The latter-day American lore surrounding mountain life is second, perhaps, only to that surrounding Voodoo’s customs and ceremonies. Two stand-out characteristics of the idyllic picture we conjure when thinking of homesteads founded upon the South’s great peaks are (1) magic, and (2) the gray-haired, maternal, storytelling women who convey family magic from one generation to the next.
Amy Greene’s novel, Bloodroot (Vintage Contemporaries, 2011), accounts for both favored elements of mountain lore in a transgenerational record of Byrdie Lamb’s family. We’re introduced to Byrdie’s willful daughter, Clio; Clio’s more level-headed if still willful daughter, Myra; and Myra’s twins, Laura and Johnny—who are by and large left unassisted to solve the mystery of their parents’ tumultuous relationship. We meet the Granny Women, with their mountain-picked cures and comforts, whose blood still circulates in the veins of Myra and her children.
One discovery easily gleaned from this family’s numerous afflictions is that magic—the sort ascribed to sorcerers, Hoodoo sachets, and even certain herbs—cannot take credit for the family’s survival. The benevolent attribute passed down from the Granny Women to Myra’s children has nothing to do with destiny or a blessing respondent to spells; it is simply the want and the will to press onward.
Amy Greene was kind enough to answer a few questions for Her Circle Ezine about her bestselling novel, Bloodroot.
Hannah Eason: Would you say that a belief (or at least a speculation) that curses and gifts can inhabit a bloodline affects the bond family members in Bloodroot experience with one another?
Amy Greene: The perception of a family curse does have a part in driving the characters in Bloodroot apart. Johnny, one of the children of the troubled mother in the novel, Myra Odom, struggles throughout the book with the notion of being born inherently bad. He purposefully distances himself from his sister and his mother, ashamed of the seeming legacies of poverty and madness passed down to him in his tainted blood. His twin sister Laura struggles as well with the fear that she’s cursed to repeat her mother’s mistakes. She too spends much of the story apart from her family. Over the course of the book, each character comes to a crossroads and decides one way or another whether he or she believes in curses, or if it’s possible to forge his or her own destiny regardless of blood ties or circumstances. On the other hand, the idea of a positive legacy, a sort of mystical “touch” that’s passed down in the blood, acts to bond the family throughout the generations.
H.E.: While many people say that a certain landscape is part of their blood, this claim seems especially pertinent to your characters, for whom bloodroot exists almost as a friend or neighbor. What is the significance of this root for the characters who know it so well?
A.G.: I discovered the bloodroot flower when I was thinking about what to call the mountain my characters lived on. I considered what would grow indigenous there, and bloodroot occurred to me, a flower that grows here in the hills of East Tennessee. The delicate white flower and its red root sap, which has the power to both poison and heal, brought the story’s theme together in my mind. It signifies to me the complex nature not only of the human heart but of life in Appalachia, and also the blood ties that bind the characters. Johnny and Laura experience a rare moment of connection with their mother when she takes them to gather bloodroot. Doug Cotter and his brother Mark, childhood friends and neighbors of Myra’s who also live on Bloodroot Mountain, gather the root to sell to make ends meet, so it has a more literal sustaining and life-giving significance to them.
H.E.: After the book’s central character, Myra, begins to see that her marriage to John Odom is not what she’d hoped for, she refuses to go back to the mountain with her grandmother because she “made her bed.” Is this sort of personal responsibility one of the family’s gifts? From what source, if any, does Myra draw her strength through her rather violent trials?
A.G.: I think the historically hardscrabble way of life here in Appalachia has made strength necessary to survive, particularly for women, and sometimes an attitude of making do with whatever hand you’re dealt comes with that. While bearing up in a bad situation is a strength, unfortunately sometimes women with that mindset might settle for abusive relationships, believing that once she’s made the wrong choice she has to live with it.
H.E.: Myra and her daughter, Laura, both display a ferocious, nearly animalistic, protectiveness when they face the threat of losing their children. Would you say that the two women’s very different experiences with feeling abandoned (however unintentional the abandonment) play into their responses? For that matter, does either view being separated from her mother as abandonment?
A.G.: I married my husband at eighteen, and had my first child at twenty. It was difficult for me to imagine myself in the shoes of Myra and Laura, who both lose their children to foster care. I drew on my own experiences as a young and scared mother to write those scenes, putting the fierce love and protectiveness that I feel for my own son and daughter into my characters. In the same situation, I would fight just as hard to hold on to my children. I do think that Myra felt abandoned by her mother, Clio, who moved off to town and often left her with her grandmother on Bloodroot Mountain. One of the issues that she struggles with over the course of the book is trying to understand her mother’s actions, trying to connect with and know her in some way. Laura’s ferocious response when faced with losing her son, in the same way that she was taken from her mother and put into foster care, comes from the fear of her son suffering as she did after being separated from her own mother.
H.E.: One qualities the characters of Bloodroot seem to have in their corner is the refusal to stay hidden from one another. In what ways might this quality be redemptive for them?
A.G.: In the end the characters in Bloodroot do find the strength to confront the familial and other issues from the past that haunt them. Their willingness to come back together to put to rest their demons is definitely a process that turns out to be redemptive for them.
H.E.: Is Bloodroot a story that grew out of its landscape for you?
A.G.: So much of my inspiration comes from the beauty of the Appalachian landscape, having spent most of my childhood playing outdoors and being close to nature. Byrdie talks in Bloodroot about loving the land as much as she does any of her kin, and that’s how I feel about the landscape of East Tennessee. Place has an integral role in the telling of Bloodroot, because the landscape does so much to shape the lives and identities of the characters.
H.E.: An inability to sit still is a characteristic Myra and Clio, her mother, share. On the spectrum of curses and gifts, where would you say this restlessness falls?
A.G.: I think that kind of restlessness can be seen as both a blessing and a curse. In the form of curiosity and a desire to see the wider world, Myra’s itchy feet could be viewed as a positive thing. But for her, restlessness manifested as a kind of miserable dissatisfaction that ended up getting her into trouble, leading her away from home, unable to find her way back.
H.E.: Myra’s husband, John Odom, proves to have an exceptionally cruel streak beneath his charming veneer. What strengths, or gifts, does he lack by contrast to members of Byrdie’s bloodline?
A.G.: Whereas Byrdie comes from a loving and close-knit family, John’s upbringing is much different. He’s raised in an abusive household by cruel parents. Lacking the foundation of a strong and supportive family background plays a big part in the kind of man he becomes.
H.E.: Long before Myra’s birth, a curse born of jealousy was laid on Byrdie’s family, and it was promised that the curse would not be lifted until a baby with “haint blue eyes” was born. Myra is the first baby born after the curse whose eyes could be described in this way. The obvious conclusion, based on the troubles that befall Myra and her children, would be that the curse was certainly not lifted. Are there ways in which you would say it was?
A.G.: When Myra returns to Bloodroot Mountain, she apologizes to her grandmother for not breaking the curse, but Byrdie assures her that good things will come from her. It’s through her children, who go on to make better lives for themselves, that Myra breaks the curse.
H.E.: Have you personally met, or heard passed-down stories about, women similar to the “Granny Women” of Bloodroot?
A.G.: There are women in my family said to have the touch. My great-aunt took off warts by rubbing stones in a circle around each one and then throwing the stones away. My aunt could supposedly heal by laying her hands on the sick, and my grandmother is rumored to have raised the kitchen table off the floor just by looking at it. People in Appalachia still practice the kind of folk magic I wrote about in Bloodroot—especially the older generation—because, for whatever reason, psychological or mystical, they see tangible results.
H.E.: Is there anything else you would like to tell Her Circle readers about Bloodroot?
A.G.: If there’s one message I hoped to convey through Bloodroot, it’s that, as hard as it might seem to overcome inherited traits and circumstances, it’s possible to forge your own identity, to move forward with what’s good in your life and leave the rest behind.
Bloodroot, published by Vintage Contemporaries, is available now.
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Bloodroot is Amy Greene‘s debut novel. More information about Greene, news concerning publication, and other updates may be found at her website http://amygreeneauthor.com/.
In addition to conducting author interviews for Her Circle Ezine, Hannah Eason writes book reviews for Kirkus Indie. Links to her fictional work and other writing can be found on her website: www.hannahwriter.com.