Silas House is my favorite modern author, known for writing authentic and beautiful fiction about contemporary Appalachia. I read his novel Clay’s Quilt years ago, but had not realized afterward he wrote two more prequel books about Clay’s family until I picked up A Parchment of Leaves and realized he was writing about the ancestors of Clay. I then read The Coal Tattoo which depicts Clay’s mother’s life, and finally re-read Clay’s Quilt once again.
A Parchment of Leaves (2002)
Set in the early 1900s in eastern Kentucky, Saul is a young man who falls in love with a Cherokee woman, whose family lives in a small settlement nearby. They marry and have a daughter named Birdie, but problems arise when Saul’s brother Aaron also falls in love with Vine. The extended family endures poverty and discrimination in their rural life, but ultimately the bonds of family and friendship strengthen them. The story also highlights a love of nature and shows a changing way of life in the mountains as logging companies move in.
I loved this book and it proved to be my favorite of the trilogy. As I am already a fan of Appalachian fiction, I was then doubly pleased to find a reference to people of Melungeon descent in this story. As someone who suspects this ancestry in her family (not proven yet-as records back then were non-existent or hidden), I was interested in reading about Cherokee and Melungeon culture and how people were treated because of it. The book was heartbreaking to see families hide their language and customs, and have the next generation not know of their past. This book was so true to life; I could imagine Vine, Aaron, Serena, Saul, Esme and Aidia, and see them in my mind’s eye.
The Coal Tattoo (2004)
This book was a sore disappointment to me after reading A Parchment of Leaves and loving the character of Vine so much.
I was not happy about Vine’s painful death and the regrets she had, and then how her daughter Birdie died, but the flashbacks to her friendship with Serena were wonderful. Her grandchildren Easter, Anneth and Gabe were not worthy of Vine; with Anneth especially rubbing me the wrong way. I wanted more of Gabe in the story, while poor Easter could never relax because she was always so rigid. Yet, the chapters about her son being stillborn and her crisis of faith were heartbreaking. I was pleased that she had a happy marriage to El and the chapter about having a ‘small life’ was well written about how some people are happy with their small town/rural life and don’t need more to be happy. Anneth was truly unlikable to me, her wild and foolish behavior set my teeth on edge. I didn’t buy her love affair with the soldier and her falling in love and getting pregnant during a weekend with him. The ending of the story was rather abrupt but will conclude with Clay’s Quilt (although this trilogy was written with the last book chronologically written first).
Clay’s Quilt (2001)
Clay’s Quilt is an evocative and lyrical book about Clay Sizemore, a young man tied to his family and community in Kentucky, and how he finds his place in life. Orphaned as a young boy, Clay is raised by his pious aunt and hard-drinking uncle and is blessed with many cousins. He is especially close to his cousin Dreama and his best friend Cake. After high school, he willingly works in a local coal mine, and parties every weekend with Cake. For years a lot of drinking, smoking marijuana and dancing were part of their lives, but he feels stuck in a rut when he meets Alma, a fiddler who is getting divorced from her abusive husband. The two fall in love, but a deadly fight with Alma’s ex gives him a crisis of faith that he needs to work through. The ending is a love letter to his region and kin, and this debut novel by House ended up being the last of a three-book series that House wrote about the Sizemore family.
On a side note, when does contemporary writing become historical fiction? Published in 2001, the story takes place from the 1970s through the 90s, although much of it feels timeless, as technology with computers and cell phones was not part of the narrative. The opioid epidemic had not hit the area yet and coal mining was still a viable job, so the story feels like a puzzle piece bridging the past and modern life now. I applaud the author for bringing the fictional Sizemore family to life and showcasing his beloved Kentucky. Many Appalachian books are set in the past, so this book was a breath of fresh air about being proud of your heritage- for he brought to life the beauty of the mountains, plus he showed respect to working-class and rural families of a region that is often overlooked or even looked down upon. I highly recommend the entire three-book series!