Horror and home call in Fairview novel
by Rob Neufeld
Karen’s brother, Travis, has just defrauded their grandmother of the family farm. And Karen’s husband, Joel, has just died of cancer.
After 15 years, she realizes that she may not be cut out to be Curator of Special Exhibitions in the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Folk Art Center director job in Asheville is open, and she takes a big cut in salary to make the move.
With her is her ten-year-old daughter, Hali, who’d been mentored by her free-thinking father. He’d asked her to make sure her mom was okay after he passed. Plus, there’s a cat, named Bonnie.
Home to horror
Back home, Karen quickly meets up with her younger sister, Amy, a kennel operator; and with Travis, a panic-inducing wheeler-dealer with a hidden psychosis.
We learn about the psychosis in the first chapter, dated February 1985, a flashback to Karen’s childhood involving a floosy mother and extreme poverty.
The kids had had to collect kindling for winter heat. One day, Karen had roused Amy, prying Missy, Amy’s puppy, from her arms. She “watched the poor little critter limp across the room on three legs. Of all the hateful things Travis ever did, cutting off Missy’s leg was the meanest.”
In a fiction-writing tradition that includes William Faulkner’s character, Cash, in “The Sound and the Fury,” the creepy family member has proven to be a great plot device. Senehi uses it in a thriller formula, and does a great job ramping up suspense. The Travis story builds in creepiness and Senehi gets a lot out of it.
What complicity did Karen share in protecting and enabling Travis as a child; and then skipping town to leave Amy with him? And why did Amy, Karen asks herself about recent events, “allow Travis to stay alone in the house with Granny”? What had gone on in the house when Travis had gotten Granny to sign over all her money and property to him? Can Granny, now in a nursing home suffering from dementia, help?
Other suspense elements pile on, including the trials of a beleaguered land conservation agency; and the romantic interests of its legal counsel, Tom Gibbons. Senehi has no problem interweaving these story lines smartly.
Filling a novel with an ambitious amount of melodramatic incident is one way of writing a good novel. It’s a ship-in-a-storm type of vehicle. Doing so, however, misses out on an aspect of realism—the degree to which lives are dominated by humdrum events and interpretations of their symbolism.
For example, the part of Karen’s mind rooted to her profession—she’d been a workaholic in the top of her field for her adult life—gets short shrift. And what about Bonnie, the cat? There are pets all over this story. Bonnie is a huge symbol as well as a companion. In another novel, Hali, much less sure of herself, would be paying attention to her cat.
Senehi offsets suspense with local preservation and history details, and delivers handsomely.
“You remember the deal Jack Reece made for the Grassy Patch Mountain tract over in Lake Lure?” Tom Gibbons asks his director, Kevin. Reece’s conservation agency had backed out of the sale and passed it to Kevin’s and Tom’s.
It’s not hard to detect its real-life parallel in Weedy Patch Mountain.
History comes up again when Karen’s cousin, Bruce, responds to Hali’s interest in medicine. “Back in the 1800s,” he says, “there used to be a woman who owned the Sherrill’s Inn property who doctored folks. Her name was Ann Ashworth and they called her a witch” because of her use of herbs and formulas.
Senehi has dedicated her book, “For Bruce Whitaker who has kept the history of Fairview.”
There are many other local references in the novel. Senehi provides an index to “places mentioned in this book” in an appendix.
The geography seeps into personal lives, as when Tom takes further interest in Karen when he learns that she’d told Hali about the rare species of salamander that resides on Karen’s family’s land.
As in a “Mission: Impossible” movie, Senehi pulls some punches in “Render unto the Valley” in order to guide her plot toward a prescribed end; but even late in the novel, there are some intriguing surprises.
Ignore the archaic title and glib first paragraph—the only place where you’ll find literary metaphors—and enjoy the ride. Karen and her sister provide headstrong leadership; and Tom and Bruce, great commentary.
Render unto the Valley by Rose Senehi (K.I.M. Publishing trade paper, Jan. 2012, 292 pages, $15.95).
MEET THE AUTHOR
Rose Senehi launches her novel, “Render unto the Valley,” 12 noon, Thurs., Jan. 19, at Lake Lure Inn, with lunch ($25 per person to benefit the Mountains Branch Library, call
She also presents her book at: