Over the Plain Houses by Julia Franks
Hub City, 2016
With The Crucible back on Broadway, the TV series Salem slated for a third season, and Radiohead’s latest single, “Burn the Witch,” it seems we are in the season of the witch hunt. Add to this list Julia Franks’ debut novel Over the Plain Houses, in which Irenie Lambey, shirking her prescribed role as the subdued wife of a preacher, is subjected to painful scrutiny. In this case, however, communal condemnation becomes individual torment in the form of Irenie’s husband Brodis Lambey. The setting is a remote Appalachian village in 1939. When a USDA agent arrives in a small mountain village, she sets off a chain of events that will shake the very foundations of this enclosed community, her presence felt nowhere more strongly than in the home of the Lambeys. After encouraging Irenie to enroll their academically gifted son Matthew at a rigorous boarding school in Asheville, the agent becomes part of a wedge that is slowly driven into the Lambeys’ marriage. Their separation becomes inevitable as Irenie becomes increasingly drawn to the innate and mysterious power of the land that is her birthright, and Brodis becomes convinced of his duty to dominate that land, its animals, and even his own family.
While the marital rift is portrayed with great delicacy and intimate understanding, what is perhaps more fascinating is the way it allows Franks to explore some of the widely reaching tensions that were part of Appalachian life during this period of history. The reaction of farmers to the USDA’s attempts to “modernize” their operations can at times feel eerily contemporary in the way it is framed as a fight for the values of the community. “Every day the outside world crowded further into the valley, and with it forces that were bound and determined to steal away the God-fearing thoughts of right and true people. Every day the devil rallied his legions.” The questions this book broaches—What is the role of government in the lives of individuals? What is more important: applied or academic knowledge? What is the place of women in society?—seem timely.
Amid this struggle between the past and the future is the community’s zealous Christian faith in conflict with nature. When Matthew viscerally reacts to Brodis killing a litter of foxes on the property, the preacher reminds him of the directive found in Genesis: “Replenish the earth, God said, and subdue it.” As Brodis struggles to maintain his hold upon the land and to bring it into submission, he finds that the world—particularly those parts of it his wife seamlessly moves through—slips away from his grasp. Frustrated, he finds that, “A piece of land could never do anything but wait dumb and fallow for the imprint of man. But his wife moved along it like she’d been born for it.”
It is here that Franks’ symbolic sensibility comes to the fore as she explores religious concepts to arrive at an even more timeless and elemental symbolic vocabulary. One example is the practice of baptism, which appears in the text multiple times. But Franks carefully reminds the reader that water’s power lies not only in the spiritual realm but in the physical processes of the earth, which are linked to Irenie: “Her feet found the path uphill without trying. Frost crystals grew up like mushrooms, and frozen puddles crunched beneath her feet, loud on account of the metal landscape. It was the same ice and water that had carved the mountains, the ancient seep and trickle of it under and into the rock, its freezing and unfreezing, the cracking of granite, the insistent chiseling, water that found out the crevices and always moved downhill.” Land and water exist in cyclical harmony, but as Brodis turns against Irenie, his rock solid faith becomes as unaccommodating as arid soil.
The greatest conflicts arise between them because she is able to navigate the land, flowing through it like water, knowing a freedom like that of the birds with whom she appears to be conversant. Because of this innate capacity to roam, Brodis suspects her of being a witch, and sets out to rid her of her “unnatural” tendencies. With Matthew finally away at school and her friendship with the USDA agent growing stronger, Irenie drastically reevaluates her life when she finally becomes victim to her husband’s violence. While Brodis’ story is that of a frustrated man caught in the changing tides of a modernizing world, Irenie’s is that of a woman swept along with those tides and liberated, though not without consequence.
Both husband and wife are eventually driven to walk a narrow bridge between sanity and insanity, described with a careful restraint that belies great authorial talent. While Brodis’s and Irenie’s actions appear somewhat incredible at times, the reader is given to credit their extreme behavior as the consequence of a more widespread conflict. If they leave much to the imagination, it is perhaps because the novel is not so much a character study as it is the portrayal of an Appalachian community and the ways its members interact with each other and their environment. The geographic soul of the book is at its most stunning in Franks’ descriptions of the landscape as a living being. It guides Irenie’s moonlit wanderings: “There in front of her was the silhouette of the grandfather oak, its giant arms cradling the sky.” And it evokes Native American lives that occupied these mountains far before those of European descent: “Old chestnuts twisted like the red carcasses of tortured ancient kings, their massive spiraled torsos lifeless and naked, their ghosts sifting among the castled evergreens.” In fact, what is perhaps most powerful in this novel is its temporal compass, pointing to the time beyond time of the slowly crumbling Appalachian hills themselves.
Recalling books like Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer and Ron Rash’s The Cove, Franks puts herself in great literary company with this noteworthy debut. Announcing the theme of women’s power and women’s subjugation by presenting Anne Sexton’s poem “Her Kind” as the epigraph to the novel, she also ties the book—whose setting, language, and tone certainly imply its Southern roots—to a distinctly New England tradition. Indeed, the theme of the “witch hunt” itself ties together disparate historical and geographical pinpoints. It is a move that dismantles the strict categorization Southern writers often experience, while also embracing the identity of a writer deeply familiar with Appalachia and its history.