Book Report: A Day of Small Things
by Alli Marshall on 01/09/2011
A Day of Small Things is the latest Appalachian-themed novel by local author Vicki Lane. But this book, released in September of last year, does not feature crime solver Elizabeth Goodweather (the heroine of Lane’s previous works, Signs in the Blood, Art’s Blood, Old Wounds and In A Dark Season). Instead — part mystery, part folklore, part historical fiction — Day introduces a new set of heroines: Least, Redbird Ray, Birdsong Gentry and Miss Birdie.
Actually, all of those ladies are one in the same. Least is the last daughter born to a bitter mountain widow. With no patience for her daughter’s strange ways, Fronnie pronounces Least to be “quare” (the book is full of mountain lingo and dialect) and no good for anything but staying home and doing chores around their lonely subsistence farm. Least knows no better until her kind-hearted grandmother comes to live out her final days on the homestead. It’s Granny who recognizes that Least has powers, among these calling on the “Little Things” or fairies for help in times of danger.
Later, fleeing a cruel fate, Least finds her way to Gudger’s Stand — a dance hall / restaurant / bar / meeting place / house of ill repute on the French Broad River. It’s there that she, for a brief time, dyes her hair and becomes Redbird Ray, the dancing girl.
In fact, Gudger is an old family name in the Asheville, and Gudger’s Stand makes its way into other Lane novels. Read Lane’s blog and it’s easy to see how she finds inspiration in the buildings, landscape and history around her. In Day, she taps into even more local resources, drawing on Cherokee mythology, Holiness traditions and a number of newspaper clippings and excepts from advertisements and books. These are added at the end of each chapter like a scrap book, lending a weight of corroboration to the wild tale.
And it is a wild tale. Redbird becomes Birdsong when she returns to her homestead, marries her sweetheart and starts a family. She promises her new husband that she will give up her powers. “In time to come I will gather up my few memories of Redbird Ray — a bracelet and a fancy pair of rhinestone hair combs — along with the first bits of writing that Granny Beck showed me, some with the words to the spells, and Luther will dig a hole up at the burying ground under the big oak and we will busy my past there — the quare girl and the dancing girl.”
That ends the first part of the book, which takes place between 1922 and 1939. The second half is set in 2007 over just a handful of days. Here, Birdsong is 85 years old. She’s buried her husband and all of her children, most of whom never lived to adulthood. But despite these tragedies, she seems content in her waning years and has kept her promise about not practicing her spells. That is, until Birdie’s neighbor Dorothy comes to her for help. Dorothy’s ward, 13 year-old Calven, has been kidnapped by his mostly absent, drug-addicted mother and two unsavory men with criminal intent. It’s up to the elderly women, along with the help of their Christian friend Belvy, to save Calven.
The entire novel is addictive and surprising, filled with intriguing bits of information about Western NC. Lane is an adept storyteller, pulling out all the right details to make mountain life in the 1930s a vivid picture. Indeed, the first half of the book is the most compelling even though the action (villains! chase scenes!) come in the later chapters. Young Least, with her simple ways, connection to the earth and its spirits and her magical worldview is a delightful and engaging character. While hers is a story of poverty, neglect and isolation, Lane does such an excellent job crafting the settings and characters (supernatural Mr. Aaron, a recurring co-star, is a scene stealer from the book’s front half) that the tale is rich from start to finish.
Lane’s next novel, Under the Skin is due out this coming Autumn.