This story is set in 1970 in Baines Creek, a fictional mountain settlement in Appalachia. This is a place of “catastrophic poverty,” an isolated community, as newcomer Kate Shaw observes: “a parallel existence, backward from the civilized world that has morphed into the modern day, leaving these people behind.”
Kate has come at the request of Preacher Eli Perkins, who is seeking a teacher for Baines Creek. Many in the community (not just the children) cannot read or write. Kate leaves her relatively comfortable life in Asheville because she was “looking for a place to matter.” She finds it in this troubled community.
She is greeted upon her arrival by two of the residents who typify many in Baines Creek. One is Sadie Blue, ignorant but good-hearted, and as the story begins, newly married to Roy Tupkin, who beats her almost every day, for no reason she can discern: “I figure Roy don’t need a reason no more.”
The other is Prudence Perkins, Preacher Eli’s sister, bitter and addled with hate, resentment, and jealousy. Prudence finds anyone else’s happiness anathema to her, and does what she can to ruin it.
Some of the good women of the town try to look after Sadie, knowing she is in danger by being with Roy. Sadie’s gran, Gladys, won’t help: Gladys had a husband who beat her, and can’t bear seeing a reminder of that with Sadie. Gran’s best friend Marris was lucky in her own marriage, but fears both for Sadie and Gladys. She tries to get Gladys to understand her rage at Sadie.
Sadie finds occasional refuge at Kate’s cottage, where Kate, along with her neighbor Birdie, “midwife, medicine woman, and storywriter for these parts,” help to care for Sadie after she is beaten.
Tensions mount as the beatings increase in frequency, and as Prudence decides to get rid of Kate. Prudence is incensed because her brother Eli likes talking to Kate, a situation which threatens to take his attention away from her. There is also a girl missing from a neighboring area, who, it was rumored, was the latest obsession of Roy Tupkin. Is she even still alive?
Meanwhile, after two and half months being legally wedded to Roy, Sadie vows that “Roy beat up on me for the last time and don’t even know it.” Roy and his best friend Billy go hunting, and while they are gone, Sadie contemplates spiking his private stash of moonshine with poison. She doesn’t like the idea of killing someone, and prays:
“Sweet Jesus, help me. I promise to be good after this. All I want is to not get beat up. Find my special life. Life up to my potential. Read by myself. Kill Roy Tupkin.” She tells her cat “We won’t live scared. Won’t watch for the kick of that man’s boot. . . . Oh, merciful Lord, please make my plan work.”
But events turned out much differently than Sadie anticipated. And now she has to make a choice.
Evaluation: A book about poverty, despair, and women stuck in marriages in which they get beaten regularly isn’t exactly a happy experience, but this is a good story, and the ending is both surprising and rewarding.
Published by Sourcebooks Landmark, an imprint of Sourcebooks, 2017