The swampy, meandering waters of the Salkehatchie River that flow with oblivious urgency around the town of Digger, South Carolina, provide both the backdrop and the metaphor for Charles Martin's debut novel, The Dead Don't Dance. Life, for protagonist Dylan Styles, mirrors the uncertain currents, the peaceful surface and the inexorable flow of the river. As with fellow Southerner Daniel Wallace's Big Fish, the river is the ultimate representation of God. You can fight it and drown, or you can embrace it and be carried wherever it wishes to take you. Styles, a poor dirt farmer with a Ph.
D., is in love with his wife, Maggie. The soybeans have peaked, the corn is high, the wisteria is in bloom. Maggie is gloriously pregnant. God is in His heaven, all's well with the world. Life is good until the delivery goes tragically awry. The baby is stillborn, and the doctors are nearly helpless to staunch the flow of Maggie's blood, leaving her in a coma. The river has become a raging flood.
A devastated Styles wrestles with God with all the fervor, anger, questions and demands of a modern-day Jacob, and gets his proverbial hip kicked out of joint for his trouble. Like Jacob, though he may limp for the rest of his life, every life he touches is changed including his own. As medical bills mount, Styles puts his Ph.
D. to use as an adjunct teacher at the local junior college, and in true Mr. Holland fashion whips a ragtag group of grammatically challenged miscreants into a competent class of creative writers. Among the students is a shy, unmarried, pregnant girl, Amanda, who doubles as a nurse's assistant; a gifted athlete with a shot at the pros, if he can just pass this class; a Hemingway/Fitzgerald prodigy who hides her eyes and her pain behind dark glasses and an icy demeanor.
Martin's novel inspires without being overly religious, or even particularly faith-based, and should strike a chord with fans of Sparks' The Notebook and similarly emotive works. The Dead Don't Dance is a classic example of God-haunted Southern literature. Mike Parker is a Southern writer from Texas, now living in Tennessee.