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LIGHTNING REVIEW: Robert Morgan returns to 'Gap Creek'

Robert Morgan is scheduled to appear in Hendersonville Aug. 23 and 24 for book launch events. Robert Morgan is scheduled to appear in Hendersonville Aug. 23 and 24 for book launch events.

Fourteen years after the phenomenal success of his novel Gap Creek, Robert Morgan has come home again.
His newest novel, The Road from Gap Creek, picks up the story of Julie and Hank Richards, who we first met through Julie's eyes in Gap Creek.


Morgan RoadGC HC HRRobert Morgan is scheduled to appear at book launch events at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Aug. 23, at the Heritage Museum, and 5:30 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 24, at Fountainhead Books, 408 N. Main St."I thought all those years that Julie would continue her story and then I realized I had finished her story," Morgan said in an interview. "The next generation belonged to her daughter and it was her story. I actually wrote the book pretty quickly once I decided that."
Writing quickly is something Morgan is used to. He has been a prolific poet, researcher and writer of fiction and nonfiction for more than 40 years. A native of Green River, he lives in Ithaca, N.Y., where he is a Kappa Alpha professor of English at Cornell University. But he is never so close to home as when he creates stories from the mouths of the deep-rooted southern Appalachian natives that he knows intimately from his own upbringing.
The Road from Gap Creek opens when Army officers visit the Richards home to tell Julie and Hank that their son, Troy, has been killed in a bomber crash in World War II. From that pivotal and painful moment, Morgan takes us back to the start of the Depression, swings ahead again to other key places in time — marriages, deaths, births —told by the strong-willed, opinionated and beautiful Annie. Annie explains the cause and consequence of the Depression in 10 sentences.
"The first thing that happened was that all the money disappeared," Annie says. "It was like one day there was plenty of money and the next day it was all gone. And I never was able to tell where it all went. Had somebody took all the money and hid it? Did the government and all the bankers all call the money in? Was it buried somewhere under a government building? Or was all the paper money burned up? I just didn't see how so many thousands of dollars, millions of dollars, could disappear over night. You could see the buildings and cars and things that had been bought. But there wouldn't be any more bought because there wasn't any more money."
The Depression is hard on the Green River families but harder still on destitute families that had no home at all.
Annie sees a family of "five younguns and a mama and daddy and a grandma" walking down the road toward the house. "It was the sorriest bunch of people you ever saw. They looked wore out and poor as whippoorwills. Old Pat stood on the bank watching them, but she didn't even growl."
As reviewers of Morgan's work have noted, his stories are universal, made up of interesting human characters who happen to live in the Appalachian Mountains. We have the double pleasure of picturing the places Morgan writes about and imagining the travel of Annie and her family from Green River to Hendersonville or Refuge Church in Dana or "way off at Fruitland."
Annie resisted persistent appeals from Muir, her longtime suitor, who reads the Bible constantly and becomes a minister after overcoming several terrible pulpit experiences as a young man.
"I didn't want to be no preacher's wife. That wasn't what I had in mind at all," Annie says. "All my life I'd seen how preachers' wives had to go to church and set quiet while their husbands preached. They had to smile at everybody and be friendly. But nobody paid much attention to them. They had to dress well but not too well. They had to eat dinner at other people's houses and compliment the cooks. Most had to work to support their husbands cause the church paid them so little. Most preachers' wives was gray and mousy. That kind of life was not for me."

Drawing on family stories
Although Morgan says his mother was beautiful, like Annie, and did fend off many suitors and did marry at age 27, like Annie, comparisons are futile.
"It's really important to remember that they're all fictional characters," he says, when asked whether his cousins and aunts and uncles might recognize figures in his books. "It's a work of fiction. You can't make exact parallels and (match) family members."
"Some of the events are similar," he said. Morgan's uncle Robert, was killed in a bomber crash in November 1943. "I was named for him. I grew up in his shadow," he said.
He makes his novels from the deep well of family stories and a lifetime of research.
"I have read every book on the history of Henderson County and Western North Carolina that I can get my hands on," he said. "Louise Bailey gave me a book of photographs. I certainly looked at those, and I've read all of Mr. FitzSimons' books. A lot of it is my own experience and imagination. (As a boy) I sat there with my ears open just taking it in."
He discovered that he could write a fuller and more emotional story through a woman's voice.
"It's more inspiring to write from a woman's point of view because women are better talkers," he said. "Men will never talk about their feelings and women talk about nothing else basically, so a woman narrating a novel is a great advantage."
He's gotten nothing but positive reaction from women readers, which he estimates make up to 90 percent of the audience for his N.C. mountain novels The Truest Pleasure, This Rock and Gap Creek.
The newest work is filled with simple truths, like the superficial way we treat the bereaved.
"'Just let me know if there's anything I can do to help,' people said. I know they meant well, but I wondered just what they had in mind that they could do, if they had anything in mind except just saying the usual thing."
When Annie finally does decide to marry, she realizes she'd come to an inevitable turn in the road.
"I'd thought love was something way off yonder, something in a storybook, but I seen it was right here. It was what had been already in me all along.
"And I seen also how he needed me. Muir couldn't help hisself. He couldn't stay away from me. He couldn't manage his life without me. He'd never been able to handle money. People had made fun of him for his preaching and for his church on the mountaintop. His own family had made fun of him for reading books and tramping in the woods and never making no money. He needed somebody to look after him and take care of him. He had no head for business at all. I'd though I wanted to marry a businessman, but I didn't. I was the one who was good at business."
The long chapter of Annie caring for her mother before Julie's death will ring true for many readers. Annie could handle death better than her father.
"Papa just shook his head and looked down at his feet. I knowed he was confused, because for more than forty-five years he'd depended on Mama to keep things going. Even when he'd fussed at her he'd relied on her to tell him what things meant."

For that era, Annie had waited a long time to marry and longer to get pregnant. When she was expecting, she became so weak the doctor ordered bed rest. She stayed in the cabin in the heat of August, surviving on the few things she could keep down — grits, cream of wheat, sourwood honey on toast and biscuits "and banana pudding because it was so cool."
She delivers a daughter, Angela.
"Because I'd eat so little that summer, she was poor, with legs like pipe stems and toes little as beads of dew."
Toward the end, Annie delivers a tribute to motherhood that surpasses a thousand Hallmark card clichés.
"The reason you feel so important as a mother is because you are important," she says near the end of the novel. "Nobody else in the world will care as much and love as much this little thing that cries and don't know where it is and needs its butt cleaned up from time to time. Nobody can ever love it like you do. All its life depends on what you do for it now. The most important things is just to let it know that it's loved. Having a baby of my own made me understand Mama better."
Morgan said he hopes readers will embrace The Road from Gap Creek.
"It's been 14 years, different climate, different audience," he said. "I hope it will appeal to people like Gap Creek did."
One thing is for sure. Readers here will enjoy the voice of Annie, the references to local places and the strong affection for the mountains that glows in Morgan's work.

 

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The Road from Gap Creek
Algonquin Books, Chapel Hill
$24.95, hardcover
352 pages

Robert Morgan is scheduled to appear at book launch events at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Aug. 23, at the Heritage Museum, and 5:30 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 24, at Fountainhead Books, 408 N. Main St.