"The green rolling hills of West Virginia
Are the nearest thing to heaven that I know
Though the times are sad and drear
And I cannot linger here
They'll keep me and never let me go."
Wednesday, May 24, 2017
"Still Life With Plums" by Marie Manilla--Book Review
Manilla, Marie 2010 Still Life With Plums (Morgantown, WV, Vandalia Press)
I just took a long, quiet drive across the West Virginia I have always loved courtesy of Marie Manilla, one of the Mountain State's finest writers. This collection of short stories is set primarily in West Virginia with a bit of Texas thrown in for good measure. But the author's primary setting, source of knowledge and folkways, and the home place of her heart is West Virginia, the West Virginia that is found in the lyrics to "The Green Rolling Hills Of West Virginia".
That line "though the times are sad and drear and I cannot linger here they'll keep me and never let me go" personifies this book in many ways. Several of the stories are set among times, places, families, and individuals who are "sad and drear". But nearly every character in the book has learned the truth that West Virginia will "keep me and never let me go". They have found the sources of both their pain and their pleasure in that sweet, dark, heart warming, shimmering green, and dreary land between the Ohio River and the headwaters of the Potomac. Thanks to Ms. Manilla, these characters are generally able to resolve that pain and relish the pleasures of life. As I read this book, I was reminded of the song writing of Dolly Parton in such songs as "Mountain Angel" and "These Old Bones". Marie Manilla has that same ability to reach into the soul of a flawed character who is generally not responsible for her flaws but found them at the hands of others.
"Still Life With Plums" is a book to be read slowly, thoughtfully, and deeply. These characters are real people that you and I have both known and often loved with a love that was deepened and strengthened by many shared mornings fueled on water gravy and a thin hoe cake. These characters have a few too many patches on their britches and the cold winter winds blowing down the Guyandotte or the Gauley have cut right through their pea coats on the way to the mine, factory, or company store. Marie Manilla understands West Virginia and her people as only one of their own can comprehend. She creates characters out of the whole cloth of a life lived in that land built from secession, independence, and hardship. These characters find connections, assistance, and subsistence among others like themselves, strong despite having been bowed, compassionate in addition to being tough, loving despite having been discarded, and proud Mountaineers in the face of all that history of having been discriminated against. They are my people. They are your people. They are the people of Cabell, Wayne, and Summers Counties. They are the people of the industrial and chemical river and the people of the log woods and coal fields. They are people you should meet and come to know. They are people you should take a long, quiet ride with across the green rolling hills of that beautiful, blessed paradise we call our mountain home.