8 generations of women give voice to ‘The Ballad of Laurel Springs’

"The Atomic City Girls" author Janet Beard's new book is "The Ballad of Laurel Springs."
Courtesy of Gallery Books

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"The Atomic City Girls" author Janet Beard's new book is "The Ballad of Laurel Springs." Courtesy of Gallery Books

Janet Beard’s multi-generational saga traces the lives of Appalachian women.

Set against the lore of the murder ballad, international bestselling author Janet Beard unspools a multigenerational tale about the triumphs and setbacks of the mountaineer women of East Tennessee in “The Ballad of Laurel Springs.”

Starting with Pearl, a God-fearing wife and mother working a farm in the hollows of 1907 Appalachia, and ending with Lydia, a disgraced mother running from her mistakes in present-day Brooklyn, “Laurel Springs” chronicles more than 100 years of the gains, losses and musical traditions experienced by the women in a Tennessee family.

Each chapter in Beard’s work of historical fiction focuses on the events of a single generation and shares a title with a famous ballad. Breathing life into these time-worn missals, the story each ballad tells is mirrored in the life of the character the chapter explores.

Connected by the repetitive refrains of folk tunes, the women are anchored to each other in haunting and enduring ways. “I can’t get the blood hymns of my childhood out of my head,” says Lydia. “I know we can never escape our pasts or even our parents’ pasts, and yet I hope against hope that my daughter will find a way.”

Centered on the murder ballad and its immortalization of violence against women, the novel opens in 2019 when 10-year-old Gracie hears the ballad “Pretty Polly.”

And he stabbed her in the heart and the heart-blood did flow, / Into her grave pretty Polly did go. / And it’s debt to the devil, and Willy must pay, / For killing pretty Polly and running away.

According to Gracie’s aunt, the song is about their fifth great grandfather who killed his girlfriend more than a century ago. Gracie’s research for a school project, however, reveals the song is older than their family and probably isn’t true. So why does her stepmom get angry when Gracie discovers the tune? And why, when on a field trip to Laurel Springs, does Gracie stumble across Willy and Polly’s initials carved into a tree at the spot where rumors claim the murder happened?

To answer Gracie’s questions, Beard rewinds to the fictional Tates Valley in East Tennessee around the dawn of the 20th century. Not much more than a collection of farms in the Appalachian Mountains, it’s a place where “folks may not have much, but they look out for one another.” Gracie’s fifth great grandmother, Pearl Whaley, embodies “The Wife of Usher’s Well.” Both Pearl and her mother endure the loss of a child, as does the woman in the ballad.

When Pearl was a child, her older sister, Polly, was found dead in a creek. Haunted by the unsolved murder, Pearl’s mama has quit singing the “ancient ballads that have only been preserved in a few special places.” But Pearl takes up the torch by teaching her son the songs, ensuring the folk treasures are passed down through generations.

Pearl’s son, Jacob, parallels “The Wayfaring Stranger” when he returns from the Great War profoundly disturbed. His decision to abandon his wife and live with another woman introduces a split in the Whaley genealogy and plants seeds of disappointment that flourish in the next generation.

Woven throughout the women’s tribulations is a resounding attachment to living in a valley surrounded by highlands, a terrain where “mountain peaks rose above us in every direction, snowy in winter, green and greener in the warm months, and explosive in autumn with yellow, red, and blazing orange.”

But Jacob’s daughter grows bitter when her father’s choices cost her prosperity, prompting a quest for independence that pushes the Whaley women to venture beyond the confines of Tates Valley.

Like Dolly Parton’s “Little Sparrow,” Jacob’s granddaughter Sarah flies away to attend college. After graduation she returns temporarily to help her mother with the farm, but then her lofty plans for graduate school dissolve when she succumbs to the familiar refrain of the women who came before her. Choosing the obligations of family over pursuing her passions, Sarah makes a life for herself and her daughter, Carrie, in Tates Valley.

As sweeping social changes start to impact the culture of Appalachia, geographical changes begin to alter the landscape as well. Seeking to combat the ravages of logging, the farms disappear and houses are “torn down, one by one, so the land would look natural again” to create Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Ultimately Tates Valley becomes a low-rent tourist town servicing the park where “everything lovely about the landscape was being systematically destroyed and replaced with cheap plastic and pavement.”

Eventually only the ballads remain to keep the Whaley women rooted to each other as they “cling to the fragments that somehow survive from one generation to the next — the stories we learned from our parents, the songs our grandmothers taught us.” The songs are not only infectious, but they may be predictive in their ability to shape the future and tether the women to the past.

Jacob’s great granddaughter, Carrie, provides the link that brings the story full circle. She befriends the local “Knoxville Girl” and becomes godmother to Lydia, who is unaware of her connection to Jacob and the woman for whom he forsook his wife. Lydia unknowingly completes the song cycle when she connects with Gracie, the child at the beginning of the story who may be related to “Pretty Polly” after all, even if it’s in a way she never could have predicted.


FICTION

“The Ballad of Laurel Springs”

by Janet Beard

Gallery Books

228 pages, $27