrative is Myra Lamb, who is as much mountain as she is girl. She’s stream, pale petals, dark earth, and gale-force winds. She puts me in mind of Thoreau’s assertion that “all good things are wild and free.” At first, we learn of her only through the love that others feel for her. The book is divided into thirds, and each section is told by two characters. First, there’s Myra’s grandmother, Byrdie Lamb, and the neighbor boy, Doug Cotter, who loves Myra from the first. Then, we hear from John & Laura, Myra’s children. Finally, Myra herself speaks, and then we end with her husband’s voice. We follow her, from these various perspectives, through childhood and into maturity and we hurt for her, with her, and for and with those who have loved her.
This is the story of how a girl, and a land, is broken. It’s similar to habitat-destruction; when a forest is cut down, the animals who have made their home in it are mercilessly affected. Either they are displaced, which comes with its own set of tragedies, or they simply die – sometimes a species is driven to the point of extinction. “Bloodroot” is exactly that story: Myra is the forest – and Byrdie, Doug, John & Laura have all made their home in her. When Myra is lost, the mountain is lost — and so are they.
Throughout the novel, I kept hoping that something would go right, if not for Myra then for her children, but all I encountered was horror after heartbreak after horror. I think everything hurt so much because there was such great love – for Myra, and especially between Byrdie & Macon, and then Laura & Clint. And yet, in the face of all that love, the message seems to be that sometimes love is not enough. And that’s awful.
Fortunately, (or unfortunately, since it means that I kept reading and torturing myself), Amy Greene is an amazing author. She has a talent for storytelling and with language, which means that aside from being relentlessly depressing, the book was everything that I always want a book to be.
What Made the Story Totally Worth Eating:
The women in Myra’s family are rumored to be witches. Though her grandmother lacks a special gift, her great-aunts were purported to have powers. According to Byrdie, “Myrtle was… a water witch. She could find a well on anybody’s land with her dowsing rod”, “Della was the best one at mixing up cures. She could name any root and herb and flower you pointed at. Another thing she was good at was healing animals”, and “Grandmaw could send her spirit up out of her body” (6-7). One time, as Myrtle and Byrdie sat beside the fire, Myrtle intended to conjure up the face of the man Byrdie would marry when she was grown, but Byrdie ends up seeing the face of Myra’s future husband in the flames. Their cousin, Lou Ann, was less benevolent. “She wasn’t above putting a curse on somebody” (9). She supposedly puts a curse on Byrdie’s family that “wouldn’t be lifted until there was a baby born in [the] line with haint blue eyes” (9). Myra has haint blue eyes.
Myra seems to have inherited a mixture of these powers from her great-aunts, especially Della & Myrtle’s powers. One of her older neighbors, Mr. Barnett, tells Doug of the time he saw her when she was “just a little bitty thing”, “sleeping under a tree.” He explains that he was about to check on her to make sure she was all right, but “that’s when [he] seen the butterflies. They was lit all over her arms and legs and in her hair. There was even two or three on her face, all sizes and colors with their wings opening and closing. [He] shut [his] eyes, thinking [he] might be seeing things. But when [he] opened them up, all of the butterflies was still there and Myra was still sleeping away. She looked like a child out of a fairy story. For some reason, [he] was scared to death” (32).
This is all the potential magic there is; there is far more realism to Greene’s story. The magic in it is so subtle that it might not be there at all. Their powers might be explained away with science and psychology (natural, herbal remedies for those who can heal, and defense & coping mechanisms for the astral projection), and with Southern superstition and stereotypical bigotry (all old, unmarried or widowed women are obviously witches. Especially if they live together! That’s a regular “coven!”). There is, however, also a character who is believed to heal sickness by blowing in a person’s mouth, and another who’s an empath. But even Myra’s daughter has her doubts. Laura relays, “Before she fell silent our mama had rocked us, one on each knee, and told stories about our great-granny and other ancestors from Chickweed Holler, who called birds down from the sky and healed wounds and made love potions and sent their spirits soaring out of their bodies. When I asked if it was all true, she said, “It’s not for me to tell you what’s true. It’s your choice to believe it or not.” I know now it was more than just stories she was talking about. It was a whole world of things I could choose to believe or not” (98). While I usually like my magical realism more magick-y, the low level really worked this time.
I’m tearing up just thinking about how much these two loved one another. It was all about the details. I don’t want to spoil it by saying too much. I want those details to be brand-new for you if you’ve yet to read them. But I will make note of a few of my favorite things. First, Macon cures Byrdie of her wanderlust. Up until she meets Macon, Byrdie is never content to sit still and be in one place. But he had a “brown birthmark over his eye shaped like an island [she] seen off of the globe at the Cochrans’ house. Every chance [she] got, [she’d] sneak and spin that globe and run [her] fingers over the shapes. Macon’s birthmark put [her] in mind of all of them shapes that stood for places [she’d] like to go. Sometimes the soles of [her] feet still itched in the night…[but] up until he died, [she] had that island to run [her] fingers over whenever [she] wanted to” (27). Loving him was enough of an adventure for her. I also love the whole story of how Macon gets his wedding ring and why Byrdie chooses it for him. Macon is a beautiful soul. He builds birdhouses, whittles animal toys for Myra out of wood, cares for his many sisters, and knows how to be gentle. He reads poetry but is embarrassed at being caught reading it. He was a total catch, and the two deserved one another.
Clint is such a good man, and their story breaks my heart. I can’t think about them too much or I’ll lose it again. Where are my tissues? All I’ll say is that aside from loving Laura so well, Clint also loved the water, and a man who loves the water is all right with me. If my favorite shape to shift into weren’t a rabbit, it’d definitely be a fish.
I love that Greene saved Myra’s story for next-to-last. All along, the reader knows that Myra’s been broken, but there are still so many questions. We don’t know exactly what’s happened until we hear it from her – and because the events of her life have caused her to turn inward, making her mostly mute, it makes the tale feel even rarer and more special. I also liked that although Myra’s voice is still markedly Southern, and her vocabulary is true to her rural roots (with words like “kinfolk” and “daddy” interspersed throughout), the dialect is dialed way down. The natural, poetic, wild quality of Myra’s voice is made even more lyrical by her love of Wordsworth.
Nothing. I didn’t spit anything back out. All three of the sections and all six of the voices were equally compelling.
Although certain pieces of the story made made me wish that it had been possible to unread them, each moment felt necessary and as if it belonged. Even the piece with the twisted bunny death. If any of the sadness had been expurgated, the lack would have weakened the book.
I recommend it, as long as you heed my warning.
Pooka Rating: 4 out of 5 Nibbles. (I eat when I’m sad.)