My kitty Arlo and I recently read another Appalachian novel. Since Arlo is a rural kitten who spent about six weeks hiding in various places on my property until he surrendered, it is appropriate that he help me review this book.
Hiding Ezra, by Rita Sims Quillen has what I consider a doggone good opening sentence: "Ezra Teague lay flat on his back underneath Wayland Baptist Church, the smell of loam and mint perfuming the air, while the damp earth soaked its coolness onto his back."
That sentence tells the reader who (Ezra Teague) and where he is (underneath Wayland Baptist Church), plus it hints at the problem: why is Ezra hiding? Since the name Ezra is no longer a popular man's name, the reader knows that the story must take place a while back.
And it does—during World War I and thereafter. Ezra, a farmer in deep southwest Virginia has been drafted but goes AWOL from Fort Lee to return home and take care of his family. His mother is dying, his father is in poor health, and his sister Eva needs someone to look after her. To him, family is more important than country. So he hides out in the surrounding mountains and ventures home from time to time to provide his sister with what she needs. Though there's a price on his head, many neighbors protect him and leave him food. One is Alma, a strong-willed woman who is in love with Ezra and rejects any suitors her father brings home.
The story is told in a combination of the third person and first person (via the journal Ezra keeps during his two years of hiding). This alternating viewpoint works nicely in letting the reader get inside Ezra's thoughts. Sims's knack for description is commendable.
Sims also has a skillful touch with dialect, not bogging down in phonetic spellings but letting the word choice and rhythm of the sentences suggest the Appalachian speech patterns. The dialogue in Hiding Ezra rings true. That—along with the strong sense of place and interesting characters—makes for a good Appalachian read.
I especially like the cover, done by Appalachian artist Willard Gayheart, whose work I admire. A Gayheart print that I've owned for a couple of decades hangs over my fireplace.
The novel, despite its wonderfully lyrical prose and compelling story, is not without a few flaws. There are a couple of typos that an astute editor should have caught, but they don't distract from the flow. But something else an editor should have caught does puzzle me. On p. 180, Alma's father watches Alma and Ezra, who'd taken an early morning ride, "leading Diamond and old Glory, walking along side by side." As he continues to watch, a few sentences later "[t]hey climbed through the fence, and walked side by side." What became of the horses? Who unsaddled them and removed their bridles? (Note: As a horse-person, I'm picky about details involving horses. Other readers probably wouldn't have noticed this.) Nevertheless, I really did enjoy the book.
I first met Rita Quillen a number of years ago at the John Fox Festival in Big Stone Gap. One of my short stories had won a prize in the Lonesome Pine Short Story Contest, and I was there to collect my winnings. Quillen was one of the two speakers at the conference, and I was intrigued by the poems and part of a story she read. I figured she'd go places. Look like she has.
I think Arlo agrees.
Labels: Appalachian Lit, book review