First, a bit of self-positioning: I’m a big Doctor Who fan, Dan Brown’s books can keep me reading all night long, and A Song of Ice and Fire is currently holding me in thrall. I love stories with an epic scope, where a battle can determine the future of a galaxy, where the fate of the human race is on one person’s shoulders, where wide swaths of history are made and unmade. I love these stories. I do. They’re especially great for perspective — when I feel myself getting a little too convinced of my own importance, it can be very useful to pick up one of these stories and realize, “Oh, right, I’m not making decisions for the universe. Thank goodness for that.”
But at other times, it’s nice to pick up a story about ordinary people — people like me, thinking about what they’ll make for supper and do next weekend, while being vaguely aware that they should also be paying attention to broader questions, like whether they enjoy their work and what they’ve done recently to help someone else. It can be so refreshing to read these people’s stories and realize that I don’t have to win the lottery, or be born a princess, or bodyswap with a model, to have a noteworthy life. Sometimes it’s just enough to live the life I have to the fullest extent.
In Robert Morgan’s Gap Creek, ordinary people are not just characters in the story; they are the story. Julie Harmon, age seventeen, is said to “work like a man” — a necessary thing in turn-of-the-century Appalachia, especially after Julie’s father dies of tuberculosis. Soon enough, a handsome boy named Hank persuades her to marry him and move to a place on Gap Creek, where the couple will keep house for an old widower.
The main plot is both richly detailed and familiar: Hank and Julie are trying to survive as subsistence farmers in the face of fire, flood, heartache, and deceit. But behind this straightforward narrative, there are deeper questions in motion. Julie is the hardest worker her family has ever seen — but what happens what that isn’t enough? When she sets her mind to a task and pours her soul into it and still fails, what can she fall back on? With questions like these echoing behind the story, Julie’s struggles to butcher a pig or dig for ginseng will suddenly seem less like quaint details and more like metaphors for our own workaholic times.
Some readers report feeling overwhelmed or depressed by Hank and Julie’s sea of troubles, which raises an interesting question: When does a writer cross the line between tragedy and overkill? Personally, I don’t think Morgan goes too far in Gap Creek, for two reasons. First, his narrative rings true with other contemporary Appalachian accounts I’ve read. Second, I think exposure to hardship is the first step to empathy. Even if it’s the hardship being experienced by fictional people a hundred years ago, it’s still a good conscience-tuner.
But what do you think? If you’re read Gap Creek, did you think the constant hardships were too much? Have you ever read a story that went too far in creating tragedy?