“Malone Ridge” by James K. Dill

Malone Ridge (Little Star Books 2023) is a well-conceived, well-told tale of spirit triumphing over circumstances. And for Eve Malone, the protagonist, the circumstances are, if not dire, close enough. Born in Nitro, a small West Virginia community in Appalachia, she is living in poverty in a trashy, once-abandoned hunter’s trailer with an outhouse in back. Her vulnerable mother, fresh from rehab, is her roommate, and her father is in prison. Eve could easily become permanently trapped.

As the story opens, Eve is a recent high school graduate with a dead-end job in a nursing home. The odds at the onset are against Eve ever being much more. In her favor, she is a former high school champion distance runner with Olympic potential, and she is resolved to make something worthwhile of her life. She’s had to abandon an athletic scholarship because even with the funds provided, she cannot afford college. She can’t abandon her mother, who is dependent financially and emotionally on Eve. She does not want to leave her two best friends. Yet, she is determined to go to college somehow—and to become independent. How she escapes the poverty and misery inherent in her life forms the central conflict in the story, but subplots along the way also create tension and interest.

However, as is often the case in good fiction, things get considerably worse before she has much of a chance for things to get better. When her father comes home from prison, life start a downward spiral for both Eve and her fragile, addiction-prone mother. Though Eve and her mother are close, loving, and supportive, the mother enters the novel already cloaked with a sense of doom.

Eve has two close friends in the community—Marcy, a spirited, fun-loving young woman with ambition and Bigun, a lanky tattoo artist with a small business of his own as well as loving personality. He has ethic roots in the South Pacific and sports tribal tattoos on his arms. Marcy, who is the daughter of a white mother and a Jamaican father and a lesbian, is a character who could support a novel of her own. She enters the story like “a thunderclap on a blue-sky day” and her subplot adds a definite richness to the story. While each of these intriguing characters will play important parts in Eve’s story, the focus is always on Eve, who is thin, with pale skin and bleached white hair.

Malone Ridge is engaging, eminently readable and not without suspense, with rich descriptions of both people and places written in crisp, clear sentences. However, given the setting and theme, the author does dance with some Appalachian tropes. The fragile mother struggling with addiction, the father in prison for selling drugs (after blowing up the family homestead with his basement meth lab), the opioid epidemic and its fallout, the rusty trailer on the side of a ridge with its outhouse and trash, the prevailing poverty and lack of opportunities all seem familiar. Yet, even so, Eve is a compelling enough character to carry readers past any sense of the cliched and into an engrossing story.

Beyond the negative stereotypes so often found these days in contemporary Appalachia novels (think Winter’s Bone and Hillbilly Legacy), Malone Ridge also finds much goodness in the region and the people. The author describes the physical beauty of the area in lush details which convey its appeal. He finds people in the small community to be more often good than not, and time after time, the people in the novel rise above their own limits to do the right thing. They are often forgiving and helpful and, even in their poverty, generous. Sometimes their innate goodness stretches credibility as when a youth who tries to acquire money at the point of a gun instead becomes the benefactor of his would-be victim. To everyone’s credit in that situation, the youth’s mental illness gave rise to compassion, not violence.

Unfortunately, anyone writing a coming-of-age novel about a hard-scrabble youth in Appalachia is apt to run into a comparison to Barbara Kingsolver’s much acclaimed and wildly successful Demon Copperhead (Harper 2022).  Indeed, the two novels have some similarities. The threat and dangers of drugs and addiction, whether meth or opioid, haunt both stories. Both have appealing young protagonists trapped and endangered by poverty, and each one has an athletic talent with at least the potential to help them. Both have defeated, drug-addled mothers who might love them but can’t quite carry through to protect their children. Both books have characters whose addictions begin with an injury and an overly generous doctor’s prescription for Oxy. Both have main characters who live in primitive trailers at the beginning though the boy in Demon Copperhead at least has indoor plumbing. Both novels have a hero’s journey aspect with the protagonist running away and hitch-hiking with all its inherent dangers and misadventures. Each protagonist has a dramatic and hazardous event at a truck stop while hitching, though the dangers are different for each. Eve and the youth in Demon Copperhead both ache to get out of their confining, small Appalachian communities only to later find themselves homesick and longing to return. Perhaps the strongest similarity lies with the mother figures—both sympathetic characters for sure but each so precarious and each carrying that sense of doom as they fail to stand up to the stresses of their lives.

Kingsolver’s novel has more social commentary than Malone Ridge, often becoming didactic, especially about the failings of the foster care system and Big Pharm’s role in creating the oxycodone epidemic. Malone Ridge has its own brand of social commentary, but its messages are woven more finely into the plot and not as overtly preaching as Kingsolver is with hers. For example, the medical situation of Eve’s half-brother going off his psychotropic drugs because he can’t afford them highlights the need for better health care in poor, rural areas—but Malone Ridge doesn’t shout at its readers about this issue in quite the way Kingsolver does. Rather, the Malone Ridge author tells the story and lets the readers come to their own realization.

Eve’s story also contrasts from Demon Copperhead in that she is never trapped in foster care, and she side-steps drugs and addiction. In the end, the two protagonists develop as distinct, separate characters and their stories are their own to tell. So for all the similarities, Malone Ridge emerges as its own well-told narrative, which like its protagonist, attempts to transcend the unflattering stereotypical Appalachia culture. Eve’s compelling story in Malone Ridge is well worth the time spent reading it, and the novel offers characters such as Eve, Marcy, and Bigun, who readers will become invested in and will cheer for throughout.

As both Malone Ridge and Demon Copperhead were being written at more or less the same time, there is no practical way either story was influenced by the other. Rather, the similarities no doubt rest in the prevalence of negative Appalachian stereotypes of the poor, ignorant, and drug-addled in our culture and literature. As such then, the balancing of the positive aspects of life in Appalachia shown in Malone Ridge makes it a rather refreshing story which reaches beyond the stereotypes to paint an ultimately more favorable portrait than many other Appalachian novels.

Malone Ridge and Eve’s adventures unfold in three different time frames, beginning with Eve wanting to escape her life in Nitro, West Virginia, but trapped by loyalty to her mother and by their poverty. The second segment focuses on Eve hitch-hiking to escape an increasingly untenable situation where she is living in a tent in her family’s graveyard and at constant risk. After misadventures hitch-hiking, she becomes homeless and threatened in a city. The third segment focuses on her competitive running where she runs to find herself and races in marathons so that she can build the life she wants.

James Dill

Author James K. Dill makes excellent use of his own history as a marathon runner and competitor in the 1984 Olympic Trials in telling Eve’s story as a long-distance runner with Olympic potential. The running scenes and the competitions are an excellent, authentic part of the novel and pull the readers right into the long, hard races with every step Eve runs. His descriptions of the grueling impact on Eve’s body (and on other racers) and the necessary mental as well as physical discipline are a vivid, genuine bonus in this story. Dill’s own experiences no doubt add the power to these absorbing, convincing race scenes.

Dill is also the author of Racing Shadows and is working on a new novel about the Summer of 2020’s civil unrest in Richmond, Virginia. James competed in the 1984 Olympic Trials in the marathon and professionally after receiving degrees from East Carolina University and Wake Forest University. He lives in historic Richmond, Virginia, and is an avid Olympic sports fan.

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