April Read of the Month: “Road’s End,” by Rebecca Barrett

Rebecca Barrett

Reviewed by Claire Hamner Matturro

Lush, lyrical, often painfully sad, the ultimately uplifting Road’s End (Witch Creek Publishing 2017), by Rebecca Campbell Barrett, is Southern literature at its finest. The story of three generations of a West Alabama family focuses on headstrong, sometimes impetuous women whose menfolk are not overlooked. Inspired in part by Barrett’s childhood memories of tales heard on a front-porch swing, her narrative weaves about as seamlessly as the casual stories told among kith and kin on a lazy summer evening.

The three generations of women include Helen, the matriarch, who as a young Charleston belle in 1899 follows passion, not practical sense or dominant mores. Forsaking marriage to the safe young man she’s known since childhood, she ends up pregnant by a fiery Fenian who then flees home to Ireland. Her father, a United States senator, promptly marries his disgraced daughter off to Luther Carroll, a steady farmer who had admired Helen while he lobbied the senator to fund a bridge over the Tombigbee River in West Alabama. Luther understands the situation, but is too smitten to care. Helen is devastated, but unable to escape the trap. In short order she’s a farmer’s wife in Road’s End, a tiny village in an out-of-the-way place in Alabama.

Luther adores and loves Helen, and tried mightily to please her, even knowing she will never love him. But as sympathetic a character as Luther is at the beginning, by the end of the novel his anger and sudden bursts of violence render him less likable.

Ruben, the child born of Helen’s passion for the Irish man, riles Luther because Helen lavishes upon her son the adoration Luther wants for himself. Of course, Luther and Ruben are heading for a serious clash, and it will come with devastating consequences.

Ruben escapes Luther’s contempt and joins the military just in time to land in a trench in World War One. Though brief, the war segments in the novel are gripping and authentic, removing the plot from Alabama—much as Rubin had ventured away.

Helen’s story, as compelling and heart-rendering as it is, soon segues into her daughter Anna’s tale. With her fervent struggle for independence and love, Anna is the strong emotional center of the novel. Anna grew up in the shadow of her older brother, never understanding completely why her mother cherished her brother but not her. Keenly aware of her parents’ indifference, Anna becomes a beauty with a brain, a young woman who longs to escape the limitations of Road’s End. Unlike Rubin, she can’t join the Army to escape.  She chafes at the narrow life laid out for her by family and neighbors.

Faithful Sam, a war veteran she’s known her whole life, woos her, offering her love and security. But Anna is restless. She wants more. She can’t explain even to herself why she feels as if “she might burst out of her skin at any moment” and why the prospects of marrying one of Road’s End’s most upstanding citizens leaves her “with the urge to run mindlessly until she couldn’t draw breath.”

Enter Joseph, a bold, handsome young man in charge of a timbering crew that comes to cut some of the long-leaf pines that grace the Carroll farm. Joseph is the most complex and well-drawn of the male characters, and he is worthy of Anna’s attentions, even if her horrified parents object to her interest in him. Joseph seeks to better himself, learning grammar from his boss, reading books gifted to him, and struggling to understand Anna’s poetry collection. But her family only sees him as a dangerous, low-class interloper.

Barrett captures the heady combination of adolescent fear and excitement as Anna and her younger cousin Claire sneak out to a road house to be with Joseph and another logger who captivates Claire’s attention. Joseph proves he is a true gentleman regardless of his working-class origins. Yet even he cannot save Claire from the tragedy that flows from her infatuation with the other logger.

Anna’s daughter, Rose, becomes the third generation of Carroll women featured in the novel. As World War Two approaches, Rose deals with anxieties and confusion on the eve of her wedding. Engaged to one man but pulled by her attraction to another, she faces much the same dilemmas as her mother and grandmother faced before her.

With each of the three women, hard choices reflect cultural limitations and a desire for more than their narrow worlds offer them. Each woman has a well-known suitor who will wed them and keep them safe—but within the social confines of their small world. Each woman struggles to burst out—Helen with her radical Irishman, Anna with her bold logger, and Rose with a Mobile city boy. Each of these men are outsiders, each tempt the women to reach well beyond their worlds, and each comes with a high cost. In that sense, Road’s End is a subtle feminist narrative that renders no harsh judgment either on the rural Alabama world the women seek to escape, or on the choices they make.

While the plot is compelling, and not without its surprising twists, including an unforeseen but somehow inevitable revelation, the characters and the lyrical writing make Road’s End a rich book. Consider this passage:

No vestige of the storm remained but in its wake, it had left the lawn and driveway strewn with the achingly white petals from the dogwoods and the pink of a lone crab-apple tree. It was as if an unseen hand had shorn nature to adorn the path for the bride-to-be on this special occasion.

Or consider the beauty and accuracy of Barrett’s description of an old-growth long-leaf pine forest:

Silence enveloped him and the thick carpet of pine needles absorbed his footfalls. The trees were the largest he had ever seen. Virgin long-leaf pine. Some of them had to be over two hundred, maybe three hundred years old. Their sheer size had produced a natural selection that smothered out all the scrub growth and the wire-grass that was the natural companion of the long-leaf.

Even at mid-day little sun would penetrate to the forest floor for though the tree branches only occasionally overlapped, they grew so tall and uniformly that the ground could never see more than brief snatches of sunlight. High above, the breeze soughed in the pines, whispering in an unintelligible language.

Barrett evokes the senses with her vivid details, and creates evocative passages with her talent for just the right word. Her writing is richly expressive when it depicts natural settings, and sensual when it conveys the longing between Joseph and Anna. Regarding his initial attraction to Anna, for example, Joseph contemplates:

It wasn’t the same stirring he had felt for other women, that immediate, easily sated response to a fragrance, the turn of a cheek, the trill of a laugh. This was something altogether different and for that reason alone, uncomfortable.

Road’s End is a fine book, proving that Barrett is a multi-talented and versatile author.

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  1. I’m so very flattered by this reviewer’s comments and grateful that Southern Literature Review has chosen ROAD’S END as the April read of the month. Thank you!

  2. This is a wonderful book, so well written. And what an intelligent and informative review. 5 stars for both!

  3. Wonderful review and Rebecca, your novel sounds AMAZING. I’ve only read your cozy mysteries but it sounds like I need to read this next. The lyrical quality of those excerpts are just beautiful and something I look for when I’m reading.

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