Post Road Magazine #7

PLANT LIFE by Pamela Duncan -Lynn Pruett

It is rare that a talent as fine as Pamela Duncan's illuminates working-class lives. Plant Life, her second novel, is a refreshing portrayal of women who work in the Revel textile mill in Russell, North Carolina. With beautiful, dignified prose and just the right touch of humor, Duncan avoids both a grim political account and the all-too-common comic/grotesque/violent tale literary working-class Southerners seem doomed to inhabit. Instead Plant Life recalls Harriette Arnow's The Dollmaker and James Still's River of Earth, whose characters have a great desire to change circumstances, but biology, economics, and social expectations block their paths.

The novel begins in Las Vegas with Laurel Granger, who left the mill town for college and a marriage that eventually turned sour. Stunned and divorced, she returns to Russell and takes the only job she can find as secretary in the plant's office. Unexpected romances come her way as she reassesses her place in the world. The best discovery occurs when, as a member of the plant's work force, she joins her mother's lifelong friends in the lunchroom. These gatherings are wonderful scenes. Tensions ripple through the marvelous dialogue as Pansy, Percilla, Maxann, Idalene, and Lottie Mae exchange sandwiches and opinions. Eventually each woman tells her story, and we learn how complicated this knot of relationships is and that unacknowledged blood kinships create the most vociferous antagonisms in the group.

The harshest, most haunting, and intimate voice is that of the deceased Alberta (Bert) Dill, Laurel's grandmother, who was denied education despite her fertile mind and gift for language. As a result of her stunting, the Depression, eight children, and a disappointing marriage, Bert's actions, shocking and cruel, are the most dramatic act of mother love she performs. She says,

Many a time I wished I could have cut out that part of my heart that refused to be satisfied . . . Sometimes it's better to stay ignorant and not know what else is out there in the world, what all you might like but won't never get to have for yourself.

It's from Bert's and Pansy's twined stories that the reader comes to understand the damage of poverty. It is not a lack of intelligence or artistic ability that prevents the brightest in rural towns from escaping to cities or universities, but a lack of opportunity and support for the radical notion of postponing a paycheck in order to develop the mind. Laurel's return challenges all simple formulas for happiness and success both in Russell and in the world beyond.

Charting the turbulence and beauty of daily life, Plant Life continues in the domain of Duncan's delightful debut novel, Moon Women •

Lynn Pruett is a graduate of Mount Holyoke College and the University of Alabama, where she received her MFA. She has been published in American Voice, Southern Exposure, Black Warrior Review, and Telling Stories, an anthology. She is the author of the debut novel, Ruby River (Atlantic Monthly Press).

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