Robert Morgan paints a searing portrait of a North Carolina family during the 1920s in his latest novel, This Rock. Ginny Powell, widowed for years, tries to keep her sons together while they struggle to survive in a grim Appalachian valley. Moody, true to his name, looms sullen and mean-spirited, running moonshine and developing a reputation as a knife-fighter. The younger brother, Muir, dreams of building things and escaping the valley. The conflict between the two runs rampant throughout the book, spilling over into internecine violence.
As he demonstrated in Gap Creek, a widely admired novel that became an Oprah Book Club selection, Morgan has a gift for capturing the cadences and diction of North Carolina mountain people. An honesty bordering on intense self-reflection graces the voices of both Ginny and Muir, who alternate in narrating the novel. Ginny remains preoccupied with making peace between her sons, and her anguish at Moody's self-destructive behavior parallels the anxiety she feels with Muir's restlessness. She is a tough but tender woman, tempered by tragedy and hardship, fixated on her family. She is also a curious hybrid of Pentecostal and Baptist, and she limns her story with a heavy spiritual tone. The chapters narrated by Muir also reveal a spirituality (at the age of 16, he feels called to be a preacher, and later, in a moment of drunken epiphany, he charges himself with building a church) as well as his wanderlust. At one point, Muir lights out for Canada, only to encounter bewildering cities and people on his journey. This collision of urban and rural proves too intense, and he eventually returns to North Carolina chastened and humbled.
Morgan's prose is sharp and saturated with details, and he has a particular talent for describing the intricacies of manual labor. He can spend pages chronicling the minutiae of clearing land on a mountain in order to build a road, though never in a fashion to bore or stunt the story's flow. Indeed, he imbues his writing with a sort of lyrical sheen, taking particular delight in illustrating with words the mountains, forests and rivers of Appalachia. The sum of these parts is a novel that explores the relationship between people and land in a way both moving and spiritual.
Michael Paulson teaches English in Baltimore.