Senehi’s novel is full of local apple knowledge
by Rob Neufeld
Following Belle’s business passion—an orchard revival movement—alongside her romantic problems and suspenseful probings provides a long overdue treatment of Western North Carolina apple history in fiction.
To give Belle legitimacy, Senehi connects her, through her mother’s father, “Pap” McGrady, to the region’s Johnny Appleseed, William Mills, a Tory commander at the Battle of Kings Mountain.
There are a lot of legends associated with Mills in local history. The one of him being the father of the Henderson County apple industry is one of the false ones, according to Jennie Jones Giles on her “Henderson Heritage” website. Mills, a land speculator, had been one of many farmers in the Mills River area who’d grown apple trees. And then, the industry didn’t take off until the 1920s here.
But that matters little to Senehi’s novel, which places Belle (born, Annabelle) within a proven romance tradition.
She’s a member of a kind of aristocracy—one that literally gets its hands dirty—as well as a modern version of the headstrong Regency heroine.
One of my favorite business-plus-romance moments in the novel is when, in April, Belle checks on one of her orchards and drinks in the pollination scene. “The energy of the orgy going on all about her took hold of Belle,” Senehi writes, “and awakened the yearning she was feeling more and more these days, a yearning for Matt.”
You can see how the yearning gets into the language. Senehi doesn’t write, “awakened the yearning she was feeling for Matt.” She keens, “more and more these days”; and she repeats the word, “yearning” for effect.
On the other hand, Belle can think, and Senehi write, like this: “She sliced the apple in two at the equator, exposing a swirl of dark seeds, then pulled a spray bottle with an iodine mixture from the basket.”
Senehi’s research into her subject includes working six months in an experimental orchard. “Carolina Belle” (the name of the variety Belle is trying to engender) is Senehi’s eighth novel, and continues to show that research is one of Senehi’s hallmarks.
When it comes to plotting, Senehi is expert. She gets enough going to make sure the suspense is complex, and the dramatic resolutions multiple.
Matt—a guy with tight abs for whom Belle yearns—had broken disastrously with Belle in their college-age days, and their misdeeds put a double-edged wedge between them. But they are also business partners, for Matt works for Pap, who treats Matt like a son.
Into this charged scenario walks Ken Larsen, a gorgeous man with blue eyes and a stubble beard who’s buying up orchards to start a cidery.
Pap oversees the drama, as does his elderly neighbor, Jake, a gentle-hearted preserver of heirloom apples. Jake’s son had been involved in a car accident that had killed Pap’s daughter.
Yet despite Pap’s coldness toward him, Jake finds solace in Belle, whose mentor he becomes. Into Jake’s character, Senehi pours her spiritual ideal. Belle calls Jake an “everyman in (a) non-descript outfit.”
“Most of us are born, live and die as ordinary people, with little to distinguish us from the millions around us,” Jake says. “Only occasionally does a human rise above the crowd by mental genius or exceptional ability…This goes for apples, too.”
Jake’s character works. So does that of his brother, the practiced lawyer. Belle’s character often works, and she provides funny and touching moments. I have to say, though, Matt’s character is in ways ridiculous. He reminds me at times of Calvin reacting to Susie Derkins in “Calvin and Hobbes.”
People can want two different things in a novel: a vehicle for entertainment and information; or an experience that puts you in touch with existential depths.
What’s a good sign of existential depth? One of the key ones, I think, is a narrative that feels like dream reality, without nonsensical dream-world logic.
For instance, this is what a key moment feels like in “Carolina Belle”:
Belle, Pap, Matt, and Matt’s step-father, Raphael, are about to face their first hazard—a hailstorm just before picking time—and Belle goes into high gear, remarking on fate.
“Jagged marble-sized orbs bounced on the ground,” Senehi writes. “As the hail piled up, a sickening feeling overcame (Belle), like she was sinking in quicksand and about to smother. Then someone whispered in the marauder’s ear that the damage was finally done, and the pelting turned into a gentle rain and stopped.”
Senehi’s narration must race forward. The colorful prose is a concession to Belle’s thought process. If the novel were to be more dreamlike—that is, more mental—the narration would occur in the time of the remembering, and there would be a lot more going on in the expanded impression of the intense experience.
“Please God,” Belle prays, “don’t let anything happen to this crop. Pap’s got too much riding on it.”
Do you want to know the things that Pap associates with loss and spoilage? Senehi will connect you with one big tragedy. But Pap doesn’t unconsciously try to connect resonant experiences in his life in order to see a pattern; he’s not haunted; and nothing seriously odd and inexplicable happens.
Instead, Pap is a type, a stoic, hard-working, master orchardist who shows that he can loosen his guard a little in the end. These kinds of developments are always fulfilling when done well, as Senehi demonstrates.
Rob Neufeld writes the weekly book feature for the Sunday Citizen-Times. He is the author and editor of six books, and the publisher of the website, “The Read on WNC.” He can be reached at RNeufeld@charter.net and 505-1973. Follow him @WNC_chronicler.