Ghost on Black Mountain by Ann Hite
I met Ann Hite last Saturday at the Dahlonega Literary Festival. She sat on both the panels I attended and at some point that afternoon, while sitting in the book-sales room, she was introduced to Zeus. Hearing her talk about her book got me interested a bit, for one reason in particular. I spent a lot of my young life in and around Black Mountain. My maternal grandmother and a fair number of aunts and uncles lived there. My mother lived there at various times. Me-Maw, my grandmother, didn't live on the mountain itself, but just outside the little town, in a tiny cinder block house with a cellar and a long front porch. The house is gone now, mowed down for a highway project or something when I was 8 or so, and she moved to another house a few streets away (on Ruby Avenue, as it happens, which was my mother's name). She died when I was 11, and thereafter when we visited (more rarely) it was to stay with an aunt or uncle.
So, I had that connection. It's a strained one, made of dim memories -- a rainy night when my mother and I drove up from Florida and Mom took a wrong turn, taking us up the curving hairpins of Black Mountain itself. She was scared the whole time, as it was hard to turn around in the black dark and the rain, with no guardrails and not much road. She didn't want to be on the mountain. I don't recall ever going up that road again, but we may well have at some less memorable time.
My dim memories are made of sunlight and the smell of cool water, of biscuits and herbs, the sour green apples that grew in my grandmother's front yard and the cherry tomatoes my cousins and I would snitch -- so sweet! We pinched her pinch-me-nots and hunted for four lead clovers, and even adventurously bit into the green rounded leaves for the sharp-sweet-green taste of them. The only place I ever chased fireflies was under those trees.
The two cousins I spent the most time with, Karen and Lynn -- Karen two years older, Lynn almost a whole year younger -- and and I hunted fox grapes in the little single lane road behind the house and made a yearly mission of damming up a little creek that ran nearby, hauling rocks and getting soaked every day. They were jealous because I called our grandmother "Grandma" while they called her "Me-maw", as did most of my other cousins. I always wanted to call her "Me-maw" so I could be like them.
My mother was born in 1927, on the younger end of her 12 siblings, and her family moved around a fair bit between Tennessee and North Carolina. I'm not sure when they settled in Black Mountain, but it was well before my grandfather died in 1956. I know my mother went to highschool there and played girl's basketball, a secret kept from my grandfather by MeMaw. My grandfather didn't approve of such things, just as he didn't approve of girls cutting their hair or going with boys. My mother married at 19 to get away from him, to a man who abused her terribly. The marriage was annulled, she told me. I don't know the man's name. She went on to marry 3 more times. Her second husband was also abusive, at least by modern standards, and, as far as I can tell, also local to that area. The third was my father, her fourth and last my stepfather, both from out west.
So, I came into this book with a lot of luggage, shall we say.
The book itself tells a single braided story from several points of view, all female, and from different points in time. It is filled with ghosts, of course, both malevolent and benign, but none who rattle chains or make walls bleed. They are the manifestations of human guilt and love, shame and hatred, kept moving and talking by the living people around them. When Ann talked to me about her book, she asked me to give some attention to the voices of her characters. Some readers, I imagine, have told her that "real people don't talk like that", that she is stereotyping and insulting to the Mountain people. All I can say is that I never noticed anything that didn't sound familiar. In fact, the voices flowed over me as comfortably as my aunts and uncles talking around MeMaw's kitchen table. If anything, Ann made them sound smoother and more educated than perhaps they really did, raising them up a bit rather than looking down on them. More importantly, they fit the story perfectly and never drew my attention.
The story itself kept me reading -- I started and finished on the same day -- and, while I can't say it exactly surprised me, nothing was telegraphed to me. I got into the lives of the women I met within the pages and tried to see the men in their lives as they saw them. By the end, by the last page, I had tear-blurred eyes for no reason and for many reasons.
Did I enjoy it? I'd say that's not a proper question about this book. This isn't a story set down to enjoy, exactly. There's too much pain and too little laughter for enjoyment. In fact, the book might feel a bit shallow, the way a creek is shallow until one takes a wrong step and then you're up to your hips in icy water, smooth rocks rolling under your shod feet and denying you an easy escape. It looks pretty and sparkly, makes a charming noise, but you can get hurt there. Yes, you can drink the water. It will keep you alive. It can also kill you if you are careless near it.
Yeah, that's what this book is.
And, yes, I will have to hunt up her other books. I don't read a lot of ghost stories or Southern stories. I was born and raised in Central Florida, which is to the South what Cheez Whiz is to a good Gouda, so my accent, my viewpoints, and my essential self is not attached firmly to the region. However, that desire to play in creek water, to haul the rocks around and change the song, will pull me back to her stories and her voices.