Book Review: The Woods at Barlow Bend

Superlative Storytelling: a novel with staying power

by Kathleen M. Rodgers (Air Force)

A week after finishing Jodie Cain Smith’s novel, The Woods at Barlow Bend, I can’t stop thinking about her characters and the mystery that surrounds the death of the beautiful and lively Addie Andrews, supposedly from a freak hunting accident.

Book-Cover-200x300

As I sit at the breakfast table drinking my coffee, my mind travels back to rural Alabama on the morning of January 31,1934. The dashing Hubbard Andrews carries his young wife’s body two miles through the woods at Barlow Bend. As he trudges along, trying to decide what to do next, he contemplates how he will tell his four children about their mother’s death. Even as he places Addie’s lifeless body on the backseat of her beloved 1930 Model T Ford ragtop, I’m already one step ahead of him, dreading that moment when his thirteen-year-old daughter Hattie, the oldest of the four kids, realizes the feisty and loving woman she looks up to, the woman who “shined in the center of our lives like the sun” is never coming home.

With the exception of the opening passages, written in third person and seen through Hubbard’s viewpoint, the rest of the story is narrated by young Hattie Andrews, a reliable protagonist I fell in love with the moment her voice took over the tale. Unlike her daddy, a weak and shiftless man headed on a downward spiral, Hattie has gumption, a term we don’t hear much these days. And because of that gumption, I rooted for her as she kept the family together, even after her daddy was accused of murder. Even though Addie is dead before the tale begins, she comes alive in the heart and mind of the reader as we see her through Hattie’s eyes.

In one of my favorite passages, which I highlighted to read over and over again, Hattie reflects on her momma:

“Sometimes, she needed to remind herself that adventures could be found right around any corner. ‘You just have to make the turn,’ she would say to me as we rode with the ragtop down…”

When you open up this novel, you will forget it’s 2015 and that you have a life outside of the story. You will forget that you’re reading from an electronic device or an old-fashioned paperback. Whether you’re in a skyscraper, a mountain cabin, or on a crowded bus or airliner, your mind will drift back in time to a place you’ve probably never been. But in a matter of seconds, after reading the author’s opening lines, the Alabama setting will be so familiar, you’ll wonder why you ever left.

How can that be, you say?

Because Jodie Cain Smith is such a skilled storyteller, her teenage narrator, Hattie, will wrap around your heart and settle in to stay.

Smith, Jodie Cain. The Woods at Barlow Bend. Deer Hawk Publications, 2015.

Buy The Woods at Barlow Bend

Read Jodie Cain Smith’s web site
————–
About the author:
Jodie Cain SmithJodie Cain Smith, an Army spouse and author, spent her childhood exploring the shores of Mobile Bay with her three siblings. As a teen in Mobile, AL, Jodie’s grandmother told her the gripping story of an adolescence spent in 1930’s rural Alabama, the rumors surrounding her parents, and the murder trial that would alter her life. The tale took root in Jodie’s memory until at last it became The Woods at Barlow Bend, her debut novel to be released November 19, 2014 by Deer Hawk Publications.

While attending the University of South Alabama, where Jodie earned a BFA in Theatre Arts, she met her husband Jay. They began their life on the Army road in 2001 and have not stopped moving since. As an Army Wife, she has lived in six different states from the extreme heat of Texas to the blizzards of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where she earned a MAE in School Counseling at Northern Michigan University.

When she is not living in the fictional worlds she creates via her laptop, Jodie can be found onstage and in the studio working as an actress and teaching artist.

Jodie Cain Smith’s short stories, feature articles, and columns have appeared in The Petigru Review, Chicken Soup for the Military Spouse’s Soul, The Savannah Morning News, and the Fort Hood Sentinel.

To learn more about Jodie Cain Smith and her thoughts on ruling, renovating, and escaping her corner of the world visit her blog The Queendom or her website, jodiecainsmith.com.

———

About the reviewer:

kathleen rodgers(from Kathleen Rodgers’s web site:) Growing up in a family of six kids in Clovis, New Mexico, home of Cannon Air Force Base and the Santa Fe Railroad, I spent countless hours in a rocking chair, daydreaming about what it would be like to be someone else. Little did I know then that I was simply creating stories in my head. Then one day I learned that I could write them down.

Through my writing, I’ve been able to explore many subjects. My goal is always to get to the truth through the people and places I write about, real or imagined. Along the way, I’ve encountered many roadblocks and detours, but I’ve pressed ahead and kept my eyes on the goals I mapped out years ago.

I am the mother of two grown sons, Thomas (an award-winning artist) and J.P. (a 1st Lieutenant in the US Army). I live in Colleyville, TX, with my husband, Tom, a retired fighter pilot/ airline pilot, and our shelter dog, Denton, who came to us after we lost our Chocolate Lab, Bubba Dog a few weeks after I finished my second novel, Johnnie Come Lately.

Close and Distant Gods: Braden Hepner’s “Pale Harvest”

by Andria Williams (Navy)

In Braden Hepner’s debut novel Pale Harvest, set in the Utah high desert, a young farmer on a remote dairy farm finds his stagnant life suddenly enriched by the return of a girl he knew in high school. But her dark history stirs up passions and dissatisfactions more than just his own, and her presence sets in motion a chain of startling, irrevocable events.

Twenty-one-year-old Jack Selvedge does not know what he can count on. His parents were killed in a car accident when he was fourteen, leaving him an orphan on his grandparents’ failing dairy farm. His grandmother is in her last days. His grandfather, Blair, is the only one among them who just might persist forever, working Jack to the bone even as he withholds Jack’s one inheritance, the farm he’s worked on tirelessly these past few years.

Blair believes that Jack’s chance to inherit the farm was forfeited by his father, who left his faith and the farm years before. No matter how hard Jack works, milking at dawn and discing fields and clipping his grandpa’s horny old toenails, he can never make amends for his father’s actions. Jack’s true inheritance seems, at least as the novel opens, to be a life of stupefied toil for a hard old bastard who’s incapable of gratitude.

Jack’s peers aren’t faring much better. His closest friend, Heber Rafuse, is struggling to come to terms with his own father’s suicide just a couple of years before. Heber loves Jack like a brother and believes he deserves better than slaving on a failing farm for his grandfather, but his own life is slowly disintegrating into a fog of drink, woman-chasing, unraveling hygiene and weird theology.

Pale Harvest FNLv7.indd

There’s also Roydn Willums, an unfortunately-humpbacked and epileptic young farmhand from a family of ugly farmhands; Roydn’s lack of self-awareness, as well as his constant close proximity, drive poor Jack nuts.

And, finally — most importantly — there’s Rebekah Rainsford, a girl whom Jack knew obliquely in high school and who grew up on the edge of the Selvedge’s vast farmland. She went to Salt Lake City for college but now she’s back with her mother, and the rumor in town is that her virtue has been somehow compromised. Beautiful, dark-eyed, and sad, Rebekah’s return provides the jolt that shakes Jack out of his stupor. It soon becomes clear to Jack, however, that whatever initial damage was done to her came not in the bustling and mildly-suspect city of Salt Lake but happened years before, in this small and quiet town, at the hands of her father.

Jack falls hard for Rebekah and, complicating matters quite a bit, all of his friends do, too. There is not much female selection in this town of men, not many women willing to stick around for a life of labor and calving and canning and stink. Rebekah provides them all with a sudden influx of energy and hope; as her name suggests, she is rain come to an arid land. (Strong shades of Cormac McCarthy: In dreams his pale bride came to him out of a green and leafy canopy…) Rebekah’s mere existence blesses these restless young men even as she calls into stark relief all their wants and dissatisfactions.

At first, the young mens’ infatuation with her seems harmless (and maybe even a little comical as they trip over themselves to win her favor), but this is no American Graffiti. This is a world where every action has consequence, where every idea is tried against a theology that’s both unyielding and strikingly home-grown. Rebekah does not get to be the judge of her own virtue and her good intentions are not enough; even spending time with a bunch of young men she’s come to think of as friends is an action fraught with meaning and, it turns out, danger.

—-

I have read many books with similarities to Pale Harvest but I have never read a book like Pale Harvest, and in its own odd, harrowing way this novel was a pleasure. The characters were so vividly wrought that I could not wait to get back to them between readings, and would have loved to read the book in one sitting if not for the rich convolutions of its underlying philosophy, which I needed to absorb in small doses to make any sense of.

Braden_Hepnerauthor Braden Hepner

It’s this philosophical (and theological) concern which might be the only thing that’s kept Pale Harvest from getting quite the attention I would expect it to. Braden Hepner spent eight years on the novel and was paid an advance of five hundred dollars, and yet I could not find anything that would keep this book from getting some big, fat advance from a major publishing house, with that one exception: its very close engagement with its characters’ spiritual states.

There were times when I genuinely hoped that Jack would be able to understand Rebekah. I waited for his fascination with her to develop into some kind of real compassion, for his language to change from rhapsodies about rivers and plate tectonics to some true concern with her feelings and not just her feminine mystique or virtue, but he never quite gets there. After all, he’s been raised in a mindset where a woman is given one chance to keep or lose her purity, which she cannot reclaim (no matter how hard she may, like Rebekah, try). It’s a mindset in which a man’s daily actions are irrevocably connected to everything from the brazen, prophetic claims of his forefathers, to the birth of a baby, to the path his soul will take a thousand years hence. Even as Jack tries to decide the next course of action in his small, singular life, his mind tends toward celestial associations, to a mysterious god both distant enough to fire meteors at mountains on a desert night yet close enough to grab an errant man by the scruff of the neck. So instead of making Jack step up with Rebekah the way he might in a more mainstream novel, creating a makeshift-but-loving family, Hepner sends him on a desperate vision quest in the desert, Joseph Smith-style. But instead of meeting an angel, receiving golden plates, and founding a religion, Jack encounters a dwarf called The King, drags around an actual meteorite piping-hot from space, and works out what might be one of the bleakest personal-belief-statements I have ever read.

If the Lord was in control the way many claimed then he was necessarily in the evil of the world — the evil actions of men and women, physical and mental deformity…He was the cause of utter sorrow and despair, as if these things would somehow work to his name’s glory. He was in the hand that tied the knots that kept the little girl bound in her basement for a year and a half on oatmeal and water, bone-gaunt, her skin like an empty tent and she vacant-eyed and ruined. He was in the grown hand that fondled the child’s genitals. He was in the wind that blew the barn over and crushed the father of three.

At this point, I was hoping “Rust” from True Detective might show up to offer something that would sound comparatively reasonable and soothing.

And yet, the author didn’t lose me here. This is gutsy writing, and it’s asking something unexpected and a little tricky of the reader. Hepner isn’t pandering to his audience. He figures we are smart enough to handle a few pages inside a very desperate young man’s head. Jack’s world has been shaken upside down in ways he never could have foreseen: He has lost both parents in one night, he loses his inheritance, he loses his best friend, he gains and then forfeits the girl on whom he’s pinned all his hopes. He doesn’t head out into the desert to wrestle with an angel; he’s too far gone for that. Instead he wrestles the darkest demons he can find, and if the ending is not satisfying in a traditional way, then it makes this book what it is: a strange, gorgeous, grief-raked rumination on man’s place in heaven and earth. Either we humans are the best thing that’s ever happened in creation or we’re the Milky Way’s biggest mistake, and Jack Selvedge is honest enough to not be sure which.

Hepner, Braden. Pale Harvest. Torrey House Press, 2014.

——-

Buy Pale Harvest here

An interview with Braden Hepner at The Salty Beatnik

Braden Hepner’s web site, which includes photographs by the author
——
The dogs on Main Street howl ’cause they understand
If I could take one moment into my hands
Mister I ain’t a boy, no, I’m a man
And I believe in the promised land

-Bruce Springsteen, “Promised Land”

Truth and Consequences: A Review of Emily Gray Tedrowe’s “Blue Stars”

by Terri Barnes (Air Force)

Those of us inside military are often so used to our way of life we are incapable of recognizing some of its absurdities. Emily Gray Tedrowe’s book, Blue Stars, brings some of these to light, and it’s not always comfortable.

cover_blue-starsMore importantly, her story reminds us of the poor treatment of injured veterans and their families in our recent past. Blue Stars takes place from 2005-2007, when two wars were raging and not enough attention was being given to the care and well-being of those who were sent home injured. Reading this book, for a military wife like me, is a bit like having a sad chapter from one’s family past dragged out and retold to strangers. Yet, it’s a chapter our community and our nation would do well to remember and not repeat. To me this is the most compelling part of the story, though it doesn’t begin until halfway through the book.

Part One of Blue Stars sets up the complicated lives and relationships of two very different women, Lacy and Ellen, and sets up the trajectories that will bring their disparate lives together. Their stories are told at first in alternate chapters, jumping from New York City to a university town in Wisconsin.

Lacy is a tough-talking city girl, who lives near Fort Hamilton, New York, where her husband, Eddie, is an Army reservist. She grew up the hard way, had a son when she was young, married her soldier years later. Lacy has a restless soul, a problem with alcohol, and is trying to redeem past mistakes by being a dutiful Army wife.

Ellen is an English professor, widowed with two young adult children, straight-A Wesley and troubled Jane. Ellen is also the guardian of another young man, Michael. She has the luxury of opposing the war in Iraq on philosophical terms without real world events intruding much on her life, until Michael joins the Marines.

This section develops rather slowly, as the author creates her deep and complex characters. I would have been more engaged in Part One if there had been some foreshadowing of Part Two, which I found impossible to put down. At the halfway point of the book, the real story begins, and the painstaking character development pays off. The two women meet when their service members, Michael and Eddie, are injured in different ways and different locations. Both are treated at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where Lacy and Ellen come to be at their sides. Eventually they become friends, their strengths and weaknesses complementary as they help one another through the difficulties of being caregivers, and the crises of life that do not take time out even for catastrophic injury.

This part of the story takes place at the old campus of Walter Reed, now defunct, and in the nearby residences for outpatients and their families, Mologne House and the infamous Building 18. Although the characters are fictional, much of the story is based on reality. Veterans who had been discharged from Walter Reed but were still in need of medical treatment were required to live nearby and return to the hospital for follow up care, so their residential options were limited. The author depicts the actual, documented living conditions at Building 18—poor sanitation, broken elevators and vermin—and the way the medical treatment of many outpatient veterans was mismanaged. These facts were disclosed by the families of wounded veterans and were widely reported by the media in 2007.

EmilyGrayTredoweauthor Emily Gray Tedrowe

This is the world where Tedrowe places her characters, unsuspecting and unprepared, the world they must learn to navigate. While dealing with those challenges, Lacy is advocating for her blinded and brain-injured husband, insisting on surgery to restore some of his sight. Ellen, as Michael’s guardian, has to make a decision about amputating his injured leg above the knee while Michael is still too sedated to voice his own wishes. Months of recover and rehabilitation would follow, but both women have other personal issues that need their attention, as well as jobs to and finances to consider.

Tedrowe, whose brother served in both wars, captures and conveys the experiences of extended families of military members. They live outside military life yet are deeply connected to the consequences of that life by a vital link. Those of us who are married to the military may not understand the reactions of parents, siblings and in-laws. This book explores their lives and feelings, giving them context and empathy.

The author has created characters so real that you want to reach out and pull Lacy back from a poor decision when she’s had too much to drink, or offer Ellen comfort in her moments of self-doubt as a parent. I never walked the halls of Ward 57 at Walter Reed or saw the crumbling rooms of Building 18, so I can’t judge whether these places are accurately portrayed, but the setting felt authentic, and the characters resurrected the awful news stories I read years ago. After reading this book, I looked up the real stories and read them again.

I hope all those wrongs have been addressed and corrected, but the painful experiences of the veterans and families who endured those years can’t be erased. It’s important that they are remembered. More than anything, I hope reading Blue Stars reminds us of our obligations to those who fight our wars and strengthen our resolve that stories like this won’t have to be in the news again.

Tedrowe, Emily Gray. Blue Stars. St. Martin’s, 2015.

(In related reading, Terri highly recommends this Pulitzer-winning news story about Walter Reed and Building 18 from The Washington Post.)

—————-
About the Author: Emily Gray Tedrowe is the author of Blue Stars, which is her second novel. Her first, Commuters, was named a Best New Paperback by Entertainment Weekly, an IndieNext Notable pick, and a Target Breakout Book. Emily is based in Chicago and has received an Illinois Arts Council Literary Award as well as fellowships from the Ragdale Foundation and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.

Purchase Blue Stars here

Read more about Emily Tedrowe on her blog and web site

—–

About the Reviewer: Terri Barnes is the author of Spouse Calls: Messages From a Military Life and is the special projects editor at Elva Resa Publishing.

Terri-Barnes-210x292A well-respected columnist, Terri is the writer and creator of the weekly Stars and Stripes column Spouse Calls, which first appeared in 2007. Now published in print editions worldwide and online, Spouse Calls serves as a voice for military spouses and families, through personal stories, incisive interviews, news analysis, and interaction with readers. Terri has been a member of the Washington, DC, press corps and has contributed to several other books about military life. Her work has appeared in Air Force/Army/Navy Times, The Huffington Post, and Books Make a Difference, as well as newspapers, magazines, and base publications in many of her adopted hometowns around the world (of which she estimates there have been seventeen, so far, since the start of her family’s military journey). Currently, she’s stationed in the St. Louis area.

You Never Hear it Coming: Brian Turner’s ‘Here, Bullet’

reviewed by Amy Bermudez (Army)

I’m not sure what I was expecting when I picked up Here, Bullet by Brian Turner. The front of the book touted the fact that it won the Beatrice Hawley Award in 2005. The back explained that Turner got his MFA before joining the Army and deploying to Iraq in 2003. I was curious. Would he string words into stanzas that could explain a soldier’s war experience in a way that I could understand?

here, bullet

That question was soon answered, particularly with the fifth poem, “What Every Soldier Should Know.” Its couplets describe the sound of gunfire, how to enter a room, phrases that are helpful and not so helpful. Halfway down the page, my heart stopped as I read, “You will hear the RPG coming for you./Not so the roadside bomb.” My mind rewound to images my husband shared with me from his most recent deployment: the inside of his MAT-V spilled out like spaghetti. The vehicle hit an IED on a routine drive through the never-ending Afghani desert in June. It was totaled, but all the soldiers walked away without a scratch. I couldn’t help but think of Turner’s line and my own experience. As the spouse, we never hear it coming. Any of it. I’ve reread the poem so many times now. I can’t say for sure that it captures a soldier’s experience, but somehow, he managed to describe a piece of mine, to speak right to me with the concrete and the emotional.

brianturnerphoto: http://www.brianturner.org/bio/

The other poem I loved was “9-Line Medevac.” Turner alternates between straightforward questions: “Location for pick-up site?” “Number of patients by precedence?” and “Number of patients, by type?” and blocks of thought, dark and emotional. The adrenaline-pumped reactions are grounded in the need-to-know questions. This was the real experience I was hoping to find: soldiers doing their duty and then, in the silence, being clobbered by emotion. It’s not always pretty, but it’s real.

I have to say that all the poems were excellent. They are beautiful and terrible and illuminating. I loved how smart they were. Turner reminded me of Conrad, the protagonist from [Roxana Robinson’s novel] Sparta. He’s thoughtful and intelligent. The war lingers for him. A part of me almost wished that the character, Conrad, could likewise have written poems. He was so tortured; I wonder if they’d help him, if they helped Turner.

I teach middle school writing, and for years, I’ve shared a quote from Nancie Atwell with my students in which she advises that we shouldn’t write about leaves, we should write about a leaf. That’s exactly what Turner did. He didn’t write about wars, he wrote about this war, this war experience, this one day, this one experience. The result is a slim book of poems that touched me, a woman who has never seen Iraq, who has no war stories to tell.

Turner, Brian. Here, Bullet. Alice James Books, 2005.
——-
buy Here, Bullet

Read more about Brian Turner (who has, in addition to poetry, also written a memoir) here

A review of Turner’s memoir, My Life as a Foreign Country, on Time Now
——-

About the reviewer:

moi Amy Bermudez teaches middle-school English, runs long races, reads like there’s no tomorrow, and is an Army wife currently stationed in Texas. She writes a popular, funny, and addictively readable blog, Army Amy. She’s written for Spouse Buzz and the Huffington Post, and recently (after reading Unbroken) wrote a very moving piece [in this, your editor’s humble opinion] on her blog called “This is a War Like That.”

Secrets and Bravery: A Review of Kathleen M. Rodgers’s Novel Johnnie Come Lately

by Jodie Cain Smith (Army)

I begin reading many books, but I don’t finish many books. In fact, the bookshelf in my office is crammed full of abandoned books. Why, you ask? Why would a woman who makes her living with words stop reading? Well, when I am left to be nothing but a curious reader searching for a compelling story, I look for questions. When I find no questions in the story or characters or, disappointingly, my questions are answered too easily, I stop reading and move on to the next book in my stack. Thankfully, Kathleen Rodgers offers up questions aplenty and quickly in her latest, Johnnie Come Lately; questions that aren’t fully answered until the last page. Oh yeah, I finished this one. I had no choice.

In fact, I only had to meet teenage Johnnie in the prologue to be sucked into her story and the multitude of questions the few pages offered. Immediately, I had to know who this young woman was, why her mother ran off, what was the root cause of Johnnie’s bulimia, did she ever recover, and how on earth did her Uncle Johnny and boyfriend Clovis die? I turned the page to Chapter One searching for answers, but was thrust into the world of a forty-three-year-old version of Johnny Kitchen, married woman and mother of three.

Whoa, whoa, whoa! Stop! What about the teenager from the prologue and the decades in between? I had to know, so I was relieved to discover that Kathleen Rodgers is clever. Using a journaling device unlike others I have read, the details of Johnnie Kitchen’s life unfolded in haunting language on the pages. In her journal, Johnnie wrote letters to herself, her adult self and teenage self, complete strangers, and the ghosts of her past, pleading with them to reveal their true purpose in her life, to forgive her past transgressions, and to soothe her grief for losses she can never recover.

Within the pages of Johnnie Come Lately, I discovered an unlikely optimism, a tale of hope. Thank goodness! As a military spouse, I am turned off by weakness and incompetence. I want everyone, especially the women in my life, to know their inner strength and use it. I have no use for whining or pessimism or a defeatist attitude. Yes, I have high expectations, but Johnnie fulfilled those expectations.

I must admit I was afraid Johnnie Kitchen was going to drown in her own faults and shortcomings, but I was wrong. What I found in her, despite her many failings, were optimism and faith that would keep her moving forward, fighting her inner demons, and searching for answers to her many questions. Her eternal hope was especially present when the problems in her marriage, challenges faced and posed by her children, and secrets of the past would be easier dealt with by not dealing with them at all. Johnnie Kitchen, this woman with so many secrets to hide, becomes the bravest of all Rodgers’ characters by exposing herself and challenging the shortcomings in those she loves the most.

By the end of the novel, Johnnie Kitchen had become my friend, one that I am sad to be without now that Johnnie Come Lately is off my nightstand and back on my shelf, every word devoured.

Rodgers, Kathleen M. Johnnie Come Lately. Camel Press, 2015.

———-

Buy Johnnie Come Lately

Visit Kathleen M. Rodgers’s web site or follow her on Facebook, Twitter, or Goodreads.

———–

About the reviewer:

Jodie Cain SmithJodie Cain Smith, an Army spouse and author, spent her childhood exploring the shores of Mobile Bay with her three siblings. As a teen in Mobile, AL, Jodie’s grandmother told her the gripping story of an adolescence spent in 1930’s rural Alabama, the rumors surrounding her parents, and the murder trial that would alter her life. The tale took root in Jodie’s memory until at last it became The Woods at Barlow Bend, her debut novel to be released November 19, 2014 by Deer Hawk Publications.

While attending the University of South Alabama, where Jodie earned a BFA in Theatre Arts, she met her husband Jay. They began their life on the Army road in 2001 and have not stopped moving since. As an Army Wife, she has lived in six different states from the extreme heat of Texas to the blizzards of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where she earned a MAE in School Counseling at Northern Michigan University.

When she is not living in the fictional worlds she creates via her laptop, Jodie can be found onstage and in the studio working as an actress and teaching artist.

Jodie Cain Smith’s short stories, feature articles, and columns have appeared in The Petigru Review, Chicken Soup for the Military Spouse’s Soul, The Savannah Morning News, and the Fort Hood Sentinel.

To learn more about Jodie Cain Smith and her thoughts on ruling, renovating, and escaping her corner of the world visit her blog The Queendom or her website, jodiecainsmith.com.