Note: the following blog post is a repost from our 2009 Southwest Regional Retreat Writers Workshop blog page. Click here for the main 2009 C.S. Lewis Southwest Regional Retreat page.
This is the first of my reviews of the Southwest Regional Retreat and Writers Workshop speakers’ books. I hope they motivate you to run out and get them (through this website’s bookstore, of course) and read them.
Blue Hole Back Home by Joy Jordan-Lake
BLUE HOLE BACK HOME tugs at the heart like that big swimming hole drew the young people of the Appalachian mountain town to its frigid waters in that hot summer of 1979.
A tale so haunting in its realness, its earthiness, its foreshadowing of tragedy from the moment Farsanna, “the new girl lifted her brown legs up over the tailgate of the truck” and the mangy pack introduced her to the Blue Hole and the all-white community of teens. Shelby Lenoir Maynard and the other four teens of the pack welcomed the new girl from Sri Lanka.
The story begins with the narrator, Shelby Lenoir Maynard, grown and living in Boston. A chance encounter triggers her memory of the events that happen when she was sixteen-years-old and “skinny and awkward and carried whatever smarts I had then like a warning.” In the telling she sheds her constructed shell to face the guilt her past brings her: “Maybe some parts of your past don’t stay just where you thought your life left them all shredded in pieces.”
The pack offered a hand and friendship. Farsanna took it-Sanna, the color of hot cocoa, speech stiff and stilted, face expressionless, hair flowing licorice, eyes “black pits that might or might not be hiding explosives.” And Stray too, the black and white spotted mutt.
When the friends welcomed the dark-skinned girl into their circle they thought they were a good generation past that racial “stuff” that had happened years before. That’s why they decided to “say nothing to nobody,” not about the shooting they witnessed the night they drove down into the valley where the blacks live; nor about Turtle and Sanna’s almost hit and run, nor the burnt cross on Em’s truck seat-”all the stuff that didn’t mean anything.” Too late, they come face to face with bigotry and suffer it’s vengeance. “It was the men in white bed sheets that changed us,” writes Shelby, “them and the Blue Hole changed us forever.”
Jordan-Lake paints the characters with a scalpel. Shelby’s nickname of Turtle gives us an inkling into her psyche and the naiveté of the pack. Turtle’s older brother Emerson “billed himself as a bona fide Jock and hid books, old poetry mostly, in issues of Sports Illustrated.” His best friend, Beauregard Riggs the preacher’s son, Jimbo, “handled words like electrical wires he just might dip into water.” L.J. was the pack’s resident genius—”clumsy and stringy and smart in a school that cared nothing for schooling.” Bobby, Welp, was a whittler, a fence sitter, and-perhaps a sulking Judas? Always present is Big Dog, the chubby golden retriever who loved barbeque and Dr. Pepper.
They say you can’t go home again, but Joy takes us back to her own teen years in Tennessee where there she knew a new girl from Sri Lanka. There was a real racial incident that gave birth to the story. From that she spins her tale. It’s fiction, but her characters breathe discomfort. Mort is “a Clydesdale behind skittish ponies”-the pack thought him “all swagger and snarl. Him and his gun for a security blanket.” Jimbo’s daddy, whose “flesh nor his thoughts seemed to take on a firm substance.” He preached a nice God. “Truth was something the Good Reverend liked to hand out soft and slow and sweet-smelling . . .” Then of course there was the Blue Hole, not blue at all but deep rusty brown when churned up, its banks heavy with teenagers and boys contending in wild contests swinging from the rope swing and casting their bodies into the unforgiving mountain waters.
I was stunned when I began reading-stunned by the incredible language-prose that sings. I read the first chapter four times before coming to terms that I couldn’t do the book justice on a trip to Hawaii. Home, and with no distractions, I could feast on the banquet of poetic prose. We writers can read how-to-write tomes endlessly and learn to put words on paper-but to make those words sing? This takes God inspired talent and a superb mastery of the tongue. Joy’s use of singular action verbs, vivid description, scintillating dialogue, and unique metaphors mesmerized me. You’d think it was a textbook for all my highlighting. I’ve shared some of the sentences and phrases with my critique group.
As I write, I am constantly challenged to find a livelier word, more imaginative simile, or less clichéd phrase. Just reading Joy is an education in exceptional writing. I can’t begin to imagine what two days under her tutelage will produce. Can you?