When a USDA agent comes to call on a small village in the mountains of North Carolina, the wife of the local preacher seizes on a chance for their gifted son to receive a better education at a school in the city. That’s the gist of Julia Franks‘ Over the Plain Houses, but the novel reaches beyond this straightforward premise to cover one woman’s struggle for independence in Depression-era Appalachia.
Brodis Lambey is a late-in-life fundamentalist preacher who demands absolute obedience from his wife, Irenie, and their young son, Matthew. All Irenie wants is a solid education for Matthew, whose talents, she knows, are wasted in their rural mountain home. When Virginia Furman visits their town to promote tobacco production among the food crop farmers, she and Irenie become fast friends.
When Brodis discovers that Irenie and Virginia play the piano together — a violation of his church’s beliefs — he is incensed. Coupled with his discovery of his wife’s nighttime journeys to a cave in the hills, this moral infraction helps convince Brodis that Irenie is a practicing witch. He begins a personal mission to drive out the demons from his own family, one of increasing violence and vigor.
Over the Plain Houses is a fine example of Appalachian literature, worthy of a place on the shelf alongside Ron Rash’s Saints at the River and Ann Pancake’s Strange as This Weather Has Been. Like many tales of the region, Franks’ novel uses an outsider’s penetration of an insular mountain community as a catalyst: in this case, the one that brings the Lambey family to the brink of dissolution.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
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Image Credit: Jon Roberts