published: 29 /
In her 'Raging Pages' book column Lisa Torem examines award-winning novelist and music journalist Silas House's debut novel, 'Clay's Quilt'.
Laurel County, Kentucky-born Silas House is not only a well-regarded, award-winning novelist and Assistant Professor of Appalachian Studies at Berea College, he’s a music journalist who has written about and interviewed the likes of Lucinda Williams and Allison Moorer.
His first novel, ‘Clay’s Quilt’ (2001), was largely inspired by his great-uncle’s colourful stories as well as love of his native habitat. The debut also led to the publication of two additional novels - ‘A Parchment of Leaves’ (2003), and ‘The Coal Tattoo’ (2004) - in which his cadre of heart-warming characters return to the fold. After that time, House wrote three more novels.
Flawlessly, House marks time with pertinent references to 1990s hits, whilst underscoring Kentucky culture with fiery fiddler Alma, and her brassy, honky-tonk singer/sibling, Evangeline.
The introverted protagonist, Clay Stillwell, is immediately drawn to Alma, “whose song and quiet spirit wend their way into Clay’s heart”. Part of the allure is her deep affection for her instrument; Clay has never seen anybody play the way Alma does. His buddy, Cake, however, sees green; after all, he and Clay have been best friends forever. Why is this girl from the other side of town so anxious to come between them?
The author’s impeccable sense of place when describing the pure streams and tranquil clearings of mountainous ‘Free Creek,’ as well as reverence for Appalachian traditions, shine through every single chapter, but as expected, central characters face unspeakable conflict — Clay, for example, continues to be haunted by the fading memories of his murdered mother, whom he lost at the age of four. He longs to find out the facts: how did she die, who killed her? He is frustrated when his loved ones continue to mask the truth; nevertheless, he finds comfort in shared, home-cooked meals and morning walks through the serene holler*.
Without complaint, the introverted, central character works gruelling hours in a coal mine. Perhaps to his advantage, the unforgiving hours shield him from interacting with the demanding, outside world. Yet, as Clay matures, he re-establishes his social standing and views his neighbours more clearly - they work equally hard, but are fully capable of playing hard, too. At one juncture, his extended family becomes so enraptured by live bluegrass, they wrestle for floor space while clogging**.
If you enjoy authentic discourse, raucous bar fights, lyrical descriptions and troubled musicians teetering toward the edge, ‘Clay’s Quilt’ is sure to whet your appetite for more of Silas House’s extraordinary writing.
*In the Appalachians, a holler is a small valley.
** Appalachian folk dance.