The United States isn’t a single entity. It’s not monolithic. A state like Washington has about as much in common with Mississippi as it does with São Paolo. Identifying a single definition of U.S. culture is impossible. In order to get a better sense of the country as a whole, we have to listen closely to the quiet places. Leah Weiss’s exciting debut novel If the Creek Don’t Rise focuses on some of America’s forgotten voices: the people of Appalachia.
Image courtesy of Amazon
Appalachia is not the same thing as the Appalachian Mountains. It’s a region of the Appalachian Mountains reaching from New York to Mississippi. About 25 million people live there, many of whom are descendants of original Scots-Irish emigrants. Many of these people live in severe poverty.
Image courtesy of University of Michigan
Set in the 1970s, in the fictional North Carolina town of Baines Creek, Leah Weiss’s If the Creek Don’t Rise takes readers back to a particularly impoverished time in Appalachian history. The book follows pregnant 17-year-old Sadie Blue, who has been married to Roy Tupkin for just 15 days, but has already suffered severe abuse at the hands of her sociopathic husband. As the novel progresses, though, Weiss offers Sadie some semblance of peace by way of the new teacher in town, Kate Shaw.
Cormac McCarthy and William Faulkner have done good work representing Appalachia in their work, but the region is too often forgotten. If the Creek Don’t Rise takes its time in giving the people of Appalachia real voices. Told from a number of different points of view (A Song of Ice and Fire-style), Weiss’s novel makes a point of humanizing all of the Appalachian people. Even the most despicable abusers and apparent perverts are eventually given vulnerabilities. This is thanks mostly to Weiss’s sharp choice in telling this story through many perspectives.
Though Weiss does an excellent job making the most abusive men seem human, she also doesn’t back away from giving them their deserved comeuppance. The women of Weiss’s Appalachia, constantly pushed down by domineering men and pervasive misogyny, have their chance at vindication.
Appalachian people preparing a hog the traditional way. / via NPR
Although themes of marital abuse and, as follows, revenge can be heavy topics, Weiss manages a constant tone of wry, Southern wit without ever being distasteful. There’s something very True Grit-esque in Sadie Blue’s story. Like Charles Portis’s Mattie Ross, Sadie Blue is a precocious young Southern girl out to prove herself just as capable (and ferocious) as the patriarchy. In the end, Sadie proves she does indeed have true grit.
In the author Q&A at the end of the book, Weiss discusses crafting human characters:
…a favorite character for this writer isn’t necessarily the lovable one with the kind heart, good teeth, and best intentions. Good characters ground a story and give us someone to worry about and cheer for. The reader in me never likes a book that doesn’t have characters I care about… A good writer strives to make her characters complex and flawed and susceptible to all human foibles, and that’s what makes them real.
Weiss follows through with voices ranging from preachers to teachers, and all variety of folks in between. Ringing true to the time and place, Baines Creek feels very much inhabited. Reading Weiss’s book, you can almost feel the heat of the dwindling coal mines and inhale the aroma of the fresh mountain air. And, of course, you can meet Appalachian people, who may be works of fiction, but suffer through real struggles, and prevail.
Appalachian boy sitting in his uncle’s house / via Daily Mail
At 70-years-old, Leah Weiss is releasing If the Creek Don’t Rise, her debut novel. She previously worked as Executive Assistant to the Headmaster at Virginia Episcopal School. Let this be a call to action for anybody who feels their age is stopping them from pursuing their dreams.
If the Creek Don’t Rise is a must-read for anybody curious to hear underrepresented voices, particularly those of impoverished Appalachian women. You can check out a Facebook Live we did with Leah Weiss right here!