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Sunday, May 26, 2013
Poverty, as experienced on varying levels by multiple generations of a family, is at the root of Susan Tekulve’s first novel.
The saga begins in War, W.Va., in 1924. War, a coal mining town in Appalachia, is home to countless Italian immigrants, led to the mines on the empty promise of a better life. Emma is the 16-year-old daughter of a miner who helps her arthritic mother in any way she can. Emma falls in love with a railroad man and jumps at the chance for a better life when he proposes. She leaves War for a more prosperous life in Southwest Virginia without looking back.
So begins a tale of heartbreaking realism that spans nearly 50 years.
Tekulve’s knowledge of the hills of Virginia — not only the physical geography, but also the people, the culture, the history — is rich and well-researched. Rarely have I felt so dropped into the world of the story than I did while reading this novel.
The way the author portrays the impoverishment in which the characters live is particularly effective. There is no backdrop of wealth, no comparison to others in the town who have more. Though there are varying degrees of poverty, everyone in the story is poor, even the “rich” vet who owns the farm next to Emma’s. This total submersion into poverty brings to light the relativity of wealth.
For example, when Emma presents her visiting mother with a pound cake and brags that the recipe called for a dozen egg yolks, her mother asks what Emma did with the whites. Emma feels a pang of guilt when she admits she threw them out. Emma’s mother is disgusted by her daughter’s waste and takes the remaining cake home to the family back in War. Emma and her husband are not well-off, but compared to where she came from, Emma feels prosperous. And in her mother’s eyes, Emma is wealthy.
“In the Garden of Stone” is a tale of loving, living and dying; of making do in a place where money is a more of a mysterious commodity — a necessary evil — than something sought after and accumulated. It’s also about one family clawing out of from under the weight of poverty, with each generation making it just a bit further than the one before.
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