Over the Plain Houses, Julia Franks’ debut novel, is a beautifully written tragedy about a dying love, the struggle between faith and doubt, and encroaching modernity. I believe it can be classified as “Southern Gothic.” Set in rural North Carolina 1939, the story includes many characteristics linked to that genre: decay, violence, the force and romance of nature, a thin line drawn between villains and victims, and even a hint of the supernatural. It is truly a haunting novel.
This is the story of Irenie Lambey and her husband Brodis. Irenie is in her early 30s, Brodis a bit older. They, like the others in Eakin, NC, have a family farm and grow tobacco. Brodis is also a preacher and often travels to other towns to preach. When the story opens, it is a Sunday in springtime at Brodis’ church. An agent from the Department of Agriculture shows up to speak with Irenie about her son Matthew. Irenie is immediately taken in; the agent is female, working alone and driving a car. Irenie has never known an independent woman such as this before and begins thinking about the might-have-beens in her life. Agent Ginny Furman believes Matthew is a gifted student who should have the opportunity to attend a better school in the city on scholarship. Irenie is thrilled by this, but she knows that Brodis will have a very different way of viewing the entire situation. Brodis resents government authority, which comes in and tells farmers how to do their jobs and encourages people to change the way they live (electricity, modern appliances, farming for trade instead of for sustenance). He sees these agents as godless and the fact that a woman is an agent and travels alone seems unnatural to him. Brodis also balks at sending their son away to school when the local school worked well enough for everyone else.
The seeds of discord are sewn early in the story, but the strife includes even more than matters of education and women’s rights. By taking us into the thoughts of Irenie and Brodis, Franks shows the growing rift between husband and wife, a rift that could become unbridgeable. Irenie’s discontent predates the arrival of agent Furman; she has long felt herself closing in, becoming smaller somehow. She sees that she has nothing of her own. Though the land she and Brodis live on was her father’s, and it is land she knows like the back of her hand, it now belongs to Brodis, not her, and Brodis does not treat her as an equal partner. In an attempt to regain some ownership over her own life, Irenie takes to waking at night and wandering up into the mountains where she has a special place that becomes a sort of repository of memories. Irenie is much more in tune with nature and with Matthew than Brodis is, and Brodis senses this. Going into his thoughts, we learn about his life before Irenie, his conversion, and his decision to preach. The event that precipitates that decision also seems to have been the catalyst for Irenie to re-examine her life and discover her sadness and dissatisfaction. At any rate, Brodis does feel uneasy about his own behavior, particularly his reaction toward predatory animals (hawks and foxes) on his property. He sees Irenie withdrawing from him and knows that she is going out at night. The scene in which he confronts Irenie about it is chilling and will have devastating repercussions for Irenie.
Brodis, as developed by Franks, is a fascinating character, both villainous and pathetic. On one hand, Brodis sees himself as the protector of his family with God-given authority. Moreover, as a preacher with a certain reputation in the community, it is important that he set the right example for his flock. On the other hand, he feels pangs of guilt over some of his actions and tries to make it up through little gifts. He does love his wife and his son, but his is the mind of a zealot. He struggles with his desire to do God’s will while at the same time trying to “save” his wife from what he believes to be the clutches of Satan. There are both love and madness in the mind of this zealot, and his ultimate resolution and ensuing actions reflect this.
Julia Franks is an amazingly gifted writer. In addition to depicting these complex characters and their crumbling marriage in minute detail, she deftly places their story in a larger context that runs parallel in development. In 1939, the world faced depression and the threat of war. The economy was shifting toward massive production for larger markets. One result was the destruction of the landscape (eg., deforestation) and another was the move from rural life toward factories and city life. A question to consider in reading this novel is how one should deal with such change: fight it, try to turn back the clock, roll with it, save what you can?
Although set in the past, Over the Plain Houses feels very contemporary. One can imagine reading about people like the Lambeys in the news, and I would dare say, we already have. This is a top notch novel, and I would like to add a shout-out to the publisher, Hub City Press, which is “…a non-profit independent press in Spartanburg, SC that publishes well-crafted, high-quality works by new and established authors, with an emphasis on the Southern experience.” They are interested in works with “a strong sense of place.” Bravo! I hope Hub City Press experiences all kind of success with its mission.