Myra Lamb is a wild girl with mysterious, haint blue eyes who grows up on remote Bloodroot Mountain. Her grandmother, Byrdie, protects her fiercely and passes down “the touch” that bewitches people and animals alike. But when John Odom tries to tame Myra, it sparks a shocking disaster, ripping lives apart. Bloodroot is the dark and riveting story of the legacies—of magic and madness, faith and secrets, passion and loss—that haunt one family across the generations.
Excerpted from Bloodroot by Amy Greene. Copyright © 2010 by Amy Greene. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Amy Greene was born and raised in the foothills of East Tennessee’s Smoky Mountains, where she lives with her husband and two children.
Q: You've lived all your life in East Tennessee's Smoky Mountains, a part of the country you depict so vividly, from the landscape to the voices of the people who live there, in Bloodroot. How did you imbue a familiar place with such detail and even magic? What was it like to put the language you'd heard all your life into words on the page, as dialogue?
A: There is, I think, an intimacy with the landscape that comes with living here. Most of my childhood was spent outdoors, a part of my experience that emerges naturally in my writing. Bringing the language I've heard all my life to the page also came easily. It was instinctive to appropriate the voices of my family, friends and neighbors for the characters I was exploring in Bloodroot. The challenge was actually in dialing back the language once I had poured it onto the page, making it accessible to people who aren't familiar with these expressions and colloquialisms.
Q: Six different characters—men and women, old and young—narrate Bloodroot . Which characters or voices came to you first? Who was the most difficult to write, and who was the easiest? Did you have any particular people in your own life in mind when you came up with these characters originally? How did you invent the totally unique Ford Hendrix?
A: I envisioned Johnny and Laura first, not as children but as young adults. I considered writing a short story about them, but realized I wanted to know more than I could learn about their lives within a few pages. I found myself creating a past for them, going back in time before their birth to discover what had brought them to such a dark place. Their great-grandmother, Byrdie, was the easiest character to write. She hasn't changed much since the first draft of Bloodroot, probably because I've been surrounded and raised by women like her, my mom and my aunts and the ladies I went to church with. I was interested in exploring, through Byrdie, the stories I'd heard from them about life in Appalachia during the Depression. John Odom was hardest to write. It was difficult to show all his dimensions and his conflicting emotions—to portray him not just as a villain but also as a tortured soul. I struggled to make it believable that, at least in his own mind, it was possible for John to love Myra and at the same time, to hurt her. With Ford, I wanted Johnny to have the father figure he was searching for, but the first character I created to fit that role became uninspiring to me. I knew he wasn't working, so I scrapped what I had written and began to imagine a character I wouldn't grow tired of, one who would intrigue Johnny and me both enough to follow him a long way. The intriguing figure I ended up with was Ford Hendrix.
Q: Bloodroot takes place across four generations, from the Great Depression to the present-day. At times there's a sociological aspect to your depiction of life in Appalachia—the poverty some families struggle with for years, the development of the land. But in some ways the story you've told seems out of time—we don't see politics or computers, for instance. Did you consciously weave social issues into the novel? How isolated is this area of the country, and how has that changed over time? To your mind, what role does history and the passage of time play in this family story?
A: I didn't think about "sociology," especially not at first. I concentrated primarily on storytelling, and building the lives of the characters. For the most part, I kept the wider world out of the picture, partly to preserve the dreamlike quality I wanted to achieve with the writing, and also to portray the sense of isolation that comes with living in Appalachia. Often the passage of time and what's going on outside the mountains has little impact on life here. People still grow and can their own food, get their water from wells and springs, use wood and coal for heat. There's a feeling of separateness from the rest of the country. But as I wrote deeper into the characters, the outside world began seeping into their stories with the progression of time. In successive drafts I was able to add another layer to Bloodroot by expanding those moments already present in the narrative that addressed social issues, such as the poverty that persists in parts of Appalachia. Although the quality of life has improved hereover the last few decades, there are still areas where lack of education, job training and access to public services makes life difficult. I also thought about the possibility of hopelessness as a kind of legacy, generation after generation accepting destitution as their lot in life because it's all they've ever known. But while history and the passage of time do play important roles in this story, the familial bond of the characters mattered more to me. It transcends the changing world around them—the landscape changes, their circumstances change, people move in and out of their lives. But their blood ties are permanent.
Q: Magic and mysticism run throughout the book—there are "granny women" who are like witches; spells and potions, including a visceral scene where a young woman swallows a chicken heart to make a man fall in love with her; and a special connection with animals, called "the touch," that is passed down in the family. How did these supernatural elements make their way into a story that often feels very true-to-life? Growing up, had you heard any similar legends? Does this type of folk magic—healing or curses or anything else—still hold weight for people?
A: I've always seen Appalachia as a magical place. I grew up hearing stories of haints and fortunetellers and curses. One of my favorite scenes in Bloodroot to write, where Clifford blows healing wind down Byrdie's throat, is based on a story my dad tells of his mother taking his baby sister to a neighbor man who cured her thrush the same way. My mom had an aunt who took off her warts by rubbing a stone in a circle around each one and then throwing the stones away. This kind of folk magic still holds weight here because, for whatever reason, people see tangible results from the practice of it. The thrush clears up, the warts fall off, and so they keep believing.
Q: Doug, one of the narrators of the first part of the novel, thinks of Myra and his father's untamable horse, Wild Rose, as two-of-a-kind; Doug calls the horse Myra's "familiar." Yet Doug also tells another character that Myra "makes [him] think about Jesus." How do religion and faith and magic coexist in the story, and in Appalachia? What role do you see Wild Rose playing in Bloodroot ?
A: Religion and superstition have always coexisted here. It's interesting how magic and Christianity don't seem to have conflicted much through the generations. When my mom was a girl, one of her neighbors was a known witch who read bones. Now there's a blind woman on Clinch Mountain who tells fortunes. I have no doubt she would profess to be a Christian as well as a fortuneteller. It's a part of Appalachian heritage that probably goes back to settlers from Scotland and Ireland who brought folk magic across the ocean with them. In Bloodroot, Wild Rose represents the magic and wildness of both Myra and the land. She's a spirit weaving her way in and out of the story, pulling the threads of those themes along behind her.
Q: All of the female characters in the book marry before they're out of their teenage years: Byrdie and Macon, Clio and Kenny, Myra and John, Laura and Clint. They all become young mothers, too. Did any ideas or events come from your own life? Was it difficult to write some of the wrenching motherhood scenes that take place in the novel, especially where mothers are taken from their children?
A: I married my husband, whom I've been with for almost half of my life now, when I was
eighteen, and had my first child at twenty. My mom married my dad at the same age, and all of my aunts were married as teenagers. Marrying and having babies young is part of the tradition and culture here. It was hard for me to write scenes of children being wrenched from their mothers, to imagine myself in the place of my characters. I've experienced the turbulent emotions that come with being a mother, especially a young and scared one. I put all of the deep, wild love that I have for my own son and daughter into Laura and Myra. I knew that, in the same situation, I would fight as desperately as they did to protect my children.
Q: Many of the characters in Bloodroot struggle with the legacies they've received from their parents, whether it's madness and wildness or special powers or physical features. Can you tell us about the questions of inheritance you were thinking about, or trying to raise, as you wrote the novel? How does the blood-red ring that Byrdie steals from her employer and passes down to Myra, who passes it down in turn to her children, figure in this?
A: In Bloodroot, I asked questions about my characters that I've asked about myself: how much inheritance shapes who we become and where we end up; whether or not childhood suffering causes someone to inflict pain and suffering on others; whether characters like John are cruel by nature or have been formed by childhood abuse; whether strong characters like Laura can overcome their circumstances and whatever genetics might have handed down to finally achieve happiness. The stolen ring is a symbol of those dark legacies passed down in families through generations.
Q: Tell us about the love story at the heart of the novel, and why you think Myra and John Odom came to such a tragic end. Myra ends up institutionalized, and John lives out his days a disfigured stranger: was it their fate from the beginning? How much of Myra's madness, and John's cruelty, are products of their parents and their upbringing—and how much of their behavior was a choice?
A: One of the questions I explored in Bloodroot was whether a love like John and Myra's was destined for a tragic end or if they could have chosen a different outcome. I wondered if they were meant to be together, as violent as their relationship was, or if they could have resisted their obsessive passion and saved themselves. To an extent, Myra and John are products of their parents and their upbringing, but they also have free will. I wanted to show how it can be a struggle to forge your own identity, especially in Appalachia, where the pull is strong to follow tradition and live as your parents did. But as hard as it is to overcome inherited traits and circumstances, Johnny and Laura are proof in the end that it's possible.
Q: Two main characters—Johnny and Ford Hendrix—are writers. Ford lives in a trailer in the country despite his success; we don't know what's to come for Johnny and his career. Why did you decide to make these characters writers? Is writing, for you and/or for them, a way out of the places we come from, or a way in? Or both?
A: I think writing is both a way in and out of the places we come from. Ford as a writer is more like me—I love where I come from and can't imagine living anywhere else. He chooses to stay in Appalachia, accepting the negatives of living here along with the positives. Johnny, on the other hand, sees writing as a way out, both spiritually, as he empties his anger and frustration onto the pages of his notebook, and physically, as his success eventually allows him to escape the confining mountains. From the beginning, as I was discovering Johnny's character, I saw him as a poet. When I created Ford, he began to evolve into a writer, too. It seemed almost beyond my control. I knew there would be inherent challenges involved as a writer writing about writers, but the direction I
was headed with Ford and Johnny felt right, so I didn't resist where I was taking them. Maybe it's the part of me that couldn't help flowing into the story I was telling, my own understanding of the power of words and of books, like the "found books" that changed the lives of Ford and Johnny.
Q: A number of mysteries drive the story, some of which are resolved, and others that remain unanswered. Whose finger is in the box, what happened to its owner, and how did that finger get there in the first place? What happened to Ford's finger? Who is the father of the twins? Did you know from the beginning what the answers were to these questions, or did you discover them as you wrote? Might you care to answer the final question: is John Odom the twins' father, or is Ford?
A: I knew from the beginning whose finger was in the box. When I conceived of John and Myra's relationship, I knew that she would walk away with a piece of him. Other mysteries felt unnecessary to reveal, or even know the answers to myself, such as what happened to Ford's finger and who fathered the twins. The paternity issue is a narrative exploration of whether or not a person's blood dictates who they are—and I hope it's a suspenseful one! I think it's important for the sake of suspense to leave some aspects of the story open to interpretation. But, in my mind, considering the magical elements of Bloodroot, I thought maybe John is Johnny's father, and Ford is Laura's father. In the end, I left the question open, because I believe Johnny and Laura have the choice not to let fate be determined by who their parents are.
Q: How did you come to write Bloodroot—and how did the story become a book? When did you start seeing yourself as a writer? What is your writing process like, and has it changed over time? Now, when do you write, where, etc…
A: I began writing about the characters in Bloodroot first, to discover who they were and what happened in their pasts. I was interested in how things would turn out for them, and a story developed from there. I've always been a writer, going back all the way to first grade. I still have the first stories I wrote. Before that, I told stories to my parents and anyone else who would listen. My writing process hasn't changed that much from childhood. I still write stories longhand, sitting in bed.
Q: Whom do you read who inspires you?
A: I'm inspired by a mix of writers, including Toni Morrison, Cormac McCarthy, Marilynne Robinson, Louise Erdrich, Dorothy Allison, Virginia Woolf, Carson McCullers, the Bronte sisters, Jill McCorkle, William Faulkner and Stephen King.
Q: What's next for you?
A: I'm working on a second novel called Long Man, set in the Tennessee Valley during the Great Depression, about a little girl who disappears from a town in the months before it's flooded.
From the Hardcover edition.
“Some novels are so powerful, so magical in their sweep and voice, that they leave you feeling drugged. . . . Bloodroot, set in the bone-poor hollows of the eastern Tennessee mountains, is such a book.” —Entertainment Weekly
“Masterful. . . . A fascinating and authentic look at a rural world full of love and life, dreams and disappointment.” —The Boston Globe
“If Wuthering Heights had been set in southern Appalachia, it might have taken place on Bloodroot Mountain…. Brooding, dark and beautifully imagined.” —The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
“That rare sort of family story that feels intimate instead of epic. . . . Alluring and wonderful.” —Louisville Courier-Journal
“Greene’s prose will cast a spell on you.” —Glamour
“Amy Greene’s Bloodroot can stand proudly beside Alice Walker’s The Color Purple and Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle, two works which likewise examine the isometric push of the human spirit against the immovable forces of tyranny and poverty. Greene’s novel has everything I savor in fiction: flawed but sympathetic characters, a narrative as unpredictable as it is engaging, and a setting rendered with such a vivid palette of local color detail that you’d swear you were there.” —Wally Lamb, author of The Hour I First Believed
“Reminiscent of McCarthy’s early Appalachian fiction. . . . Hard to put down. . . . What consistently remains is Greene’s spot-on account of a land and its people—with its old-fashioned Scots-Irish dialect and its close-knit communities, its homespun Christianity and its folk remedies.” —Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
“Bloodroot takes place in Appalachia and, yes, Greene lovingly describes its mountains and hollows, its waters filled with bluegills. . . . But this story is really about the fraught, sometimes dangerous, bonds between children and their mothers.” —The New York Times Book Review
“Haunting . . . Woven into [Bloodroot] is mountain magic, family history, rural poverty and each generation’s effort to make things better for their children.” —Knoxville News-Sentinel
“Stirring . . . The wild beauty of Appalachia is . . . entrancing. . . . The novel’s charm comes from its hints of magical realism. Women with ‘gifts’—to heal, make love potions and put curses on their enemies.” —USA Today
“Bloodroot spins a web of tragic history, mountain lore, and forbidden love amid the beauty of east Tennessee’s hill country. . . . Will steal your heart.” —The Madison County Herald (Mississippi)
“One of those warm, wise novels that turns into a word-of-mouth sensation. . . . [Bloodroot’s] weird swirl of Southern Gothic and bleak domestic drama keeps the pages turning. . . . Greene has a vivid sense of her mountain and its surrounding communities and that sense of a natural wonderland slowly coming unhinged gives the book [its] soul.” —The Onion’s A.V. Club
“Bloodroot is a marvel of a first novel, its world deftly conjured, with a mood and magic all its own. I don’t know what captivated me more, the vividness of its voices or its evocation of a corner of the American landscape both foreign and familiar—but I was riveted from start to finish.” —Arthur Golden, author of Memoirs of a Geisha
“Romantic, riveting, and beautiful: Bloodroot demonstrates how the soul of one woman can possess the spirit of many. . . . Reminiscent of Toni Morrison. . . . Filled with passion and poetry, Bloodroot is an exciting beginning for a literary career.” —Sacramento News and Review
“A magical story, a story of passion, madness, a mystery, and a wild and tempestuous place.” —Hudson Valley News
“[Bloodroot’s] power is awesome, peeling away layers of the human experience like an onion until it reaches a message of redemption. Greene proves herself a newcomer to watch.” —The Star-News (Wilmington, NC)
“Brilliant . . . A tapestry of voices and lives so rich and intricate that each and every storyline holds the reader spellbound. . . . The voices ring as true and intimate as any I have ever heard. Hats off to Amy Greene, an immensely talented writer.” —Jill McCorkle, author of Carolina Moon
“Nothing less than an epic—a story of madness and magic that spans four generations, an emotionally tangled tale that requires six disparate voices to tell and offers no easy resolutions to the conflicts of the heart.” —Nashville Scene
“Greene’s debut novel is one that sticks with you, gets under your skin, and wrenches your gut. It enchants with the magic of legend, and chills with the meanness that can fester in people. Greene writes a world both delightfully fanciful and painfully real, a testament to the strength of deep roots and the fragility of old ways in an increasingly paved-over world. . . . Mesmerizing.” —Orion magazine
“Amy Greene is a born storyteller who depicts the voices and folkways of Appalachia with both eloquence and verisimilitude. A striking debut by a gifted writer.” —Ron Rash, author of Serena
“Creates indelible, endearing images of the mountains, the small towns, and the townsfolk [of Eastern Tennessee].” —Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
“It’s spooky what Bloodroot did to me: it caused me to have a vision of Amy Greene typing at supernaturally speedy speed, thousands of beautiful novels just like this one purring out and away from her fingers. And there I am, in a rocker by a sunny window, forevermore reading them. That would be heaven to me.” —Carolyn Chute, author of The Beans of Egypt, Maine
“Bloodroot is a literary page-turner filled with characters—and a place—so real that they threaten to burst from the seams of the book and take over. . . . Bloodroot is the best Appalachian novel to come out of the region in a long, long while, ushering in a fresh new voice that speaks for a whole generation.” —Silas House, author of Clay’s Quilt and A Parchment of Leaves
1. Rather than relying on a single narrator to tell this moving, complex story that takes us from the Great Depression to today, Amy Greene uses the voices of six characters in different time periods to share their memories, their family histories, their connections to one another, and the circumstances that have enriched their lives or led to unintended sorrow. Why do you think she chose to tell the story this way? How do the characters’ voices differ from one another—their language, dialect, and colloquialisms—both between and within the generations?
2. Byrdie, for all the losses and heartbreak she’s experienced, remains resilient, selfless, and loving. Why do you think Greene chose to begin Myra’s story by going back into Byrdie’s sometimes painful history? How does Byrdie foreshadow what’s to come for Myra, both in her dreams and premonitions about John Odom, and also through her own experiences—namely her romance with Macon and the loss of her own children? What does Myra learn from Byrdie, and what lessons does she forget too easily?
3. Magic plays an important role in this story, just as it has in the real lives of generations of Appalachian families. Byrdie is the niece of “granny women” who believe that a curse on her family will be lifted when a baby with “haint blue” eyes is born, yet Myra’s birth seems to lead to even more trouble for the Lambs. Why doesn’t Myra’s birth break the curse? Do you think the curse even existed in the first place? Why do tradition and superstition exert such a strong hold on the family, even on an educated character like Ford Hendrix?
4. Appalachia is depicted as an often bleak place in this novel, where poverty, abuse, and violence are endemic. Yet it is also described as a place of great beauty. All of the female characters marry and have babies at a young age, which at times makes their lives more difficult—their husbands can be unreliable, even cruel—but some of their relationships are shown to be warm and loving. How do these contrasts create tension in the story? What social, political, and economic questions do you think the novel raises?
5. In Doug’s narrative, he speaks of the allure of Bloodroot Mountain and the important role the natural world plays in his boyhood relationship with Myra. What does the mountain represent to Doug and Myra, and to the other families who live there? How does their isolation from the rest of the world cause problems, and how does it occasionally benefit them? Why do you think Myra has “itchy feet,” and how does she pass that restlessness on to her children?
6. Wild Rose is an untamable horse with whom Myra seems to have a special, even primal, connection. What does Wild Rose represent for Myra? For Doug?
7. Byrdie passes the blood red ring she stole on to Myra, who in turn gives it to Johnny and Laura. Beyond its material value, why is the ring so important to each of them? What else does Myra pass on to her children—what less tangible legacies does she leave with each of them?
8. Why do you think Myra loves Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey”? How does poetry provide both her and Johnny with a means of escaping reality in some of their worst moments? How does Johnny’s own writing help him get past all the hardship he’s experienced?
9. What life-changing insights does Johnny gain while serving time in jail? What does he mean about becoming empowered and learning to use his anger in more productive ways?
10. How do you view Johnny’s chance meeting with Ford Hendrix? Is it coincidence, or is something more powerful at work? What do Johnny and Myra find appealing in Ford? Do you think Ford’s visions are real, or are they, along with his tales of how he lost his finger, part of his storytelling gifts?
11. What draws Johnny and Ford to Carolina? In addition to her healing gifts, how is she different from other women? How does the experience of living with Ford and Carolina in the idyll they’ve created in the woods—and the way this experience ends—change Johnny?
12. Why is Laura attracted to Clint? What do they have in common? Does Clint share any of Macon’s qualities, and does Laura share any of Byrdie’s? Why does Clint begin to withdraw after their marriage? Why can’t Clint tell Laura what’s troubling him? Do you think he drowns on purpose—is it a suicide or an accident? Why would he want to kill himself?
13. What does the patronizing attitude of Laura’s doctor say about the attitude of the outside world toward the people of rural Appalachia? How does the representative of Children’s Services confirm that attitude? Knowing Laura as you do, do you think it’s possible that she would kill her baby rather than give him up?
14. At the end of Laura’s and Johnny’s narratives, what changes have they undergone that enable them to stop believing in curses and to visit their mother for the first time? How has their relationship—and the fact that they are twins—evolved to come full circle in some ways?
15. At the beginning of the section Myra narrates, we can tell that something is not right with her, and we learn later that she is living in a mental hospital. Do you think Myra is mad, or haunted? Is her institutionalization is unjust? How does her encounter with Hollis affect her? Why do you think she doesn’t want to leave the hospital? Is she really content there?
16. Myra believes she has succeeded in bewitching John Odom into falling in love with her by swallowing a chicken heart; she also comes to believe she too is culpable in the disintegration of their marriage. Do you think Myra shares in the blame, or is John entirely at fault for the brutality that ends their relationship? Or is it in their bloodlines—could they have inherited legacies of violence from their parents? What role does fate play in what happens between them?
17. How does the magic that brings Myra to Ford—if it is magic—differ from that which brings Myra and John together? Compare Myra’s first meeting with Ford to the first time she sees John: do her feelings for Ford provide a counterbalance for her other relationships with men? Does Myra’s time with Ford help her find the courage to leave John, or is it John’s brutality that gives her the power to break down what has kept her prisoner?
18. Why does Myra not seem to care whether Ford or John is the father of her children? Who do you imagine is the father, and does it matter to you either way? Would knowing change the meaning of the novel for you?
19. Is it surprising that John is alive and living up north or that he has long since forgiven Myra, even though his body bears the evidence of her revenge? Do you believe him when he says he still loves Myra? Do you think that, as the product of an abusive father and an alcoholic mother, John has the capacity to be redeemed?
20. Were you surprised, along with John, to see Doug reappear in the story? Do you agree with Doug’s idea that loving Myra has cursed both men?
21. Why did John visit Myra back in 1996? What did he realize about her resilience in spite of her long years in an institution? Is the ending of the book an unexpected coincidence? Or is it perhaps one last magical act, giving John the capacity to change his life? And does he?
22. Thinking about Johnny, Laura, and Sunny at the novel’s conclusion, John Odom says, “I used to think I was born worthless, considering the people I come from. But when I saw that blue-eyed baby years ago, it made me wonder” (pages 364–65). How do Myra and Johnny wrestle with similar questions of their own? What do you think the novel is trying to say about inheritance and destiny?
23. The bloodroot flower has the power to poison and to heal, and while the lives of the characters in Bloodroot often seem bleak, the novel seems to end on a hopeful note. Amy Greene told one interviewer that “the discovery in the novel is that it is possible to take what’s good from the life you’ve lived and move forward, and leave the rest behind.” Do you agree? If so, which characters in the novel do you think illustrate this statement best?
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