Book: A Parchment of Leaves
Author: Silas House
Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2002
Reviewer: Jerry Shuttle (East Tennessee State University)
MUCH WRIT UPON THE PARCHMENT OF LEAVES
In the mountains of eastern Kentucky, isolated from their white neighbors, live several Cherokee families in a settlement called Redbud Camp. A rich white man has laid claim to that land and has sent men on several occasions to begin clearing the mountain top for a house. Most have met with accidents, and word has spread that their misfortunes were the result of witchcraft by a young Indian woman named Vine. Twenty year old Saul Sullivan has no fear of such tales and takes on the clearing job. He comes to the mountain with his younger brother Aaron, who is bitten by a copperhead. Saul carries Aaron to Vine's house, where she treats and heals the wound. Saul and Vine are attracted to each other and are married by the end of the summer. She moves with him to God's Creek, where she forms a strong relationship with his mother Esme. The year is 1917 and the United States is preparing to enter the Great War. Saul is called to do his part, leaving Vine alone with their daughter Birdie. Aaron becomes obsessed with Vine and tries to get her to leave Saul and be with him. She refuses and he disappears, only to return several months later with a pregnant Melungeon bride who bears a striking similarity to Vine. Aaron's obsession grows and the stage is set for violence and tragedy.
Given these circumstances, it would have been easy for the author to revert to common themes associated with Appalachian literature. He could have dwelled on the isolation and perceived cultural deprivation of the local people. He could have told how the characters were victimized by the incursion of the outside world. He could have portrayed his characters as noble and romantic or reduced them to well-used regional stereotypes. Had he done so, we would have yet another novel whose characters and plot are idiosyncratic, predictable, and of little literary value. Silas House did none of these things.
The story is set in rural Appalachia, but it would have worked as well in Maine or Texas or Montana. The driving themes are the importance of heritage and family and the interconnection of all life and its expression in nature. Vine is Cherokee, but knows little of the traditional culture. Her father believes that holding onto the family's ethnic culture will cause them problems and wants his children to assimilate into white culture. Her mother, on the other hand, thinks of herself as Cherokee and seeks to instill her pride of heritage into Vine. This sentiment is expressed symbolically when she gives Vine a piece of hair from her great grandmother Lucinda. Lucinda was a young girl during the removal of the Cherokee from their tribal territory to Oklahoma. She and her family hid from the soldiers and she later moved to Redbud Camp with her husband, where the family has lived ever since. Vine has visions of Lucinda several times throughout the story and she serves to strengthen Vines' connection to her past and to nature. House repeatedly emphasizes how humans are a part of the fabric of nature and not separate from it. Vine's name is one example of this. "My mother had named me Vine in the hopes that I would help the earth to produce, that I would like to put my hands into the soil and find joy in seeing what come forth." And not only are we inseparable from nature, she is our best teacher, if we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear. Vine expresses this well when she says, "I wondered if the trees were God. They were like God in many respects: they stood silent, and most people only noticed them when the need arose. Maybe all the secrets to life were written on the surface of leaves, waiting to be translated. If I touched them long enough, I might be given some information that no one else had." House drew on the James Still poem I Was Born Humble for Vine's thought and for the title of the book.
There is so much writ upon the parchment of leaves,
So much of beauty blown upon the winds,
I can but fold my hands and sink my knees
In the leaf pages.
One of the most pleasurable aspects of the book is the imagery. It exudes a sense of place and adds a texture that would be missing if more generic images were used. "He placed the smell of the memory. That scent of spring was from many days ago, when he had first met Vine. The air had been made of redbud and dogwood. The world had been brand-new, the color of an eggshell." And, "I remember the way the air smelled that day—like blackberries ripe and about to bust on the vine."
House's literary interests are in place and character, and these interests are reflected in some of his favorite books and films. Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible, Lee Smith's Fair and Tender Ladies, Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine, and Michael Dorris' A Yellow Raft in Blue Water share the common characteristic of the importance of character and the development of that character in a particular place. Plots are strong, but characters are not subservient to the story, rather, the story unfolds through them. As in his reading, House’s favorite films, including Tender Mercies, Bonnie and Clyde, Places in the Heart, The Last Picture Show, Lone Star, and Coal Miner’s Daughter, depend on character to move the story.
Silas House is skilled at creating interesting characters and developing a story though them, and his imagery is delightful. He has succeeded in telling a story set in Appalachia without stereotyping or romanticizing his characters. Both A Parchment of Leaves and his first novel Clay's Quilt use violence as a plot mechanism. This is common in much of Appalachian literature and another reason the genre sometimes seems stagnant. Though the violence in A Parchment of Leaves seems integral to the plot, the story of Vine and Saul could have been as interesting and well told if it were absent. The story of ordinary people in ordinary circumstances might be more difficult than depending on high drama and tragedy, but one hopes that Mr. House has the ability and good sense to tell just such a story in his next book.
A Parchment of Leaves is Silas House’s second novel. His first book, Clay’s Quilt, received critical acclaim and won the bronze medal award from ForeWord Magazine. He was chosen as one of the ten Emerging Writers by the Millennial Gathering of Writers at Vanderbilt University in 2000 and was given the James Still Award for Special Achievement from the Fellowship of Southern Writers in 2002. He lives in Lily, Kentucky with his wife and two daughters.