The novels, River of Earth by James Still, and Saving Grace by Lee Smith are significant works of Appalachian literature, tracing its social environment and grasping the essentiality of values within the community. Appalachian literature is known for their treatment of nature as a close element to humanity, with the latter’s survival depending on the former’s well-being. This feature reflects in both the works of Still and Smith. However, they embed it under the discourses of nature and exploration. Also, these characters are driven and shaped by the forces of change. Although River of Earth and Saving Grace respectively deal with different narratives, they are interlinked by the presence of the theme of a search for identity in a world torn by modernization, religion and ethical values.
Still’s affinity for Appalachian literature is evident from his vivid delineation of the mountains of Appalachia and the tales of the people lived there. Poverty and coal mining formed the centrality of River of Earth. Nevertheless, his literary style remains unique in its use of child narrator and the “severely economical use of language” (Turner 13). However, Still manages to vividly draw the harsher lines of a change happening to a community that wholly destabilizes their life. The characters are hurled continuously around in circumstances that remain entirely out of their range of control, despite attempts to cling to a “sense of permanence in a world of subtle but constant flux” (Turner 13). According to Turner, Still derived the title of the book from Psalms 114, which deals with the concept of a River of Earth relayed through Brother Mobberley’s sermon. He claims, “[W]here air we going on this mighty river of earth, a-borning, begetting, and a-dying-the living and the dead riding the waters? Where air it sweeping us?” (76). Here, Mobberley’s disjointed homily seems to draw a stark difference between the dichotomies of birth and death, where the human individuals struggle to survive against humanmade forces as well as that of nature. According to Turner, “Permanence in River of Earth does not lie in the physical haven offered by the Appalachian mountains…it lies in human endurance…and the annual passage and renewal of the seasons” (14). In trying to register their signature of existence in a single location, the Baldridge family is on a constant cycle of migration that makes them lose the roots to their home. Alpha, the prominent female figure of the family, wants to settle down whereas Brack, the self-proclaimed “breadwinner,” intends to work as a coal-miner by leaving farming. This conflict of desires again reflects a dichotomy between the husband and the wife, and embodies the constant motion in the novel, signifying a river.
However, Alpha is a strong character as made evident by the part where she decides to set fire to the house to kick out sponging relatives. This time she decides to go against the interests of her husband. Her desire to settle down and lead a tranquil life was so strong that she is ready to adopt extreme actions for the sake of fulfilling it. The fire itself symbolizes her hidden urge to oppose her husband’s decisions, which could potentially lead the family to disruption. Moreover, it represents radical transformation and unpredictability that counters her desire for permanence. She is afraid of change because she perceives the future in a negative light. She says, “Moving is an abomination. Thar’s a sight of things I hate to leave here. I hate to leave my egg tree I set so much time and patience on. Reckon it’s my egg tree holding me” (Still 182). Her husband merely replies that he never heard of such foolishness. She is attached to the things around her, trying to cling onto her past and present while warding off the future. By settling down, she assumes that she freezes the time. However, as the title suggests, nothing remains permanent as the earth itself keeps always moving, creating changes in its wake.
Smith’s “Saving Grace” is another tale centred on Appalachia but this time, the main character, Grace, is an antithesis to Still’s Alpha. She tries to reject and fight against the oppressive forces of conformity and social norms that threaten to tamp down her desires. Ostwalt states that “while other types of writings are more helpful for understanding the intricacies and varieties within the Appalachian region, Smith’s fiction gives insight into the religious condition in general…” (99). Amidst the conflicts between the different religious factions, there lies the story of a girl who struggled with her sexuality and freedom. Grace is borne down by the stringent religious ideologies overstated by her father while she tries to listen to her inner desires. Like Alpha, she struggles to stay within the interests of another man, who seems to govern her life wholly. Her father, Virgil, appears to confound the rights and wrongs presented by the doctrines and takes them in the face value while ignoring their underlying messages. Smith adeptly interrelates religion with the sexual desires of her characters, showing how both have a strange immiscible relationship.
Most people transform and manipulate religion according to their own will. Rather than presenting the practice as wrongful, Smith seems to show the normality of its existence. Ostwalt states that the “fear for the eternal state of the soul is so strong in the presentation of these religious faiths that it eclipses the role religion plays in determining behavior” (102). It is made evident in Grace’s husband, Travis Word, who went down on his knees after he made love to his wife. Grace finds that “Travis got real scared every time he had any emotion that was not directly linked to God” (L. Smith 156). Religion suppresses the individuality of people, making them repress their true desires and sexuality. Travis is obsessed with the attainment of heaven that he is ready to control his wants and needs. Here again, another parallelism can be drawn between River of Earth and Saving Grace. Both tales discusses the restlessness inherent in human life. However, they do not point to a definite reason or goal toward which their characters aim to reach. It is the journey itself that makes the narratives riveting as it emphasizes the meaninglessness of human beliefs. While on one side, Alpha tries to convince her husband to stay, settle down and live a peaceful life, Brack wants to follow the trail to the coal mines, which may attribute him with financial security. On the other hand, Grace is torn between the religious ideologies that shaped her life from the very beginning that as she grows, she seems to perceive them as hollow and wanting. Each of the characters wants to attain a particular sphere of life, which has been kept away from them. They assume that reaching that sphere would attribute them with the fulfilment of their ultimate needs.
The Appalachian mountains are a treasure trove of myths and ancient cultural values. According to Steve Fisher, “Appalachia existed primarily in the minds of intellectuals, missionaries, and politicians, and that Appalachia had been used more to oppress than to liberate” (qtd. in B.E. Smith et al. 58). On the other hand, being Appalachian truly means “something different depending on who you are and where you are in the region” (B.E. Smith et al. 59). Thus, these Appalachian authors try to reinvent the identities of these diverse characters through their struggles with their self-identity and regionalism. Alpha perceives the need to stop the life that seems to overwhelm her with its sorrows, sufferings, hurt and mishaps.
Nevertheless, her husband refuses to do so. Grace wants to connect to her sexuality by transcending the barriers presented by religion. Like most Appalachian works, both novels reflect the centrality of faith in the region’s culture. Smith delineates a connection between the natural elements to the spiritual and then to the religious to the physical. Conventionally, Appalachian people are portrayed as never having moved away from the classic period, consequently becoming the “others” in front of the rest of the world. According to Connolly, “Grace’s inability to function in the contemporary world, and her subsequent irrational decision to return is a direct result of her upbringing within a Pentecostal community” (83). Virgil Shepherd becomes the face of Pentecostalism for Grace, making her imagine him whenever she thought of God. As mentioned before, Virgil believes that he can do anything he likes with God’s ideologies, thereby resorting to them to justify his behaviour and decisions. The men that she meets with later excites her, but none of them seems to complete her. She finds Virgil’s image in them, and thus, she is not able to live a modern life, torn between her religious values and her innermost desires. People have divided opinions when it comes to the book’s ending. Some people claim that Grace had achieved her spirituality while others speculate that she is trying to commit suicide like her mother. However, it was the religion itself that destabilizes just like the ethical values that destabilize Alpha and her family.
At the final phase of the novel, the readers perceive Grace as a happy individual. However, it stands as an “uncomfortable contrast to the novel’s position on her religious conversion” (Connolly 95). She again would have to go back into the world that tormented and remain as the woman who stuck herself to the gender norms. Connolly states that the novel does not present “Grace’s return to Pentecostalism as a victory but as a tragedy; at the end of the novel, she is lost in the wild Pentecostalism of Appalachia” (95). Similarly, in Still’s novel, the characters do not win but instead submits themselves to the changes of life. After all, human beings assume that they have gained the upper hand in the aspects of life they wanted to defeat. However, it would ultimately reveal that all they had managed to achieve was a slew of life lessons and experiences. The characters of both the novels admit themselves to their fates or rather the inevitable processes of nature. Events such as modernization and capitalization are shown in these works as parts of the changes that affect human civilization. These characters become a minor part of the changes, but the experiences they garner are precious as they struggle to withstand the change.
Both novels reflect particular facets of the Appalachian lifestyles and worldviews but the common ground between reveals in the cultural emphasis on stress, repression and search for identity. They struggle to assert themselves in a harsh new world. They are confused between the forces of change, religion and sexuality. However, they still manage to fight, and even if they do not win, they take away their experiences and lessons to reflect on. Still’s River of Earth and Lee’s Saving Grace are works that reflect the pure form of human suffering, raising many questions embedded within their experiences. The novels do not leave the readers on a note on a pang of sadness but attribute them with these experiences that enrich and gives them a new perspective to reflect on.