- A Richness of Characters:The Fiction of Amy Greene
I was, I think, four the first time I remember trying to read something. My father was in the living room reading the Sunday newspaper and on the page he was looking at was a large photograph of the moon. I have no recollection why there would be a story centered on the moon at that particular time. The Apollo 11 landing was still roughly a dozen years in the future. Perhaps the article was connected in some way with Sputnik, the satellite that the Soviet Union launched in 1957, or perhaps it was just a Sunday science feature on astronomy.
What I do have a clear memory of is this:
I asked my father about the picture and he put me on his lap and pointed to the word “moon” in the caption for the photograph, tracing his finger under the four letters, and explaining to me the sounds the letters made—“mmm,” “ooo,” “nnn,” “mmmoooonnn,” “moon”—and then telling me to repeat the sounds.
More than fifty years later, I don’t recall much about the process of learning to read further. I remember primers with two- and three-word sentences about a brother and sister named David and Ann, the Catholic cousins to Dick and Jane, and tedious phonics drills, and my asking my parents for help in sounding out words I couldn’t, but I can’t point to the moment when my mind made the leap it did, when words were no longer merely an aggregation of sounds but units that carried on sight a specific meaning and, when added to other units carrying specific meaning, constructed larger units with more complex meaning: sentences, paragraphs, books. At a certain point, as for everyone reading this essay, reading became an unconscious act, something as nearly automatic as breathing: we see words and we take in their meanings without thinking about it just as we inhale and exhale without thinking about our respiratory system.
While I have throughout my life read many books I admire and a good number I love, every once in a while, I will encounter one that makes me [End Page 29] conscious of what a privilege it is to be able to read, a book that is so moving or rich or evocative in some way that, when I finish its last sentence and close it, I remember my much younger self struggling to figure out what those lines and curves and circles smashed together sounded like or what they meant, and I think what a marvel it is that my brain came to the point it did at which it could consume hundreds of pages, tens of thousands of words, without thinking of the words as words, without even thinking of myself-as-reader, when the world of the book somehow enters my consciousness in a way that I am sure experimental psychologists and biologists could explain to me but which I don’t understand, nor frankly want to understand, preferring to think of it as a miracle.
I had this sense the first time I read Amy Greene’s masterful Bloodroot—finishing the last sentence (“I wonder if they felt the same thing I did in them few minutes, my blood moving in their veins and passing through their hearts.”) then closing the book and feeling grateful for the fact that someone had once taught me how to read so that I could experience that particular book.
Bloodroot is all of the things a novel should be: densely populated by characters who seem living, breathing human beings and not fictional constructions; centered on narrative events that are of consequence; profound without being pedantic; set in a place that has substance, a place that we could believe we could locate on a map even if the author invents it—and, yes, moving, rich and evocative.
Greene sets Bloodroot largely in the mountains of her own native eastern Tennessee, where she grew up in the foothills of the Smokies. As it has been for many people in the region, life for the characters in the novel is...