New Bern, NC – INTRO - A new book by a Greensboro author uses a senseless tragedy to explore how a community is knit and how it can come undone. George Olsen has more.
Valerie Nieman uses her past work experience to provide the impetus for events in her new novel of fiction "Blood Clay."
"I think as a newspaper reporter for many, many years I've seen people react differently. Some people are heroic and had no idea they could do it and other people fail and people always second guess. You'd like to go back and see "what if, should I have done something different."
In the opening pages of "Blood Clay" a young girl is attacked and killed by a pack of dogs an attack that is witnessed by a school teacher in the fictional North Carolina town of Taberville and whose efforts to stop the attack are questioned by that town's residents. But the book isn't so much about trying to find justice for a life that is lost but about how the town reacts specifically toward Tracy Gaines, the school teacher who comes under fire when her efforts to stop the attack are deemed insufficient.
"I think each of those elements has its own place in the book. I was also really concerned with the idea of loving a place, of becoming part of a place. So I'm very much concerned with how people become a part of a community, especially a rural community where we really rely on each other. And what if in falling in love with a place that love was denied?"
The town's acceptance of Tracy tenuous at best as a newcomer to the town following her move from the North following the dissolution of her marriage comes undone as people see her efforts to help the girl as feeble and her pointing out the owner of two of the dogs in the attack as an effort not toward justice but toward shifting the blame. The town's coolness toward her and Tracy's reaction to it are on display when Tracy lunches with Dave, a fellow teacher and long-time resident of the town.
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Tracy's story to some degree is Valerie Neiman's story. Neiman was born and raised in New York, living there for 20 years before spending 25 years in West Virginia where she divorced and moved to North Carolina. Unlike Tracy though, Neiman sees the simple act of waving at a stranger not as two-faced but as a societal good.
"I think that the idea of courtesy and openness is important for society to function well and I think North Carolinians are the kindest and most open people I've known. But for someone who is suspicious as Tracy now is they see it as solely a cover-up or manipulative so she's been jaundiced in the wake of the tragedy and now that's the way she looks at what she had viewed as something wonderful, people waving and that's something that happened when I moved here, that people would wave at me and I didn't understand it so I'm drawing that from my own experience, but unlike Tracy I do feel that North Carolinians are the sweetest people I've been around and that the openness and willingness to share is something that I've responded to."
While Nieman's lead character belies her own feelings about her adopted home state, there's also a similar conflict when looking at certain North Carolina traditions particularly tobacco which Nieman writes about in a heartfelt manner while acknowledging at different points in the book the ravages it can leave behind.
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"I think a lot of what I write it deals with the end of things, the end of a way of life, in the novels I've written and many stories. When I came to North Carolina it was at the end of that kind of way of living, at least in small acreage, I know that tobacco has become more mechanized but you could still see it when I first came out here people out in the fields still doing things by hand, and it really is a beautiful crop and seeing it come up and seeing the flowers when they are allowed to flower and the whole tradition of it, the handling of it and the beauty of the colors of the cured leaf, it was really attractive to me visually and as a sensory experience."
Despite that respect of tradition, Nieman also freely writes of "the sickness" that tobacco workers get handling the leaves as well as the debilitating health effects suffered by users of the final product. She doesn't present a final judgment on the product, much as she doesn't present a final judgment on her lead character's situations. Justice is not necessarily served, and tattered relationships are not necessarily repaired.
"I think we've gotten accustomed to tidy endings in television and in movies where everything is wrapped up by the end. Everyone is at peace. The bad guy is hauled away in handcuffs and the community is restored, but maybe because I was a newspaper reporter I thought that didn't really happen. The story goes on. You live your life. You keep going, and its one darn thing after another. So for these characters there's some partial resolution, some things are finished at that point but other things are opened up and they are going to go on with their lives, I have this sense of them going on, but they don't sort of go back into the box at the end of the book and everything's finished and that's the end of it. I think that's more reflective of real life."
"Blood Clay" by Greensboro author Valerie Nieman is published by Press 53. I'm George Olsen.