February Read of the Month: “Goshen Road,” by Bonnie Proudfoot

Bonnie Proudfoot

Reviewed by Donna Meredith

Bonnie Proudfoot’s Goshen Road dives deep into West Virginia rural life with a tale that sweeps across multiple generations. The novel has been selected for the Women’s National Book Association’s Great Group Reads program and is longlisted for the 2021 PEN/Hemingway Award for Best Debut Novel. The novel provides multiple viewpoints, both male and female, but is ultimately dominated by two women, Dessie and Billie Price.

One of the novel’s great strengths is the detailed insight into country life, both the people and the natural beauty. The opening paragraphs, circa 1967, provide an example of Proudfoot’s skill at introducing a character, a setting, and a way of life:

Though he was only seventeen, Lux Cranfield knew some things about how to get along in life. He knew how to file and clean a horse’s hoof, so he could ride his dappled gray mare for hours on gas pipeline roads and ridgetop trails without needing to call a blacksmith to have her shod. He knew how to scan the fields to judge where deer bedded down for the night, how to note dimples in the soft earth for fresh tracks, how to search saplings for ragged marks where bucks scraped the bark with their antlers, and how to crouch down behind a giant chestnut stump, remain perfectly still, and wait for dawn, so he could take a silent shot with his compound bow, then track it, bleed it out, gut it, and get it home before the local game warden left his driveway to go to work.

Those aren’t Lux’s only skills. He can throw a fastball to the inside corner of the strike zone, downshift his Jeep while keeping one hand on the knee of the girl next to him, and drop a towering red oak. The last skill got him his dream job cutting timber of A-1 Lumber. Then his left eye is cut open by a snag, putting an end to his dream job—but sets him off in pursuit of his dream girl, Dessie Price.

There are several obstacles. First, Lux’s father views Dessie’s father as his nemesis. And second, Dessie’s mother is already pushing her a union with a well-off young man. She advises Dessie to “marry a fellow with his mind set on a profession or one who came from good stock” so she “would never have to lift a finger.” Dessie finds this view of life “irksome.”

Inevitably, Dessie marries Lux, a man she admires because he let nothing hold him back, not even losing an eye. Since Lux can’t fell timber any longer, he planes it in the mill. She is thrilled when Lux takes her on an expedition to leap from a rope out over a cliff and drop into the water below. He encourages her to push beyond her comfort zone and literally let go of the rope:

It was everything. It was the whole world. It was all I ever needed. I never wanted to hear that girls did not do these things. I never wanted to sit on the sidelines and watch.

Letting go of the rope and shooting for the sky is “the secret that people who sit around and watch others do not know anything about.” Dessie says, “Don’t tell me you love me so much you do not want me to jump. Show me what to do and give me the rope.” It is easy to admire both Dessie and Lux for their youthful exuberance, despite realizing they will hang themselves eventually with that rope. They take a leap of faith, one completely lacking in common sense, and decide to build a home atop Goshen Road. Nothing but trouble could arise from that choice. Goshen is a treacherous one-lane, pot-hole-pocked, unpaved mountain lane that is unnavigable in bad weather. Though the land is not far from Dessie’s parents at the foot of the mountain, it is nonetheless, a world away.

Billie is Dessie’s younger sister who marries Lux’s best friend Alan Ray. Billie is a bit of a rebel who steals her parents’ cigarette butts and smokes them under the porch. She likes to tag along with Dessie everywhere and is jealous of her sister’s devotion to Lux. Through Billie’s eyes, Proudfoot begins to reveal Lux’s darker side when he teases the younger sister in ways that are mean.

The picture of Appalachian life painted in the novel is mostly bleak. All the major characters eschew education, most not bothering to finish high school. The men sometimes hit their wives, stay out all night—or longer—and sink into the despair of alcoholism. Dessie, for all her youthful dreams of leaping out into a new world of possibilities, doesn’t even get a driver’s license until circumstances force her to late in life, leaving her utterly dependent on others. The next generation is repeating the life choices, with Dessie’s daughter marrying as a teen and dropping out of high school. No wonder Dessie thinks, as she buries her father, “We are all so empty and hopeless here.”

In the Bible, Goshen is a land bordering on the Promised Land. In the novel, Goshen Road never lives up to its promise. Instead, the residents experience misery. A sermon I found online suggests that in a spiritual sense, Goshen is not where God wants us to be, that “He has more for us than what’s available in Goshen, and staying there will keep us from becoming all God intends us to be.” The sermon suggests experiencing defeat or pain in Goshen should motivate us to move on, to change. Sadly, the generations in this novel aren’t moving on and embracing the education that might offer them better lives. If there is hope, it is in Dessie’s efforts at the novel’s end to save a child abandoned by her mother, and in Billie’s recognition of the beauty of the land.

Bonnie Proudfoot moved to the Appalachian region in 1979 and has lived there since, teaching for many years at Hocking College in Nelsonville, Ohio. She is a fiction writer, a poet, and a glass artist. This is her first book.

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