Book review

'Long Man': the tale of a Tennessee town, sacrificed

The New Deal of the Depression era is understood as a success. But Amy Greene's novel of the TVA reminds us that progress has its victims.

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Yuneetah, Tenn., has never been a prosperous place. The land is not particularly fertile, the Long Man River regularly floods the town, wreaking destruction and taking lives. Yet for its residents this town is home, with all the ties of family and experience and memory that the term suggests -- a place that binds the heart with its dangerous beauty. This is the setting for "Long Man," Amy Greene's new novel and the follow-up to her New York Times best-selling debut "Bloodroot."

By Amy Greene.
Knopf ($25.95).

"Long Man" opens in the summer of 1936, seven years into the Depression. Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal promises relief through public works, and for Yuneetah this means the construction of a dam and electric power plant built by the Tennessee Valley Authority. It will bring jobs and electricity to the region.

Unfortunately, the town itself will have to be sacrificed when the buildup of water engorges the river. For many readers, the New Deal is understood as a success -- a rare instance in which the federal government intervened on behalf of its citizens. Ms. Greene's novel, however, reminds us of the human cost of any enterprise, and that progress always has its victims.

The family at the center of the novel is the Dodsons: James and his wife, Annie Clyde, and their small daughter, Gracie. When the TVA comes around to offer settlements to residents whose land will be consumed by the flood, Annie Clyde is one of the few who actively resist, sitting on her porch with a rifle to help punctuate her feelings on the matter.

And Annie Clyde's feelings run deep. Simply put, she loves the land. It is more than just home -- it is a place so intrinsic to her understanding of herself, of her identity, that she feels certain that any future lived away from Yuneetah will be at best a half life. This is especially true when Annie Clyde begins to feel how important it is to her that Gracie be given a chance to inherit the natural beauty of the land.

The story truly accelerates, however, when the flooding of Yuneetah is only days away. This quiet, rural place is now almost entirely abandoned. Only a small cast of characters remain, including the town's lone policeman, Ellard Moody. His job has not been an easy one, trying to aid the TVA in their work with the dam and with the relocation of residents, but also to be an advocate for those residents whom he has known his whole life.

Suddenly, this includes a man named Amos -- a wanderer, some might call him a vagrant -- who has returned from his travels to have a last look at his childhood home and, perhaps, to cause trouble. Annie Clyde and little Gracie see Amos loitering around their farm, and the encounter unnerves her.

When Gracie goes missing later that evening, suspicions center on Amos, and the reader is propelled along with the characters as they desperately attempt to find the missing girl before the flood waters engulf the town.

Indeed, when Gracie goes missing an already ambivalent situation boils over, testing the character of Yuneetah's remaining residents and revealing ill-buried secrets -- secrets that may be dragged into the light here at the 11th hour or be submerged beneath the flood forever.

This plot -- the search for a missing girl -- is, of course, compelling. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to view "Long Man" as simply a cinematic race against the clock to save the life of a little girl.

Ms. Greene has crafted a story that forces us to examine our relationship with nature, our understanding of community and, significantly, of social class. The residents of Yuneetah are almost uniformly impoverished and poorly educated. Their daily lives are simple and hardworking. In other words, they are just the kind of people our culture often feels a compunction to cast aside when their lives run against the grain of what some people might frame as the common interest.

This novel, written by Ms. Greene during the years of a more recent economic crisis, lends this Depression-era story a moral and ethical vibrancy that we should all pay attention to.

Jeffrey Condran is a co-founder of Braddock Avenue Books. His story collection "A Fingerprint Repeated" was published last year, and his novel "Prague Summer" will be published by Counterpoint in August.

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