“The Road from Gap Creek”
Author: Robert Morgan
Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hil
l Pages: 318
Price: $25.95 (Cloth)
By the time of the publication of the novel “Gap Creek” in 1999, Robert Morgan was already a much respected and widely published writer, with one collection of essays, four volumes of fiction and nine volumes of poetry. Then Oprah chose “Gap Creek” for her book club and interviewed Morgan on television. The novel immediately hit the best-seller lists, selling a quarter of a million copies nearly overnight.
Now, some 14 years later, Morgan, after 11 more books, including a best-selling biography of Daniel Boone, has released a sequel, “The Road from Gap Creek,” which follows the same family, now through the ’30s and ’40s, rather than through the turn into the twentieth century. Both novels are set in southwestern North Carolina, on the border with South Carolina. Appalachia, the Blue Ridge, is Morgan’s home territory, about which he writes with great affection and deep knowledge.
In “Gap Creek,” young Julie sees first her brother and then her father die. Afterwards, she must labor in the fields like a man to keep the family fed.
As a young woman, she marries Hank Richards and moves to Gap Creek; it doesn’t get any easier.
Their baby dies; the house catches fire, and is later flooded. Gullible folk, Julie and Hank are the victims of con men who fleece them of the little they have.
Morgan spares them nothing, but they endure.
In “The Road from Gap Creek,” narrated by Julie’s daughter Annie, they have moved back to N.C. and there are more children. Life is no easier, but the woes are of a different kind. Here it is not natural disasters like floods or individual human meanness that torment them, but larger social, economic and global-political forces such as the Great Depression and WWII, which they don’t understand and cannot control.
In the first pages of the novel it is 1943 and a telegram reaches them that Annie’s brother Troy has been killed in England, serving in the Army Air Force. This is perhaps the worst day in the family’s history.
Annie tells us of how this news devastated her mother and, through the rest of the novel, how they move forward to the end of the war. We also learn through flashbacks the story of the family through the twenties and thirties. Annie falls in love and marries a preacher, Muir Powell, and has a daughter of her own.
The Second World War has claimed her brother but also helped to bring the nation out of the Depression, and Annie’s father, Hank, for example, can get work building barracks for the government at Fort Bragg.
Like “Gap Creek,” this is also not a novel of social protest. No agendas are being promoted.
These people are not political. They are ruggedly self-reliant, and don’t think much about Roosevelt and the New Deal, but were helped a lot when Troy went off to serve in the Civilian Conservation Corps. Morgan creates individuals, struggling, and describes those struggles in accurate detail. Both of these are books on how to slaughter and smoke pigs, can beans, catch rabbits, bake biscuits, make a coffin—in general, how to survive on not very much.
We also get insight into the social and emotional dynamics of the very rural. They fall in love, get saved, court, have children, lose loved ones and grieve, band together with or feud with neighbors.
Alone much of the time, Annie is thoughtful. In her narrative, as in an extended oral history, she thinks on her disappointments and wisdom. Annie would have liked to get away. “I wanted to travel. I wanted fine clothes and shoes. I didn’t want to milk cows and pull fodder and go to an outdoor toilet.” A beautiful girl, she even has some talent as an actress, but her family needs her.
Annie is observant and shares her thoughts. On men and love: “I seen how a man could make it up in his mind about being in love with a girl that didn’t even know about it.”
Annie even hints at a kind of collective unconscious: “It was like you remembered things from a former time, that you’d knowed it all along.”
Morgan loves these people. It must as painful for the author as it is for the reader to see them suffer so much!
This review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio. Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark” and the editor of “A State of Laughter: Comic Fiction from Alabama.”