June 25, 2016

Godpretty in the Tobacco Field - Kim Michele Richardson

Kensington Books, April 26, 2016.

Four Stars

It is 1969 in Nameless, Kentucky. Poverty and hardship are standard, as poor families struggle to survive in the Appalachians. RubyLyn was orphaned at the age of five – now, at sixteen, she lives with her extremely religious and physically abusive uncle Gunnar. While Gunnar punishes her severely for actions that he deems are not “Godpretty,” RubyLyn dreams of a bigger, better life.

RubyLyn has one skill that might take her beyond the borders of Nameless – she is a talented artist, creating prophetic drawings on her paper fortune tellers, which she then sells or gives away to others. She draws what she feels, and more often than not, her images come true. The locals call it “granny magic” and they expect her to remain in the small community to help people with births, deaths and other matters. She is proved correct at least once when she predicts the results of her young neighbour’s pregnancy. However, this somewhat magical plot thread is abandoned towards the end of the novel, which was disappointing.

Another theme, however, was handled very well – the relationship between Gunnar and RubyLynn and their black tenants. Rainey and his mother live on Gunnar’s property, and he and RubyLynn grew up together – now that they are getting older, their feelings have gone beyond friendship. However, to survive in such a racially prejudiced community as Nameless, their new love must be hidden in the shadows of the tobacco field. The two work the field together, as they come of age and struggle between childhood and adult emotions.

Rainey soon realizes that the will have no future in Nameless, so he signs himself up to serve in the Vietnam War. Before this point in the novel, the community was isolated from the outside world – suddenly, modern events intrude on RubyLynn’s life. The war, the moon landing, Kennedy’s assassination – all of these are mentioned, yet they are not important to the people of Nameless, for whom surviving day to day life is all that matters.

The lives of Appalachian women especially were difficult in the 1960s, and this novel shows repeatedly that they had very limited options. They faced the oppression of physical and mental abuse, as well as having their babies taken away and sold in exchange for food and land. However, even against this dark backdrop, there are moments of tenderness and compassion. RubyLynn cares for the daughter of her neighbour, giving up her own food to buy the girl a pretty hair ribbon – the one nice thing in her hard little life.  Meanwhile, RubyLynn herself is nurtured by Rose, an independent woman in the community, who teaches RubyLynn that she too can become much more than a beaten down farm wife.

Gunnar’s cruelty towards RubyLynn stems from his religious beliefs – he wants to instill strong morals in his niece. Later we learn that this is mostly because he wants her to avoid his own mistakes, but he is too harsh and as a result, she rebels. RubyLynn’s strength of conviction over the course of one summer, as covered in this novel, is what truly makes this story great. The writing is smooth and seamless, filled with the dust and dirt of an Appalachian summer. This was a difficult novel, told in a beautiful way.

I received this novel from Kensington Books and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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