A southern writer I stumbled upon a few years back is Ron Rash. His debut novel, “One Foot in Eden,” published in 2002 stands as a perfect example of southern grit. Its characters possess an amount of hardihood that propels the story into a ‘let the chips fall’ kind of way and exposes perfect imperfections of human nature.
“One Foot in Eden” takes place in the 1950’s in Jocassee, a mountainous region of South Carolina not too far from the North Carolina border, and begins with a missing person, Holland Winchester. Holland’s mama is sure that a neighbor, Billy Holcombe, has killed her son and it’s up to the sheriff to find out what happened to Holland. Well, that’s the way a majority of stories would work out, but Rash lets each character fill in the gaps. Enlightening the reader like a jigsaw puzzle, one piece at a time until the whole story is complete.
The pieces of Rash’s puzzle consist of the High Sheriff, the wife, the husband, the son and the deputy. All five have a biting edge that adds to the atmosphere of the story. But as I pondered how best to mull over “One Foot in Eden” and still keep this short enough to be digested in a single setting, it occurred to me that I needed to choose one point of view to showcase how this work more than qualifies as southern-fried grit. As I re-read the husband’s section, I picked up on a line of dialogue spoken by Amy, the wife, and I had to pause. There was my answer.
Amy and Billy are married and trying to have a baby but find out that Billy is sterile. Amy wants to have a baby more than anything, so she goes to see Widow Glendower, an old woman who the locals believe to be a witch. After following the old woman’s advice and having Billy drink a tea made from roots Amy gets from the widow, the couple still doesn’t conceive. Finally, Widow Glendower informs Amy, “…the man who can give you that baby ain’t no farther from you than the next farm” (Rash 77). Despite being put off by Glendower’s suggestion, Amy realizes the old woman is right. With that suggestive nugget in her head, Amy sets out to make a baby with someone other than Billy. Bear in mind, she does not do this with malice; to prove this, I would suggest the reader notice that Amy never invites Holland into her home and the two never have sex in hers and Billy’s bed. At one point while she watches her husband sleep, she tells him, “Whatever I do is for the both of us, Billy” (Rash 81). Not once, in this whole novel does Rash ever let the reader believe that Amy doesn’t love her husband. But her want of a child overrides reason. At one point after having sex in the yard, Holland tells her he has forgotten her name. She informs him he doesn’t need to know her name. Now, that’s a blatant display of grit right there. She all but tells him she’s not interested in anything more from him.
Amy Holcombe is a tough character, but the line in the book that made me choose her as my pick for southern-fried grit came in her husband’s section of the book. Billy asks his wife if Holland knows she’s pregnant and she responds by admitting she doesn’t believe her state is any of Holland’s business. But then, mustering all the proud defiance of a true southern woman, she asks, “[s]o what you going to do, Billy?” (Rash 119). While reading this section, one can feel the tension of the scene, yet, there exists a calm silence even as the dialogue continues we hold our breath while reading each response.
Ron Rash does one hell of a job building layers in this novel. His characters are believable to the point of familiarity. I would like to add one more thought about this book that points out the complexities of Rash’s characters; in the beginning of “One Foot in Eden” Holland gets into a barroom brawl because he’s hurting; he starts a fight as a means to get rid of the pain. However, no other character in the novel sees Holland as worth anything. Let alone go looking for him when he turns up missing. And nearing the end of the book, this little tidbit of insight might be forgotten, but Holland has feelings.
Rash, Ron. One Foot in Eden. Picador, New York. 2002.