“Annie Clyde had seen more than one tree uprooted in all this foul weather. She had heard the rain every way that it fell, hard like drumming fingers, in sheets like a long sigh, in spates like pebbles tossed at the windows. When she crossed the road and went up the bank, she could see water glinting between the tree stumps. The river had already become a lake.”
–Long Man, by Amy Greene
Amy Greene is one of my favorite living authors, and it’s not just because she’s from Tennessee, although there is something beautifully wrenching about reading a description of your home from a really talented author. I picked up her first novel a few years ago in a small backwater bookstore in Cadiz, Kentucky, having never heard of it, and was shocked at how good it was. I enjoyed this book, her second, just as much.
Long Man is set in 1936, and centers around a small East Tennessee town that is being totally evacuated to make way for one of the many TVA hydroelectric dams that Roosevelt had built to prop up the economy during the Great Depression. The damming of the river (called Long Man by the Native Americans who once lived on its banks) will bring electricity to the entire area, but the resulting lake will completely submerge the town. When the story begins, the remaining residents have days to be gone. The town is flooding faster than expected due to an unusual amount of rain. The last citizens are still deciding what kind of stance they can possibly take against the inevitable, and just when you’re afraid they’re going to literally get dragged off their land in handcuffs, a child goes missing. They have to choose whether to act together as the community they once were, or be split and destroyed by the fierce independence they are guarding so carefully.
Like Greene’s other book, there’s a lot of progress vs. nostalgia going on here for the main characters, who, while hungry to the point of near starvation, don’t want to be run off of their ancestral land by the government (like, as Greene subtly points out, the people who were there before them). There’s some echoes of the movie Beasts of the Southern Wild, with the benevolent government forcing people in poverty to sacrifice freedom and identity in exchange for tidy, measurable statistics like healthcare and electricity. It’s hard not to see both sides. This book will definitely make your inner libertarian (the birthright of all southerners, and, let’s be honest, of all Americans) start to claw its way out of wherever you have buried it.
Greene’s language is perfectly pitched, and she empathizes with her characters without idealizing them. Her descriptions of water make it so present as to be another character, the river struggling with the chains of the dam for freedom, the rain hiding the child and disrupting the search for its own inscrutable, anarchic reasons.
I started reading Long Man at Cumberland Mountain State Park. We were staying in a cabin built around 1936 of local golden sandstone. Our cabin was built to be a gristmill for (and by) the federally funded community that had been relocated nearby, mostly destitute former coal miners from the Appalachian Mountains. When pre-existing gristmills threw a fit about government-subsidized competition, the house was converted into a cabin, but it’s still nestled right up next to the dam (non-electric), which was also built in the 30s, like the whole park and many parks all over the country. There were pictures on the wall of the former miners posing with the dam they built, and I found myself wondering what it was like to leave the mountain mines and come build a state park in Crossville, Tennessee. This story is not their story, but I feel like I know a little more now.
Read this book if you’ve ever felt swallowed up by a huge, efficient organization that didn’t care whether you existed, or if you’ve ever been to a state park with a dam on it, or if you love Southern Literature, or if you just feel like you do right now because Harper Lee just died. Read it if you remember that poor, rural people are still people and not just problems for the state budget to address. Read it in a rainstorm; indoors, of course.