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The Day of Small Things

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DISCUSSION QUESTIONS FOR BOOK CLUBS

Crimes grow in rich Appalachian soil
Sharyn McCrumb's 'The Devil Amongst the Lawyers' and Vicki Lane's 'The Day of Small Things' find a rare mix of thriller elements in a particular region.
By Sarah Weinman Special to the Los Angeles Times

At long last! The haunting story of  Miss Birdie Gentry. There's  far more to Birdie, past and present, than meets the eye. . .

ABOUT THIS BOOK

A night of reckoning . . .
A dawn of danger . . .

In the misty folds of Appalachia, the girl they call Least grows up cursed by her mother’s cruelty and blessed by her neglect. Deemed unfit to join the outside world, Least turns to the wisdom of the land, to voices she alone can hear, to legends left by native Indians, and to the arts of pination and healing.

But the time comes when Least has to choose between a doting suitor and her childhood magic, between his church and her spirits. Now, as her life enters its final chapter, her world has been invaded by a violent criminal with a chilling plan. To stop him from committing an unspeakable crime—and to free an innocent child—the woman who was once Least must break long-held promises, draw on long-buried powers, and face a darkness no one else can even see.

New York Times best-selling author of the Duncan Kincaid/Gemma James mysteries has this to say about Birdie's book:

"Vicki Lane is one of the best American novelists writing today. In The Day of Small Things, she has once again rendered a lyrical, evocative, and haunting portrait of life in the Appalachians, both past and present. And in Birdie, she has given us a character who will steal your heart and stay with you for a long time to come. I loved this book--The Day of Small Things will definitely make my short list for 2010."

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS FOR BOOK CLUBS

Vicki is happy to talk with book clubs who are discussing one of her books. Send her an email: vicki@vickilanemysteries.com. if you want to pre-arrange a phone call for your meeting time. If you live in the Asheville area and would like her to come to your meeting, she will do so if her schedule allows.

Caution! Contains spoilers! Don't read until you've read the book!

Discussion Questions for The Day of Small Things

  1. Okay, let’s get this out of the way up front.  Yes, Vicki broke one of the unwritten rules.  Yes, the Snowflower kitty.  Why do you suppose she did this? (Hint: It wasn’t just to be mean.)
  2. A bit of supernatural (aka woo-woo) has crept into the previous books but there was usually an alternative rational explanation for any odd goings-on. Not here. This is flat out Cherokee Magic with a little Celtic /Appalachian witchy woman lore, as passed down from Granny Beck.  How do you feel about this?
  3. What about the various odds and ends following some chapters? Did they enhance your reading experience?
  4. Who is Mr. Aaron, anyway?
  5. What’s the point of the yard dog story?
  6. Do you think Granny Beck died naturally?
  7. Do you find it believable that Birdie kept her promise not to use her magic all these years, even when her own children were dying, and then broke it to help Dorothy?
  8. What’s the Threefold Law and where do you see it working in this book?
  9. What was the point of the rather long story about John Goingsnake?
  10. If you have read the earlier books, do you find this more fully revealed Miss Birdie believable?
  11. And, if you’ve read the earlier books, did you miss Elizabeth?

 

Excerpt-

Ever since the revival at the brush arbor, there have been tongues of fire licking at my body. Folks say that the Holy Spirit spoke through me that night and, now that old man Beale Blankenship has got hisself run over by a train, they say that I am anointed in the spirit and  have the gift of prophecy.

I didn’t know exactly when it happened. All I remember of that night is setting on the hard log bench and hearing the preacher call on the Lord to send down his Holy Spirit to anoint His people. I was hungry and hot and I begun to feel swimmie-headed so I whispered to Mama could I leave the brush arbor and go down by the river where it was cooler.

The next thing that I remember I was laying on the ground before the raised-up place where the elders was setting. The preacher was kneeling in the dust beside of me, just praying like one thing and they was folks standing on the benches and waving their hands in the air

And then Mama took me home. I asked her what had happened and she said that we’d speak of it later but we never have yet and it’s been close on to two weeks now.

We did not go back to the brush arbor though the revival went on for another four days. And now Mama watches me all the time with a worried kind of a look and I heard her tell Papa that she hoped I wasn’t going to begin to take fits like that poor child of Fronie’s. I wonder if that’s what happened to me and I think that I would like to go see Least and ask her if she feels the licking of the tongues of fire.

***

It isn’t till three weeks have passed that I find out more about what happened at the brush arbor. Me and my sister Naomi Ruth, who is fourteen years of age and thinks she’s something, are in the garden picking early beans. We are working our way down the tall shady rows, me on one side, her on the other, so’s not to miss a single ripe pod. The beans have done extry good this year and the sea-grass strings are so thick with vines that all I can see of Naomi Ruth is her hand poking in and out of the sticky green leaves. But I can hear her plain. She is aggravated at me.

“What I think,” she says in her prissy, smarty-pants voice, “is that you weren’t doing nothing but putting on a show, that time at the brush arbor.”

            Her pink fingers are jumping in and out of the vines, pulling off the long fat pods with a sharp snapping sound.     

“I wasn’t putting on nothing,” I say. “And I don’t remember nothing either but for standing up to leave and then laying on the ground up at the front of the arbor. I don’t know how I got there.” 

The busy fingers stop and make a peek hole in the green curtain of bean vines and Naomi Ruth puts her face up to the open spot. She looks cross and her face is all sweaty and red under her poke bonnet.

           “You don’t remember hollering out all them made-up words? And pointing your finger at Mr. Beale Blankenship and what you said to him?”

            “No,” I say, “I done told you, I don’t remember nothing. What did I say?”

            Naomi Ruth squinches up her face like she’s trying to remember. “It was crazy talk – first you hollered out that wine is a mocker, which I have heard the preacher say back of this, and then you called out something about death coming on a black horse and the horse breathing fire and smoke and running down a silver road. And you called Mr. Beale Blankenship a drunk and a sinner, which ever one knows but it weren’t fitten for you to say it, being just a little girl. And the quarest thing was that the whole time you was talking, your eyeballs was rolled back in your head till didn’t nothing show but white but you was pointing right at poor ol Beale Blankenship. And he went to trembling and turning white as a ghost and then you quit talking. First you rolled your head around and then you hit the floor like someone had knocked you down.”

            Naomi Ruth pushes her head through the hole in the bean vines and looks hard at me. “And you say you don’t remember none of that?”

            I look down where my basket is setting and try to make a picture out of what she has told me but I can’t see nothing but the dirt and the little rocks and a devil-in-the-garden weed that we missed last time we hoed. I reach and yank it out. “No,” I say one more time, “not none of that.”

            The hole in the green curtain closes back up and I hear Naomi Ruth making a hmmph sound in her throat like she don’t believe me. Her pink fingers go back to yanking the beans loose and the snapping sounds come faster and faster.

            It seems like there is something big pressing on me, trying to press me down into the dirt between the rows. I turn my face up to the hot blue sky and the sun that is straight overhead. And now it seems like there is a golden ray shooting right into my eye like a rock dropping down the dark well that is the narrow place between the tall bean rows. The beam of sun shoots down the bean vine well and down the well made by the brim of my poke bonnet and right into the heart of me and I know that I have been hit by the Holy Spirit and that his flame will burn in me forever.


Crimes grow in rich Appalachian soil

Sharyn McCrumb's 'The Devil Amongst the Lawyers' and Vicki Lane's 'The Day of Small Things' find a rare mix of thriller elements in a particular region.


By Sarah Weinman Special to the Los Angeles Times

November 7, 2010


Say the word "Appalachia" in some variant or another and the probability is pretty high that someone will come back with a humorous remark — or one he or she thinks is funny, but isn't. It's a region that stretches as far north as the state of New York and as far south as the mid-point of Mississippi, with more than 23 million strong living within boundaries that first began to be recognized as a distinct entity in the 19th century. And yet, the snickers emitted when South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford claimed, in 2009, that he was "hiking the Appalachian Trail" — rather than own up to an extramarital affair — had as much to do with the culturally backward connotations of his excuse as the scandal itself.

It's easier to make fun of something one doesn't understand, and Appalachia's mix of strong religious ties, farming, crop cultivation and Cherokee Indian folklore produces a brew that might be even more potent than the moonshine the region was long famous for. As a result, the crime fiction that originates from Appalachia teems with pungent smells and sounds and is steeped in the roots of generations of families — and, of course, in blood, especially of past sins coming due in the present.

The undisputed queen of such fiction — even though she has repeatedly professed to loathe being categorized this way — is Sharyn McCrumb. Her series of eight Ballad novels, beginning with "If I Ever Return, Pretty Peggy-O" (1990) and most recently adding "The Devil Amongst the Lawyers" (Thomas Dunne/St. Martin's: 336 pp., $24.99) explores Appalachian history and folklore through an autobiographical lens (McCrumb's family settled in the western North Carolina mountains in the 1790s). Each book is set at a different historical point in time, incorporating real murder cases and pinned structurally on the rhythms of real songs; the series features generations of recurring characters — the predominant, and most beloved by fans, being Nora Bonesteel, a "wise woman" gifted with second sight.

"The Devil Amongst the Lawyers" flashes back to 1935, when the country was mired in the Depression, the Appalachian region hit especially hard. The situation is exacerbated on a national scale when a schoolteacher is tried for murdering her father, and incoming media from urban areas see fit to mock the mountain town for its rural ways. Nora, here age 12, is new to her gift, and immediately she's seized on by her newspaperman cousin to ferret out the real truth about the murder in the absence of tangible evidence. While the story falters near the end, McCrumb's obvious love of the region never wavers and offers a lesson or two for those on America's East and West poles who dare sneer down at those living in-between.

*

While McCrumb pens a new Ballad novel only every few years, those looking for a fix will be well-satisified by the novels of Vicki Lane, who dwells on a mountain farm in North Carolina. She first attracted attention in crime fiction circles with her series featuring Elizabeth Goodweather, a 50-ish proprietor of an herb and flower garden with an open heart and a curious mind about beliefs she may not necessarily share. Those traits serve her well as an amateur sleuth looking into crimes in Ridley Branch, where members of militia groups, back-to-the-landers, believers in extraterrestrials and fundamentalist Christians all dwell together, uncomfortably enough to throw up a murder every now and then.

With "The Day of Small Things" (Dell: 414 pp., $7.99 paper), Lane moves away from the series and more in a direction first traveled by both McCrumb and Carolyn Wall, author of the excellent 2008 novel "Sweeping Up Glass" (Delta: 336 pp., $15 paper). Lane uses a traumatic birth scene to introduce us to a baby whose mother, in a fit of pique from too many babies birthed already, names her Least — and proceeds to treat her youngest child with disdain, neglect and, occasionally, abuse.

Employing a languorous prose style inflected with mountain dialect, Lane unspools the arc of Least's life, from her grandmother's discovery that she has The Sight ("I knowed the first minute I seen the child Least that she had the Gifts — could read it in her eyes — though it was likewise clear she hadn't no idea of what the Gifts are and how she might use them") to marriage to a man deeply wedded to the Church (and less to the more magical elements of Least's abilities). She takes readers into Least's current life, nearer to the end than the beginning, and a threat on her final years cast by the arrival of a dangerous criminal. With these changes come changes to her name, as Least sheds her horrible moniker for the more fitting one of Birdie (or, sometimes, Little Bird), which connotes the free spirit she grows into and the spirits she is in semi-constant contact with.

"The Day of Small Things" shines as a chronicle of Depression-era Appalachia and the coming-of-age of Lane's protagonist, who starts out with wings clipped and later lets them go free. When danger hits as Birdie grows very old, Lane isn't quite as skillful at evoking the suspense necessary to warrant our fear that Birdie won't leave the world on her own terms. But like McCrumb, Lane demonstrates how deeply she feels part of her Appalachian home, how tied she is to the land and the pulsating beats that can't quite be found elsewhere.

Weinman blogs about crime and mystery fiction at sarahweinman.com. "Dark Passages" appears monthly at latimes.com/books.

Copyright © 2010, Los Angeles Times

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