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NORTH CAROLINA L I T E R A R Y RE V I E W

a “casual” fauxcountry dialect that the author openly mocks; at one point the Aster matriarch marvels that unlike herself, elder Henry “spoke in complete sentences with advanced grammar” (14–15). For the record, Appalachian dialects are studied enthusiastically by sociolinguists, and our grammars equal or exceed the complexity of mainstream tongues. Lewis’s representation of Western North Carolina, then, is essentially backhanded hagiography. Anyone familiar with contemporary Appalachian literature will quickly tire of the book’s misty mountain platitudes and toothless grannies, as well as its unappealing narrator, whom Lewis treats as wholly reliable and sympathetic. The state’s most complex ecosystem, though well described, is reduced to a tattered backdrop here. Appalachia exists merely to facilitate young Henry’s brooding. He grapples with his mountain man identity, simultaneously wearing it like both a badge and a hair shirt. This tension inside young Henry, between his rurality and his desire to distance himself from his father’s unsavory origins, smacks of colonial attitudes we mountain folk rejected generations ago. For Lewis, both Henrys are tragically flawed not because of their addictions and unchecked privilege, but because of their inability to escape, or indeed survive, Appalachia. In The Barrowfields, assimilation and outmigration are not exploitative, but rightful pursuits. All us western Tarheels are a feeble-minded, tusslin’ mess waiting to be corrected by the righteous Aster boys.

DURWOOD BARBOUR COLLECTION OF NORTH CAROLINA POSTCARDS (P077), NORTH CAROLINA COLLECTION PHOTOGRAPHIC ARCHIVES, WILSON LIBRARY, UNIVERSITY OF NORTH CAROLINA AT CHAPEL HILL

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Moreover, Lewis is not just anti-Appalachian; his missteps extend to half of humanity. Young Henry’s mother and sister, both potentially interesting characters, demonstrate only minimal interiority. Lewis also peppers the book with offensive depictions of minor female characters. Most are ugly shrews or ignoramuses, and the smart ones are fat-shamed or simply ignored. Eventually young Henry leaves Old Buckram to study law and meets Story, a bright woman whose primary asset, according to young Henry, is her prettiness. She and her friends, all accomplished, educated people, “caromed about like cheerleaders . . . in that cute way girls do” (169). The second half of the novel centers on the pair’s romance. Young Henry achieves a sliver of selfawareness about his prodigality and sexism by the end, for which Lewis rewards him with the “girl.” To be fair, The Barrowfields is distributed by a major publishing house, so Lewis’s tone deafness

ABOVE “Wash-Day at a Mountain Home”

in Asheville, NC

is not entirely his fault. A good Southern editor might have confronted the author and saved his agile prose from its own collapsing container. Unfortunately, his New York publishers did not recognize or question the book’s offensive, bourgeois clichés, no doubt because they believe them to be accurate depictions of this oft-maligned setting. Only readers who share Lewis’s sentiments will be fooled by The Barrowfields. If you have any knowledge of or interest in the Southern Highlands, you are far more likely to enjoy a different kind of mountain story. Prefer Appalachians who don’t spurn their own kind, and writers who find inspiration and value in our vibrant culture. Believe, for one, Julia Franks’s debut novel, Over the Plain Houses, which won the Southern Book Prize and Thomas Wolfe Memorial Literary Award for 2017. While Franks, who lives in north Georgia, is not native to Appalachia and occasionally

OPPOSITE RIGHT Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, Graham County, near Robbinsville, NC

Profile for East Carolina University

North Carolina Literary Review Online 2019  

A literary review published online annually by East Carolina University and by the North Carolina Literary and Historical Association.

North Carolina Literary Review Online 2019  

A literary review published online annually by East Carolina University and by the North Carolina Literary and Historical Association.

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