Roan Mountain family take: a connection with ancestors
Twice left at the altar, Jane Arrowood returns to her family’s neglected mountain home to rehabilitate it; and ends up, with the aid of ghosts, also fixing a long-buried, grievous family injustice.
Pelc’s tale of Appalachian romance and survival contains few surprises, but encompasses, through smooth storytelling, a wonderful catalog of regional motifs.
The novel begins, I should note, not with Jane’s story, but with that of one of her ancestors (as we later discover). A 14-year-old-girl named Ollie, “pert near grown” and ready for marriage, is walking through a downpour to the house of an old woman she helps, when she hears a scream. Her two little sisters have followed her and drowned in the creek.
Love and mercy: Life is marked by marriages on the one hand; and tragedies on the other. The beauty of the environment, the will to survive, and the ties of family are accompanying themes.
Chapter 2 cuts to Jane. “’These mountains really are in my blood,’ she thinks, as she looked over the beautiful rolling hills, bathed in color. ‘Just like my Daddy always told me they were. I feel at peace here.’”
Hearing her daddy’s voice is a realistic connection with the dead; as is the lilac scent she smells, reminding her of her grandmother. We all experience these kinds of things. But then, Jane sees, in a mirror she’s cleaning, a woman in a high-necked dress who turns out to be Sarah Ellender, her great-great-grandmother, an herb-collecting midwife and persistent angel.
Other supernatural things happen. Jane doubts her sanity in a humorous, self-mocking way. But we readers come to accept the reality of Pelc’s novel, in which dead ancestors are given the ability to even play a record player.
In Chapter 7, the story switches back to another ancestor, Nancy, left home alone with a baby in 1862 after her husband had to hide out from conscription into the Confederate Army.
Nancy “knew that David ‘had no dog in this fight,’” Pelc writes. “The simple mountain folk that lived in the area owned no slaves, and most felt that the war was simply none of their affair. This war was a rich man’s war, and certainly they were not rich.”
A journal discovered in the old house helps Jane piece together the rest of Nancy and David’s fate, which turns out to be the crux of the book. We also get to move through the generations to reach Ollie, Sarah, and Jane, among others,
Various charming and memorable vignettes emerge from the rush of time. Ollie’s uncle by marriage, Welzia, a circuit preacher, is welcomed into the modest home of a couple with “a whole passel of stair-step children.”
“This man is blessed, indeed,” Welzia thinks, “blessed ever so much more than with just worldly riches.” Welzia is lifted by “the laughter and smiles exchanged in the tiny, loving home.”
Piety, simplicity, survival, good mates, and homeplace: these are the things Pelc affirms, having also come back to the mountains from Gastonia to recover her family’s history.
Follow Rob Neufeld on @WNC_chronicler.
Love and Mercy up on Roan Mountain by Martha Arrowood Pelc (CreateSpace trade paper, Sept. 24, 2015, 190 pages).