Reviewed by Daniel James Sundahl
Ann Hite’s Where the Souls Go is subtitled “A Black Mountain Novel.” It’s the third in her series of novels rooted in this complicated, mystical, wispy place.
For the geographically challenged, North Carolina’s Black Mountain is part of the Blue Ridge and Smoky Mountains region, old mountains steeped in mystery and legends dating to the time of the Cherokee, and even pre-historically before. When the fogs and mists descend, the place is otherworldly to say the least. Thus a novel set in such a geographical place is atmospheric, and a world, then, of aberrant if not ghostly characters.
The background and geography are fine stage-setting for stories that employ the macabre, one characteristic of works described as “Southern Gothic.” It’s understood to be a sub-genre not only of gothic fiction itself but also of American Literature’s version of dark romanticism with a healthy dose of the grotesque. A literary learning guide from which to start would likely be William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily.”
That’s the theory behind stories of mummified corpses in frilly upstairs bedrooms which may these days be all in the past as the South bulldozes and flattens itself out into golf courses and retirement communities and Super Wal-Marts. Doubtful there are few feuding cotton gin owners left to lament the decay of the Old South while sipping “branch watah” and bourbon. Apart from old Savannah or New Orleans, what’s left of the South’s most gothic locale might be those old mountains, and Black Mountain especially.
The novel itself is a stitched-together quilt ranging over time. If one can imagine a novel as a sewing project, a reading guide is nicely in place. The concept, then, is to imagine vignette-like quilting pieces, fabric options, basic sewing tools, and a southern gothic imagination.
The first piece is fixed in time, 1925, and mysterious. Someone has died at just age ten, a young girl, Mary Grace, friend to Arie, who owns the mountain’s magic and who’s become an “old colored woman hidden off in a little shack . . . . Crazy Arie.” Mary Grace has also been tucked away, a secret. She’s odd, and a faith healer, something “a lot of people believe in . . . on the mountain.”
It’s the “prologue” to the novel, the first quilt piece sized and laid out in preparation for the other pieces stacked together in spatial order.
Chapter 1, then, isn’t chronological but a cloth piece forward in time to early spring “of 1963.” Annie Todd is learning to sew; she “loved cloth of any kind. The whole hankering started with frilly crochet pieces that other women made way before [she] was born. Each one spoke to [her] in soft, whispery, muted colors: cream, tea-stained brown, wheat, white. There were stories in the complicated stitches, deaths and births, tears and laughter.”
When Annie Todd holds a “tea-stained circle with intricate stitches that looked like a spider web,” she sees pictures; a tingling spreads up her arms, and she hears faraway voices; women begin to give her pieces. She’s a “seer,” and as much as she enjoys her “treasure box of sewing . . . . things were about to go from bad to worse. . . . I would come to know I’d never get to be a regular kid, no matter how hard I tried.”
Confusion could reign, however, unless the reader swiftly comes to recognize that this is a multi-generational saga. AzLeigh, for example, is the mother of Grace Jean and Pearl, and Annie Todd is Grace Jean’s daughter, the only child from her marriage to a wealthy Georgian, Robert Todd. Grace Jean hears voices and talks to someone named Molly and, according to Annie Todd, “wasn’t much of a mama.” When Annie Todd and Grace Jean move from Georgia to Swannanoa Gap, North Carolina, they do so to live with AzLeigh. They leave behind Annie’s father, Robert Todd and Grandmother Todd. “There were times when they loved each other,” Robert and Grace Jean, but those times are past. Back to North Carolina, then, Black Mountain, AzLeigh and sister Pearl and bickering Grace Jean declares, “I’ll be sleeping with a knife under my pillow.”
Each has a cloth piece story to tell and in each of these stories men are involved but less as main characters and more as side characters. As the cloth piece chapters flit back and forth through the years between 1925 and 1993, Annie Todd discovers more and more that she has inherited an unusual legacy. Cloth piece by cloth piece, she comes to know her family history, but only when her “sixth sense” comes to her as a whispery voice.
Of course correct sewing tools make the project easier and simplify the process. “Begin with the basics,” the narrator notes, before traversing back in time to 1951 and 1953, Pearl, and Swannanoa Gap.
Robert Todd has driven his flashy red convertible into Swannanoa Gap; Pearl is outside gardening and, as she notes, “Men always get exactly what they want.” Robert Todd wants Grace Jean, but Pearl also notes that Robert Todd changed her. Their affair lasts only three months, but when Pearl visits Maude Tuggle the discovery is her pregnancy.
What’s stitched in the quilt at this time, therefore, is covered in blood. Pearl brings her baby into the world, but at the moment of birth the baby’s breathing slows and until there’s not another breath. Pearl struggles to stand up, the “quilt was covered in blood.”
Pearl’s soul at this time is black, whereas earlier in the novel blue is the proper color for the soul. She finds it difficult to let go of her hate and holds on to the thought “that one day [she] would make Grace Jean and Robert Todd pay.”
So the novel’s quilt-like pattern develops into a gothic tale of betrayal and revenge, jealousy and sorrow. If the mountain is black, so, too, are the depths of hatred and cruelty in all their rawness. But if the mountain is black with curses so, too, is it blue with cures, blue the true color of the soul as more pieces of time are stitched, and this makes sense if one believes or imagines that a ghost could stand in one’s bedroom every night.
Back and forth, then, in time with this pattern: 1937, 1946, 1951, 1952, 1954, then with hand basting, 1937, 1940, staystitching, simple seaming techniques, and the finished piece, 1993. As for this motif, the novel asks the reader to stay with the project, put effort into the work, and the result will be a “finished piece that can be cherished for years to come. The key is the amount of time and detail one puts into the work.”
Annie Todd returns to Black Mountain in 1993, the year she turned forty. The return stirs in her stories that have appeared in the quilt, her art. AzLeigh died that summer also and with her many of the secrets the women Annie Todd knew kept tight in their hearts. To know those secrets is also to believe in magic and ghosts and spells.
This is a gem of a novel with each unique and poetic image stitched into a quilt made from pieces of time, creating a family history. To read the book is to stand on the backbone of a mountain where souls go and where blue is the best color a soul could be.