Authority, Details, and Intimacy: Southern Appalachian Women in Robert Morgan's Family Novels

Article excerpt

Since first appearing as a "dramatic turn of voice" in "The Mountains Won't Remember Us" (1989), Robert Morgan's propensity to tell stories from a first-person female point of view has garnered widespread attention and acclaim.1 Discussions of how and why this narrative style became a trademark of Morgan's work often highlight the rewriting of The Truest Pleasure (1995). As the story goes, early drafts of the novel were "unsatisfactory" to the author; the male narrator was too unobservant and emotionally unavailable to describe the inner workings of a marriage. Retold from Ginny's point of view, however, Morgan was able "to achieve the intimate, domestic observations" that would resonate with readers.2 Certainly, the decision to rework the novel was to the benefit of Tom and Ginny's story, as it would also be to Julie and Hank in the even more widely lauded Gap Creek (1999). This time, Morgan's use of Julie as narrator reinforced the idea that women's experiences, in particular, had much to offer contemporary readers about everyday life in the southern mountains following the Civil War and into the twentieth century. Considered with The Hinterlands ( 1 994) and This Rock (200 1 ), each told partly from a woman's point of view and stretching back to the eighteenth century, these four novels trace the very fabric of life in the mountains for a hundred and fifty years. Thus, I would like to consider that Morgan's emphasis on women's experiences not only places his female characters among the most beloved in Appalachian literature, but it is also essential to the scope of his achievement. Furthermore, Morgan's transformative decision to let these women tell their own stories retrospectively heightens our affinity for them; we move well beyond positive representations of Appalachian women in fiction to a deeper understanding of their experience.3

Appalachian women in fiction have garnered serious attention as scholars have sought, on one hand, to dispel stereotypes and, on the other, to more fully appreciate the work of authors native to the region.4 In his seminal work, Wingless Flights: Appalachian Women in Fiction (1996), the late Danny Miller assesses the twentieth century shift to resident depictions of Appalachia:

Many of the features of this world that were presented in previous literature are still found in works by native writers: the patriarchal society; the mountain woman's hard life of work, her many children and subservience to her husband; moonshining, feuding, and shiftlessness, for example. However, native writers perceived this world in a markedly different way. Their perceptions are "truer," more than one-dimensional, and provide a needed balance to the excesses of the writers who emphasized the worst aspects of mountain life and to the romanticization of the local colorists. Not the least of the native writers' accomplishments is their clearer perceptions and depictions of the lives of mountain women. They do not romanticize or glamorize Appalachian women, nor do they revile them. Instead, they describe honestly and uncondescendingly both the joys and strengths and the heartaches and weaknesses of wives and mothers in Appalachia. They give faithful portraits of mountain women, whose influence is so strongly felt in the daily lives of mountain people. (80)

Inside perspectives on and handling of Appalachian materials have given us numerous positively drawn, compelling female characters who meet daunting circumstances with dignity, knowledge, and fortitude: Harri ette Simpson Arnow's Milly Ballew and Gertie Nevels, Lee Smith's Ivy Rowe, Charles Frazier's Ruby Thewes and Ada Monroe, James Still's Alpha Baldridge, and the gold standard of strong mountain women, Wilma Dykeman's Lydia McQueen, among many others.5

Certainly, Robert Morgan's Appalachian women, namely Petal Jarvis, Julie Richards, and Ginny Powell could easily be added to the aforementioned list. All three are physically strong, hardworking, and knowledgeable about and appreciative of their surroundings. …