NPR Review: 'Call Your Daughter Home,' By Deb SperaTelevision producer Deb Spera draws on her childhood in rural Branchville, S.C. in her first novel, painting a bleak, atmospheric portrait of three women's lives in the South during the 1920s.
Which one of us hasn't imagined putting down on paper a narrative of our ancestors? It's a go-to premise for almost all newbie novelists, who are naturally certain their own family histories will prove enthralling to others. Deb Spera, a successful television producer, has deep roots in the very real town of Branchville, S.C., and draws on those roots in her first work of fiction, Call Your Daughter Home. (As she informs us in her afterword, Spera spent portions of her girlhood in Branchville, using an outhouse and plucking chickens with her great grandmother, every-day experiences that worked to inspire her many years later.)
Call Your Daughter Home succeeds in painting an atmospheric portrait of the pre-Depression South, peopling the bleak, ravaged landscape with an almost dizzying array of characters. Branchville suffered a ruinous boll weevil blight that killed King Cotton and brought the whole region to its knees. By 1924, when Spera sets her story, it's a town of survivors, leftovers, and hangers on, most now trying to make a go of it with tobacco, one of the most unforgiving crops of all. Three strong women struggle to make lives in this exhausted wasteland: Retta, Gertrude, and Annie are separated by the harsh realities of race and class, but make human connections despite the odds.
Gertrude, descended from chicken-raising tenant farmers, opens the book, a battered wife with an eye "swoll shut," courtesy of husband Alvin. Early on in the story she disposes of the bastard, in the style of the Dixie Chicks' song "Earl," dumping the corpse in a swamp "ripe with things nobody wants to know." She is now free to pursue whatever impoverished form of freedom is offered by Branchville, a place where a nickel can represent a small fortune. She takes a job at The Sewing Circle, a factory that makes colorful feed bags with the sure knowledge that poor women in town will eventually repurpose the bags as dresses.
Annie owns The Sewing Circle and, with her husband Edwin, nearly everything else in Branchville. Their house, with its miraculous newly-installed telephone, is "pure white and grand as the entrance to heaven." A transplanted northerner, Annie customarily wears gloves and pearls, is registered to vote, and maintains an elegant demeanor in the middle of poverty-blasted surroundings; Mrs. Dalloway plopped down among the swamp gators.
Retta, the daughter of slaves, works for Annie and Edwin, wearing a crisp white maid's outfit in service to the very same plantation owners who once subjugated her family. Her bond with Odell, her husband, is the book's great love story. The pair subsist in a neighborhood of Branchville known as "Shake Rag," where they watched a daughter die young and have grieved together ever since. The name of the district comes from residents doing the wash, or "shaking rags," for the white folks of the town.
Trials and tribulations abound in Call Your Daughter Home. We witness the agony of breech birth, the grossness of a child's treatment for worms, a terrible storm with winds that bends the palmetto trees to the ground. Annie discovers a horrific secret harbored by Edwin, and comes to terms with it in her own horrific, self-flagellating way. It's extreme, but much of the action is extreme from time to time. This is the Deep South, after all, Flannery O'Connor country, so a certain touch of the gothic can be expected.
And speaking of the South — when author Delia Owens employed vernacular speech in her recent best-seller, Where the Crawdads Sing, she showed how effective the device can be. But less believable regional dialect can summon up the distinction between the bright flash of literary lightning and the dimmer flicker of the lightning bug (as they sometimes call it down South). This represents an occasional problem in Spera's book. Says Odell in an argument with his wife: "Yes, you is doubting me. You act like I'm a crippled up old man who can't wipe his own rear end. I can do, Retta. It's you that got me better, I know that, but I got real work left in me and I aim to do it."
Is a voice authentic if it is historically accurate, even though the word choices might beggar belief? Some of Spera's dialogue just doesn't read quite right — even so, the drama, sense of place, and deeply human interactions she presents in this well-grounded historical novel allow the reader to push past iffy issues of language to enjoy the sometimes pulpy plotlines. Write what you know, you know?
Jean Zimmerman's latest novel, Savage Girl, is out now in paperback. She posts daily atBlog Cabin.