Goshen Road, Bonnie Proudfoot. Athens, Ohio: Swallow Press, 2020.
Summary: A story told across two generations of two sisters, their husbands and children, and their dignity and struggle to exist in working-class, rural West Virginia.
J. D. Vance in Hillbilly Elegy tells the story of coming from eastern Kentucky hill country to Middletown, Ohio, and the fierce loyalty and scrappy toughness of his relatives, the substance abuse struggles of his mother and many around him in rust-belt Middletown, and a grandmother and mentor who made the difference in his own success.
Goshen Road, a first novel by southeast Ohio author Bonnie Proudfoot, captures some of the same realities, but in a different tone, one that perhaps more fully captures the dignity of rural families facing hard lives, poverty, and less than perfect marriages and family situations. The story centers around two sisters, their husbands, and their children over 25 years (1967-1992) and proceeds as first one, then another, narrate the unfolding of their stories. We see each both through their own aspirations and struggles, and through the voices of the others, offering rich and complicated portrayals of each character.
Lux Cranfield, being rushed to the emergency room after a logging accident that would cost him the sight in one eye, sees Dessie Price smile as he passes by. When he recovers, he determines to court her, asks her father Bertram Price for her hand, and starts out married life on Price land, learning to work in the sawmill instead of the woods. They attempt to build on family land up the hill on Goshen Road but feuds, flooding and the sense of being nearer Dessie’s family as children come along lead them to give up the effort. We trace the family through struggles with weather, illness, economic downturns, getting by on food stamps, but feeding government surplus handouts to their animals.
Meanwhile Dessie’s younger sister Billie marries Alan Ray Munn, Lux’s friend who rescued him in the logging accident. As time passes and children come, Alan Ray has a roving eye and a growing problem with alcoholism. Domestic violence is always in the background. The two sisters help each other out. One shining moment comes when Alan Ray’s team defeats a much more impressive team in the nearby town. Alan Ray recaptures a moment’s youth before the hard life of logging and alcohol take their toll on his body.
Momentous events like deaths are interwoven with narratives of canning and putting up food. Eventually we hear the voices of children as well. One of the finest was when Lissy, Dessie’s daughter describes the momentary freedom of a run in the country, away from a violent husband, and then as night falls, growing fear, aware of reports of a rapist who had preyed on other women in the area. We learn what it is like to grow up gay in the rural hollows through Ron, Dessie’s son.
The novel portrays a life of hard work for everyone, of hard and dangerous, and economically uncertain jobs for men, of the violence in the home women faced, and the strength they exercised in supporting each other, and with their men in time with even less protection against domestic abuse than the present. There are both the stereotypes of fundamentalist religion and episodes where pastors give profound counsel and comfort. We see imperfect people in hard circumstances who somehow are there for each other in the toughest of times, sisters who grew up as rivals, who are strong for each other when it is needed.
This is fine writing from a first time Appalachian novelist. She helps us enter into the realities of Appalachian life, how people both eked out a life, and really lived. The different voices humanize and individualize the characters. The prose is lean yet descriptive, the dialogue believable. Reading this engaged me with the lives of the characters and transported me to rural West Virginia.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.