Newest Kentucky author debuts with stellar novel Sister Blackberry
Flesh and bone characters grab readers, won’t let go
By Mary Stanton, author of From Selma to Sorrow: The Life and Death of Viola Liuzzo; Journey Toward Justice: Juliette Hampton Morgan and The Montgomery Bus Boycott; The Hand of Esau: Montgomery’s Jewish Community and the Bus Boycott; and Freedom Walk: Mississippi or Bust – all of Mary Stanton’s books, listed above, are published by University of Georgia Press
As a 20-year veteran of the newspaper industry, Melissa Newman, from a small town in Southeastern Kentucky called Barbourville, is no novice when it comes to using the tools of her trade – adjectives, adverbs, ink, paper, keyboard and at times, coffee — whatever it takes. She dives in and creates, resuscitates and gives birth to her story – most recently, her debut novel, Sister Blackberry.
This stellar first novel and what is surely the beginnings of a great literary future for Newman, opens in a Kentucky barn in 1936 with a midwife screaming “in tongues” as she attempts to execute a newborn she believes to be the devil’s child. The author of this, sometimes mythic, tale has found a gem of a first novel in her Sister Blackberry. Her confidence is blatant as her dedication to the craft bursts out of every page and her choice of strong subject matter conveys easily to readers.
The characters, some docile, some violent but all vigilant and all alive with a manifestation of real flesh and bone, would be quite an ample responsibility for even a seasoned writer to handle, yet this new, unheard of novelist chose to cut her teeth on them and did so quite nicely.
She grabs readers from page one just after they flip open the blackberry and sepia-hued cover. She holds them tight and then thrusts them into seventy years of the twists and turns of fate that result from Viola Garland’s rescue of that “demon” child.
While the plot of Sister Blackberry belongs to Viola, matriarch of the Garland family, its resonance comes from the experience of Viola’s granddaughter Maggie the woman whose life is most radically changed by the revelation of A rather ordinary woman, Viola was orphaned as a child, married while still in her teens, and is expecting her first baby as the novel opens. Life in rural Depression-era Kentucky is hard, and while Viola grew up with a basically fatalistic view of life she remains more open to its possibilities than does her best friend Janie Cole, another pregnant young bride. Janie’s husband Bick is a violent, physically abusive coal miner. In an attempt to cope with the tragedies and disappointments that have scarred him, Bick becomes a devotee of back woods fundamentalist religion. He is convinced that the charismatic Brother Caslin can help him overcome his sorrows and frustrations if he can only discipline himself and his backsliding wife to lead a truly Christian life. While this novel’s theme is female friendship, love, and courage, Bick Cole is one of its most fascinating characters. He is a fully realized violent man whose attempts to change only trap him further. In God’s Angry Man, Leon Ehrlich’s novel about John Brown, he observes that criticizing Brown’s son Jay was like “scolding a tree sprung with a blight for not being proper.” That is the powerful portrait of Bick Cole that Newman delivers.
As Newman’s three generations of women struggle to cope with domestic violence, alcoholism, and guilt they too jump from the page as fully realized human beings. All are multi-dimensional characters and quite capable of repeatedly making bad or stupid decisions as they struggle to make sense of their lives. Newman seems to be saying that while life is admittedly easier for 21st Century women, we lost our grandmothers’ ability to cope with and to accept the unacceptable as our expectations rose and our feelings of entitlement grew stronger. We don’t have the character traits that enabled them to keep moving forward, nurturing families, and doing whatever was required to survive inside or outside the law. While the path to their resoluteness has been lost, even if we wanted to find it, (and most of us don’t) Newman counsels us, without being preachy, that each generation has a responsibility to find its way, and that the struggle to live a meaningful life will never be easy. It helps to find a few Sister Blackberries along the way to encourage, protect, and love us.
As cliché as it may sound, Newman is an up and coming fiction writer whose name we should remember to Google from time to time just to see what she’s up to. This author is like most of us; works a day job, has a family. This could be why her characters are so real and relatable; she is the real deal and very relatable in her own right. She gave up the hectic life of newspapering to become the alumni director at her alma mater, Union College – a decision she does not regret. This new job, with a much slower pace, gives her time to focus on her first love – writing fiction. Most in the small town of less than 4,000 never knew she wrote fiction at all. Sure, they remembered Newman’s work in newspaper, but novels, they never suspected.
Sister Blackberry is a good read, with just enough mystery, and a rich portrait of American life in the 1930s and 40s. Newman has demonstrated substantial gifts for characterization, dialogue, and description … again, I have to say stellar first novel.
—-Mary Stanton, January 10, 2010