Book Review

Tommy Hays on
a novel by Dale Neal
Regal House, 2023
Western North Carolina is home to a number of accomplished writers who have portrayed the Appalachian Mountains, the history, the culture and the people in their own particular and affecting way. With his new novel, Kings of Coweetsee, Dale Neal, whose novels have all been inspired by the mountains, takes his rightful place among the most complex and nuanced of these writers.

If you found us, you’re most likely lost, we like to tease strangers. 

This poignant first sentence does so much good work. It establishes a storytelling aura, an intimate omniscience, while it also sets an Appalachian tone, clever in the way of much mountain humor, but at the same time, veering into darker territory. You may think you have found us, it seems to say, but in the end, all you’ve gotten is lost. And when it comes down to it, you’re no more than a stranger to us.   

The second paragraph locates and describes the setting and also deepens our sense of the characters who come from generations of folks who have eked out a living here in this precarious place. The narrator’s emotional connection to this world is made clear by the powerful imagery and lyrical mountain language. At times the writing feels like a kind of gritty poetry that has nothing to do with pretension or flowery language and everything to do with getting to the heart of who these people are and all they’ve endured:

Coweetsee County lies at the tail end of the state, wedged deep in the Blue Ridge, as if a divine crowbar had 
prized open the high mountains for human habitation. Here, you find us, a few remaining families hanging 
white-knuckled onto steep sloping, hardscrabble farms. Living back of beyond, we don’t consider ourselves 
a backward people, but as the keepers of a lost kingdom. 

Throughout the novel, the language feels true to the place and the people, and that’s no accident. Neal worked thirty years as a news reporter in Western North Carolina, whose job was to listen, not only to what people said, but how they said it. Neal also spent boyhood summers in the mountains visiting his grandfather who maintained a small farm above Boone, where he would roam the woods. In other words, this world, the people he writes about, and the landscape he inhabits in his prose are ingrained in him.

The third paragraph of the novel is a quick summary of how Coweetsee, once isolated and remote, gave way to roads and development, inflicting a kind of trauma upon the landscape and upon the people who lived there:

Once you had to take the slow-bending River Road east and west of town, the only way in and out of Coweetsee. 
Then the Kingdom cracked open when the Feds moved the mountains and poured six lanes of concrete so a 
family of four in a minivan from Cincinnati could blow through here at 75 mph on their way to Disney World. 
Only the more adventuresome ilk might exit the beaten path to gape at our fall leaves or our many barns—even 
fewer stop by the Coweetsee County Historical Society.   

And it’s at the Historical Society, fittingly located in the old defunct jail, where we first meet the central character and heroine of the novel, Birdie Parker Price, who oversees the museum. A 48-year-old widow, Birdie is a former schoolteacher whose second husband, Talmadge, she’s deeply grieving a year after his death. Birdie makes an endearing point of view character. The reader trusts her. She’s intelligent, insightful, grew up in Coweetsee, knows everybody, and in many ways, feels like the community’s conscience. She also has an abiding interest in the history and culture of the place, one of her favorite things being to visit her fierce, outspoken Great Aunt Zip at Laurel Trace Rest Home, where she and her aunt sing old timey songs, many of them haunting murder ballads that Aunt Zip taught her as a young girl.

In this opening chapter, Birdie has closed up the museum for the day, and started across the river bridge, when she flashes on the image of a local woman, Rhonda Harmon, whose naked body had been found floating off this very bridge. Moments after having this terrifying vision, she notices a hooded figure walking on the other side of the bridge, a familiar hitch in his step and the foreboding sound of taps coming from his shoes. She’s unnerved to realize it’s Charlie Clyde Harmon, Rhonda Harmon’s criminal brother, a convicted felon, who has been serving a lengthy sentence in Craggy Prison for setting fire to Nebuchadnezzar Missionary Baptist Church, a fire that resulted in a congregant’s death.   

Shawanda was the best quilter in the county and her work worthy 
of the Smithsonian, but she was often overlooked because of the blackness of her skin, and how that doesn’t jibe with the official white-bread version of hillbilly Appalachia. 
~Dale Neal, Kings of Coweetsee

Crossing the bridge to the river island, she reaches the old elementary school where Birdie once taught. The school has since been renovated into studios for local artists and craftspeople. It’s there that Birdie often visits her dearest friend, Shawanda Tomes, a celebrated quilter:

Shawanda was the best quilter in the county and her work worthy of the Smithsonian, but she was often overlooked because of the blackness of her skin, and how that doesn’t jibe with the official white-bread 
version of hillbilly Appalachia.

I love the astuteness of Birdie’s observation, that because her friend is Black and doesn’t fit the stereotype of a white mountain quilter, her artistic abilities have gone unappreciated. How strange and yet how true. And this to me is one of the many strengths of this novel. While the writer himself never resorts to lazy Appalachian stereotyping, his characters sometimes do. They make assumptions about each other. They backbite. They do mean and sometimes hateful things.  In this way, the characters in Kings of Coweetsee are fully dimensional, wholly believable, riddled with guilt and laden with fault.  On the other hand, even the worst of them, those who commit callous, selfish or even heinous acts, often have empathetic qualities.  
During her visit with Shawanda in her studio, Birdie tells her friend about having seen Charlie Clyde cross the bridge. Shawanda is shaken because it was her uncle who’d been sleeping off one of his drunks in the back pew and died when the church burned.  

Birdie has also come to visit her friend for another reason. Shawanda sells her bags of marijuana which had helped manage Talmadge’s pain when he’d been sick with cancer and now relieves Birdie’s depression and grief that has dogged her the past year.

When Birdie drives home after her visit with Shawanda, she finds boot prints tracked across her porch, leading to a muddy but neatly crafted wooden box, containing brittle and long-faded ballots. Birdie surmises this is a missing ballot box from a contested sheriff’s election in 1982 in which Maurice Posey, the challenger, defeated the incumbent. Posey went on to serve Coweetsee County as sheriff for the next 30 years, until he was convicted of voter fraud. 

The mysterious appearance of this long-missing ballot box alongside Charlie Clyde’s release from prison, raises many troubling questions. At a loss, Birdie calls her first husband, Roy Barker, who once served as deputy to Posey and is currently running for sheriff himself. Birdie asks him to help her get to the bottom of the reappearance of the ballot box, and Roy, who still has feelings for his ex-wife, consents to help her.

The deeper we read into the novel, the more ironic the title Kings of Coweetsee becomes. The men—especially the longtime notorious power brokers, older white men like Sheriff Posey and W.D. Clark, a corrupt businessman who made his money from selling stolen goods—begin to falter as their rapist pasts begin to catch up with them, and strong women like Shawanda, Birdie and Rhonda Harmon’s sister Deana begin to assert themselves.  

I love reading novels set in small towns, especially small towns I know or at least think I know. Most folks from North Carolina would recognize Coweetsee as Marshall, a little town in Madison County, a small rural county situated along the French Broad River. However, Neal is not a writer to be fenced in by facts, especially while in pursuit of deeper truths. In Neal’s hands Coweetsee is thoroughly its own place, with its own fully fleshed-out characters, irresistible tensions and engaging lyrical prose, a place that will remain with the reader for a long time to come. 

Tommy Hays is the author of four novels: The Pleasure Was Mine (St. Martin’s, 2005), In the Family Way (Random House, 1999), Sam’s Crossing (Atheneum, 1992) and middle grade novel What I Came to Tell You (Egmont, USA, 2013). He was inducted into the South Carolina Academy of Authors and named to the Order of the Long Leaf Pine, the highest civilian honor bestowed by the governor of North Carolina. He’s retired Executive Director of the Great Smokies Writing Program and Lecturer Emeritus in the Master of Liberal Arts program at UNC Asheville. 

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