On a spring night in 1929, Mary Seneca Steele escapes from her home in Charleston, taking only her two children (Pet and Hugh), a new Auburn Phaeton (belonging to her abusive, shiftless husband, Hubert (Foots) Pettigrew Lamb, and $33. Her destination is a little vague: somewhere over 300 miles to the northwest. Beyond the North Carolina and South Carolina line, Mary “Sen” hopes to find safe harbor with “her father’s people.” Armed only with her memory of her deceased father’s tales of a near-mythical mountain realm inhabited by the Steeles and their kin, this feisty little woman is making a desperate bid for a new life.
Mary Sen leaves behind a genteel world of Schubert recitals, Wagnerian arias, aristocratic privilege and European tours for a remote wilderness where violins become fiddles and (according to her mother) “There is nothing... for anyone who has ambition and intelligence” — in short, “a land of savages.”
What she finds is a revelation. After wrecking the car and surviving a flash flood, the bedraggled little trio trudge on, finally arriving on the porch of an abandoned house (the place is known as “The Birches”) — a house that once belonged to Mary Sen’s father. When Ben Aaron Steele (a cousin) appears and welcomes her “home,” Mary Sen finds herself on the threshold of a second journey — a quest for her own cultural identity.
Donning her grandmother’s sunbonnet (it is hanging on a nail by the door) and building a fire in the fireplace, Mary Sen assumes her place in “her father’s house,” a place to which she is the rightful (if not the legal) heir. Instinctively, she senses that she is where she belongs. The house seems to acknowledge her arrival with an open door. She knows that she is embarking on daunting journey.
As Mary Sen learns to cook, garden and can, she undergoes a gradual transformation. She forms attachments, absorbs familial history, learns to frolic and sing mountain ballads — all dormant abilities that quicken and flourish in her new life. In time, she will come to love Ben Aaron Steele, watch her life disintegrate (and then miraculously “reassemble” itself). Eventually, she will come to perceive her existence as a series of “returns home.”
The plot of Refuge is as convoluted and complex as life itself. The tangled skein of the Steele dynasty is rife with intrigue, ancient grudges, eccentricity, inbreeding, and noble aspirations. There are contested deeds, lumber mills, family scandals, failed crops, dances and music. In the world beyond “The Birches,” there is an impending war and “a depression” – facts that seem increasingly irrelevant to Mary Sen and her children.
There is a vibrant richness and diversity in the narrative voice of Refuge that pleases like herbal seasoning in a salad (branch lettuce, onions and bacon grease, maybe). It is also filled with humor, passion, and a heartfelt understanding of all that the word “family” embodies. For anyone who has been fortunate enough to know the author, they will immediately recognize Dot Jackson’s voice. The cadence is unmistakable.
The author is blessed with an understanding of mountain culture that enables her to render both Charleston and mountain dialect in a manner that is authentic and understandable. A born storyteller, Jackson embellishes her story with marvelous touches. Night owls quarrel in the woods, a farmer picks ticks from his dog’s head, Mary Sen gathers frost-bitten persimmons and an old, caged monkey in a mountain store cadges a drink from Mary Sen’s “dope.”
Appalachia’s greatest novels frequently touch on two familiar themes: the dualistic nature of love and the transience of human existence. Writers such as Cormac McCarthy and Caroline Miller perceive sexual passion as a force that can either transform lovers or annihilate them. Charles Frazier and William Faulkner depict the beauty of the natural world as both inspirational and humbling. Marvelous variations of these themes recur throughout Dot Jackson’s Refuge.
Like the doomed lovers in Caroline Miller’s Lamb in His Bosom, Mary Sen and Ben Aaron are helpless in the grasp of sexuality. Love sometimes comes like a fatal sickness or a sudden storm that wrecks families, alienates friends and blights lives.
For Mary Sen, the message is simple. It can’t be helped. Let us get up and go on. Neither Dot Jackson nor Caroline Miller apologize for the behavior of their doomed lovers, nor would they have it otherwise. In like fashion, the temporal nature of human existence in Refuge stands in sharp contrast to the serene (and sometimes remote) beauty of the natural world. Mary Sen and Ben Aaron sing briefly, love, lament their loss, and like Miller’s protagonists whom she calls “but a shout in the darkness,” they fade to silence. The earth turns, the seasons change, and the sun will rise and not find them again.
Does this mean that Refuge is fatalistic — another mournful dirge about humanity’s tragic existence? Well, hardly. Instead, it celebrates life’s infinite variety. Dot Jackson’s marvelous characters are privileged to be here and when their time is up, they lie down with joy in their hearts. No one dies with a curse on his lips in Refuge. Even those who have suffered intensely (and unfairly) go down unrepentant, acknowledging that their lives may have been tragic — but they have also been wonderful.
Should you purchase Refuge, please read the information at the end of this novel, which explains how it came to be published. Novello Press is actually “under the auspices of the Public Library of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County.” In other words, this work was published by a library, which is dedicated to publishing “books of literary excellence.”
(Gary Carden is a writer, storyteller and lecturer whose book, Mason Jars in the Flood, was named Book of the Year by the Appalachian Writers Association. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)