Turnback Creek by Lonnie Busch
Huntsville: Texas Review Press
In reading the works of major Southern writers in recent years, a singular theme repeatedly emerges: the protean nature of water. In the novels of Ron Rash, water appears as both lethal and life sustaining (Saints at the River); while in One Foot in Eden the building of a dam obliterates a small farming community. At other times, water is an agent of renewal or teasing mystery. In the writings of James Dickey (Deliverance) and William Gay (Provinces of the Night), water sometimes brings violent transformations.
Lonnie Busch’s slender novella, Turnback Creek, manages to embody many of these diverse themes in this skillfully crafted work - only 65 pages – a truly amazing accomplishment! In essence, Turnback Creek represents a kind of literary distillation in which the author has stripped his story to a polished crux.
This accomplishment has not gone unnoticed. Turnback Creek has received the Clay Reynolds Novella Prize and the praise of his peers, many of whom stress the work’s resemblance to a parable of life, death and redemption.
The book’s protagonist, Cole Emerson, is a man who is in the process of “coming to terms” with his misspent life. Now in his 70’s, Cole finds himself living on a small farm in a remote section of Missouri. He has lived a heedless, nomadic existence as a heavy equipment operator, often bragging of pulling down a white-collar salary operating backhoes and tractors. He has little to show for it. At the end of his life, Cole, now a widower and estranged from his daughter, spends his days tending a dying sister. At night when the sister is sedated, he fishes a tributary of Hartman Lake called Turnback Creek and ponders the past. It is here that he first encounters Hannah, a naked fourteen-year-old girl, who emerges from the darkness one night, driving a backhoe through the moonlit woods adjoining the lake.
Is she real? Is she perhaps a projection of Cole’s yearning for his own lost youth? Regardless, the naked girl behaves like a demonic sprite as she struggles to control the backhoe. The old man is transfixed by the girl’s antics. Further, Cole senses that she knows he is watching her, and when he turns his boat towards home, he sees the moonlit figure on a cliff above the lake. The next night, he is back, hoping she will appear again.
In time, Cole comes face-to-face with the girl and learns that her name is Hannah. Despite daylight encounters that reveal Hannah to be a troubled and angry teenager with an alcoholic father, the old man continues to perceive her as a near-supernatural being. Cole becomes obsessed with Hannah and finds himself plagued by guilt and foreboding. He begins to brood about his former jobs – removing coffins from graveyards that are destined to be flooded, constructing dams and diverting rivers.
When Hannah asks Cole to teach her to operate the controls of the backhoe, he discovers that she intends to dig a hole near her home … a hole deep enough to “bury a man so that he will never be found.” Finally, Cole perceives a disturbing parallel between Hannah’s irresponsible father and his own sire – another heedless, undependable man who mysteriously vanished one day as though “the earth had swallowed him.”
There is much to admire in Turnback Creek. The beauty of Busch’s descriptive passages are noteworthy, especially those that capture the haunting imagery of a lake at night, the sheen of moonlit water and the plop of a lure. Reading these passages brought to mind, Any Cold Jordan by David Bottoms, another midnight fisherman who can capture the soft whistle of a cast line and the splash of a moon-drunk bass.
Lonnie Busch is currently serving as co-editor (with Jubal Tiner) of the quarterly literary magazine, Pisgah Review, which is based at Brevard College.