WHEN YOUR FIRST NOVEL is an Oprah Book Club Selection and a New York Times Notable Book of the year, it’s a daunting task to come up with an encore. So if you’re wise, you create a novel different enough from the first that makes it unfair to invite comparison. Icy Sparks author Gwyn Hyman Rubio succeeds both with this and with the tale in her latest, an epic multigenerational family saga.
The story, set in the longleaf pine country of post-Civil War south Georgia, revolves around Dalia, the daughter of Monroe Miller, a prosperous turpentine business owner. Monroe loves his family in his own bumbling way, but all is not well at the family’s lavish home. Dalia’s sister Nellie Ann, blind from birth, joins Dalia in alternately loving and scorning their father, a heavy drinker who spends long periods away at his turpentine camps. The girls’ mother, a well-bred women contemptuous of her husband’s coarse, unrefined ways, hides away most the day in a laudanum-induced fog. Beneath these family conflicts, however, lurks a darker, more devastating secret.
The discovery of this secret and the tragic consequences that play out deliver the reader into Part II, where, four years later, Dalia has moved on to settle in Samson, a small town where she hopes to recreate a new life for herself. The canny, resourceful Dalia initially achieves all she set out to do, but finds that it comes with a price. She has two children, first Marion, a boy she finds difficult to love due to his resemblance to his father, whom Dalia has grown to despise. When Clara Nell, a longed-for daughter arrives years later, Dalia smothers her with excessive love and attention.
Part III, narrated mostly from Clara Nell’s perspective, chronicles Clara Nell’s coming of age and her subsequent forays into independence. This creates rather predictable dissent in the family and conflict ensues. Ultimately, Dalia learns the hard way that you cannot protect the ones you love from life and what it brings.
Rubio, a Georgia native, excels in vividly detailing the longleaf pine country, as well as late 19th century daily life. The description of a shantytown commissary its apothecary jars filled with herbs; barrels of dried beans and black-eyed peas; drums of flour, grits, cornmeal lined up against the wall paint a vivid portrait, as does the description of the cured hams, “dotted with so many flies that they could have been mistaken for cloves if not for the buzzing.”
She lyrically describes the pastoral scenery:
The scuppernong arbor glittered in the sun. The slick, copper-colored skin of the grapes peeked out from among the leaves like a blanket of cat’s-eye marbles. A soft-spoken breeze tickled the moss in the grand oak trees.
Characters are well-portrayed, like a child from the turpentine camps, with “his patched dungarees and flour sack shirt,” his dirt-creased neck and his eyes, “too close together, of no pure color, grayish brown like the bark of one of [the] trees.” As well, there’s the deliciously unlikable Dr. McKee, with skin “as blanched as peeled almonds; his fingers, long and delicate, like those of a pianist, not a dentist.” He spoke “in a voice that wasn’t exactly effeminate, yet bleached of virility, as though it had crept into the soul of a male fetus by mistake.”
Another standout is Katie Mae, an African-American who served the Miller family and now rejoins Dalia, providing both her and the story with wisdom and sass. Clarice, Dr. McKee’s housekeeper and cook, is another compelling character, a potential source of conflict for Delia and the story, but one that never fully actualizes.
This takes me to my greatest complaint. The first two-thirds of the story succeeds with its rich, memorable characters and its swirling undercurrents of tension and haunting emotion. Thereafter, however, the antagonists and thus vital tension disappear. Rubio’s smooth plotting and excellent detail still drive the story forward and make it interesting to read. The story here is not without conflict, but it seems to settle into more commercial fodder that lacks startling turns of events and difficult choices that trouble both character and reader. Granted, the issues of the past still haunt Dalia and manifest themselves in her efforts to control and protect her daughter, but they didn’t haunt me as the reader. Instead, her compulsive, predictable behavior rather annoyed me, heralding the approaching conflict with the subtlety of a marching band in a living room.
Part of this could stem from the fact that I did just what I claimed would be unfair to do I compared this work to Icy Sparks, Rubio’s first novel, a luminous, highly original work that seemed to breathe life with its characterization and heartbreaking premise. In The Woodsman’s Daughter, Rubio’s intention seemed to be to cast a broader scope, that of a flawed family whose problems come full circle. And in this she succeeds, lyrically and descriptively. While fans of Icy Sparks might not find the story they long to see repeated, they’ll find a new facet to Rubio’s writing that should win her new readers, particularly those who like Southern and/or family-saga fiction.