Continuing my 2018 resolution to read one Appalachian book a month, September’s title was Southernmost by Silas House. House has long been a favorite author of mine due to his lyrical writing voice (I even named a dog Anneth after a character in The Coal Tattoo), so I was quite excited to read his latest novel. I figured vacation would be the perfect chance! For the first two weeks of September, my husband and I drove the Ring Road in Iceland, and Southernmost was along for the ride.
I’ve done my best during this project to balance out gender and genre in my Appalachian readings. Adding in an LGBTQ author was important to me too. The fact that this novel also deals with LGBTQ issues within Appalachia made it a necessary addition to my list. House’s main character, Asher Sharp, is a straight man, born and raised in Appalachian Tennessee, who begins to question the tenets of his church regarding homosexuality. After years of living with fear and regret, he has a change of heart regarding a gay neighbor in need—seeing in him his own brother, Luke. It isn’t an easy transition, but it is a necessary one.
Following August’s book about snake handling in the Holiness church, this book reignited my thoughts on insiders and outsiders, as well as the intersection of culture and religion. The narrator in Salvation on Sand Mountain is an outsider who carefully inserts himself into the Holiness tradition to learn about the people and their rituals. In Southernmost, Asher is a pastor, very much an insider, who suddenly finds himself on the outs with most of his congregation and with his own previous teachings. He is stereotypically Appalachian—white, Christian, and rural with ties to land and family—until he turns that cliché on its head when he steals away his son after his marriage falls apart due to his personal revelations. In addition to creating a wonderfully rounded character in Asher, House does an excellent job of showing how various family and community members react to Asher’s growth. Some shun him, others support him. This is true to life, and so important to see in the genre of Appalachian literature. As I’ve stated time and again throughout these blog posts (especially after J. D. Vance’s claims of Appalachia as a “pure” region), Appalachia is beautifully diverse in thought, deed, and creed.
A favorite character of mine is Justin, Asher’s son. He’s an introspective nine-year-old who sees God in the ocean, in the river, in the sky. He’s sensitive, curious, and anxious, and he reminds me of myself. He is literally the next generation of Appalachia, and he is complex in his beliefs while still holding on to a child-like sense of wonder, which is refreshing. In fact, the various spiritual paths the characters take reflect Appalachian multiplicity in a moving way. While Justin’s mother’s stagnant faith was shaped by her religious father, Justin decides for himself what he believes, and Asher accepts he was wrong in the past and sets out to ask forgiveness.
I’ve heard some readers question why Luke, Asher’s brother, isn’t the main character, but as House pointed out in a chat at the bell hooks Institute, the narrative conflict lies with Asher. The book advances as Asher evolves and moves forward, while also literally moving south. Interestingly, the further he gets from home, the sharper the conflict is, and the more clearly Asher can see the situation he’s gotten himself into. And, arguably, like the John Donne poem “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” wherein a couple is a compass, Asher’s community back home is inextricably tied to him and also has to bend in new and different ways due to his actions.
The rising tensions of Asher’s journey, from the moment he realizes life must change to his eventual return to Tennessee, force the reader to ponder what causes such self-growth, especially when it is intertwined with great loss. How do fear and hate lock a person in or out? What triggers the scales to drop from our eyes so we suddenly see the world in a different light? I’m still not sure of the answer, but truth and love certainly have something to do with it.
In the despair often surrounding us these days, I will remind myself of the simple beauty of truth and love by repeating the phrase Olivia Bougainvillea Iguana.
For other books featured in my Appalachian Readings series, click here.