Charles F. Price writes excellent imagery — gruesome enough, in the local author’s latest novel, to rival his characters’ own increasingly cruel lives.
Blatant racism, mistreatment of animals, harsh living conditions — each section of Where the Water-Dogs Laughed: The Story of the Great Bear (High Country Publishers, 2003) festers with the ugliness of disharmony.
In one passage, a character’s beloved mother is described as a “bony, listless hag with dead eyes, ruined by work and childbearing. She smelled of snuff and dried hog fat.”
Unfortunately, gory details alone are not enough to hold a reader’s interest, and the plot often seems to get tangled in minutiae.
In fact, when Price’s mountain folk fall victim to a typhoid epidemic, it’s almost a relief when the ill-fated, ill-tempered characters show promise of dying off.
Not that there aren’t moments of transcendence — even redemption.
The tale draws an epic battle between man and nature, played out against the rampant deforestation of Western North Carolina that occurred early last century. It’s also an unflinching look at the class and race struggles that gripped post-Civil War Appalachia, where the people still clearly remembered slavery, and found few comforts in the lives they carved from the land.
Water-Dogs (the title refers to the mountain roamed by Yan-e’gwa, a legendary bear) finds its prime strength in its author’s ability to render characters — and render he does. The novel includes no less than 10 main characters, plus a horde of supporting roles.
The chief players range from Hamby McFee (a downtrodden mulatto man who shoulders a massive chip against blacks, whites and anyone else who happens to cross his path) to the wealthy timber baron G.G.M. Weatherby (who believes that his breeding renders him superior). There’s also Weatherby’s headstrong daughter, Cassandra, who finds herself drawn to Absalom, a poor but ambitious young man whom Weatherby has decided to make his protege. Price even weaves his own family history into the otherwise fictional work, in the character of Will, the author’s grandfather.
It’s Will who proves himself one of Water-Dogs’s few redeeming characters. A teenager of unfailingly good spirits — despite constant oppression from his surly, adoptive father — Will sets out to win the right to court his sweetheart, Lillie. The couple’s enduring hope offers pockets of light (if not lightheartedness) in Price’s otherwise dark and dismal story.
The author’s characters seem doomed for destruction — their own, and also that of their environment — and it’s that sense of looming annihilation that calls forth Yan-e’gwa. The great bear is more spiritual entity than physical animal, and serves as the voice of the desecrated landscape, calling on the money-hungry humans to remember their ancient covenant with the natural world.
It’s respect that Yan-e’gwa demands: “The Ancestors … were changing the world more and more all the time. They did not even sing the old songs entreating the sacrifice or ask the pardon of Yan-e’gwa’s kind before killing them,” he muses in one passage. Instead, his presence fuels a madness in the mountaineers, spurring an obsessive hunt for the massive bear.
But eventually, even Hamby manages to finds tenderness — in his own heart, no less — though he is perhaps the bitterest presence on the mountain.
Talking with Lillie and Will over Lillie’s mother’s grave, he begins to soften: “Then without warning a great rush of talk broke out of him, like a torrent of water dammed up for a long time and suddenly finding an outlet,” Price narrates. “She see I be me, not a colored man. Just me. What I be. What I want, what I hope, what I be hating, what hurt me, what please me. … Made me her brother. Made herself my sister. That a gift. Fine gift. Finest I ever got.“
Though Price’s book ultimately requires a confrontation between man and nature to achieve resolution, that lofty ideal is little more than a smoke screen for the real culmination of the novel’s people and their fates. When certain characters show an interest in healing their own wounds — the ultimate thrust of Hamby’s graveyard revelation — the dark book finally admits glints of true light.
Charles F. Price, the award-winning local author of Final Altar and The Cock’s Spur, launches Where the Water-Dogs Laughed with a free reading/book signing at Accent on Books (854 Merrimon Ave.; 252-6255) on Thursday, Nov. 6 at 6 p.m. Refreshments will be served.