Review: Long Man, by Amy Greene
Knopf, 2014. 272 pp. $26
Come August 3, 1936, the east Tennessee town of Yuneetah will cease to exist. On that day, the Tennessee Valley Authority, part of FDR’s New Deal, will unleash the Long Man River, and the dam built at its headwaters will submerge the valley. Most residents have left the land their forebears had settled for centuries, whether because the hardscrabble soil couldn’t feed them or, more recently, they bowed to the government’s eviction notices. But Annie Clyde Dodson, who can trace her lineage in part to the Cherokees who hunted this valley, isn’t going anywhere. She’ll stay, even to risk her life and that of her three-year-old daughter, Gracie, even to say goodbye to her devoted husband, James, who’s found a factory job in Michigan.
From the first words, you see Annie Clyde’s mindset, as she overlooks her limestone ridge at sunset:
She would watch with her knees gathered up as the last light mellowed into dusk, falling down the piney bluffs. Before half the homesteads were razed the lowering sun would stain the tin roofs of houses and barns, deepening the rust to oxblood. Gilding wheat sheaves and tobacco rows, shading red clay furrows. Last summer she might have heard a farmer calling in his cows. . . . But now there was only stillness and silence besides the tree frogs singing as twilight drifted toward night.
Such spare, potent prose brings life to these age-old themes of blood, land, and power. That power comes in two forms. One is the electricity the dam will produce, new to eastern Tennessee, and in which everyone will share. The other is the power to take homes away, wielded by bureaucrats who have nothing but contempt for the people who live in them.
But though Long Man treads perilously close to a self-righteous tale pitting salt-of-the-earth farmers against evil city slickers, Greene takes the high road with her main characters. Annie Clyde, as you may have guessed, is almost fatally stubborn, the type who refuses to listen to anyone. So when James announces his intention to move to Michigan, she cuts him dead, and he tries vainly to fight off the conclusion that she’s never loved him. When he finally gathers the courage to confront her, she won’t discuss it, which only hurts him more. But just as she fears leaving Yuneetah would mean abandoning the best part of herself, what she loves about the land, her property, and her ancestors’ graves–her life, in other words–he has his own story.
It’s not just that James hates farming–eating dust, watching the heat burn the corn, and hoping that the next heavy rain won’t wash away what little topsoil is left. Rather, the valley frightens him, for he watched his father drown in one of many floods that the Long Man inflicts on the long-suffering population. Even if they could stay–if the dam didn’t make that impossible–James wants a life where he need not fear for himself or his family, where earning a living need not be such a struggle, where the hard environment won’t kill them before their time.
Nevertheless, as the deadline looms, James realizes that if he goes to Michigan, Annie Clyde will stay behind with Gracie. But during a heavy rainstorm, Gracie disappears, and suddenly the whole population joins the hunt for a child whose spirit and cheerfulness have made her beloved. It’s as if everyone tacitly believes that if she were to die, there’d be no hope left in the world.
Long Man offers many pleasures, not least the subtle symbolism, which feels almost biblical in scope. It’s like the Flood that will sweep away an old world; but there’s no ark, no Noah, and, most important, no God to watch over anyone. I also like the name Yuneetah, which reminds me of a famous biscuit, an ironic similarity–you need this dam. But Annie Clyde thinks she doesn’t, and she’s betting that the new world the water brings will be worse than the old.
I also like Greene’s characterizations. Besides the two principals, the most memorable is Amos, a drifter from Yuneetah who’s mean, unpredictable, and the definition of passive-aggressive, but who thinks he has the charismatic spirit everyone else lacks–and may be right. However, Greene sometimes interrupts her narrative for backstory about a minor figure, and though I understand her desire to give everyone his or her due, that can go too far. I also find it unbelievable that the only social prejudices belong to the bureaucrats, and that nobody talks about race–this is 1936, after all, in the South.
Still, Long Man is a terrific book.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.