“Over the Plain Houses,” by Julia Franks

Julia Franks

Julia Franks

Reviewed by Daniel James Sundahl

The title for Julia Franks’s novel is drawn from an Anne Sexton poem, “Her Kind”:  “I have gone out, a possessed witch, / haunting the black air, braver at night; / dreaming evil, I have done my hitch /over the plain houses, light by light . . . .”   The poem is suggestive of other Sexton themes which are personal and confessional.  Her poem “Housewife” could serve equally well as an introduction to Irene Lambey’s life:  “Some women marry houses” into which “men enter by force.”

There’s a theory abounding these days combining feminine and witch.  Care, however, needs to be read into that theory lest the reader confuse fact with fiction.  Witch does not mean potions and candle wax on the kitchen table.  It does mean more broadly and historically persons (both men and women) who did not align with Christianity’s teachings.  To be a witch is thus to be an outsider and pursuing an identity apart from patriarchal, Christian-dominated ideology.

I mention this only because Sexton’s poem prefaces Franks’s novel, thus suggesting that Irene Lambey is a “possessed witch,” someone persecuted by a rigid and oppressive culture who thus determines to live her life outside the confines of what is expected by that culture.  In modern feminist theory, therefore, such a woman is an embodied goddess, a modern feminist icon with a background in gender history manifested, say, in the spirit of Jezebel, but not someone who is a wizened hag with poisoned apples in hand.

But it’s theory only and thus suggestive only and part of one critical agenda; Irene Lambey is not interested in transforming society with her thinking and does not present herself as a feminine humanist intent on a life of unrighteousness.  Her goal is freedom, rather, and in achieving her goal a more fulfilled life centered around her own mysterious self-esteem and respect for the sacredness of all living things. There is nothing in her choices suggesting she is trying to pass on the forbidden fruit.

Irene is a Southern Appalachian woman, and although it’s late Depression 1939, east of the dust bowl, something is still radically wrong.  The federal government has sent a United States Department of Agriculture woman—Virginia Furman—into the North Carolina mountains to “educate” families on how to modernize.  One needs to enhance the story only by adding a documentary photographic image from Dorothea Lange to understand the plight.  Lange’s poignant images are, of course, icons of the era.

Irene Lambey is such a woman and mother living in rural poverty, even if she doesn’t realize it.  She’s married to Brodis, a husky ex-logger who suffers an injury and in time becomes a backwoods fundamentalist preacher.  A reader should thus assume that Brodis adheres to a rigid set of principles based upon the inerrancy of Scripture who is also intolerant of other views and opposed to both modernism and secularism.

Franks, it should be noted, is not making a mockery of this backwoods preacher; in the course of the novel, however, his behavior becomes more and more aberrant, more and more abusive.  The secularism Virginia Furman brings into his family life, however, is not congenial to him.   If such were a matter of politics, well, left-leaning and sociological.

Irene, though, is drawn to Virginia’s self-possession, yet to Brodis such self-possession is contradictory to the wisdom of God, which is not the wisdom of this world.  When Irene first meets Virginia, she looked “for all the world like she’d stepped from the pages of a catalog, her suit cut to the shape of her plumpish body, her hat tilted over her forehead, a wave of pretty dark hair curled against her collar.” Virginia is a woman “who kept her own privilege.”

Irene, by comparison, suffers in silence.  Conversations with Brodis end with a sound like the loud crack of a hammer:  “Enough . . . . A man hadn’t ought to suffer a woman to teach, nor to take authority [privilege] over him, but to be in silence.”

Thus, in 1939, the novel poses two ways of life:  Brodis is Bible-haunted, fears the government represented by Virginia Furman, and stakes his older way of life against change.  Irene is intrigued by the possibility of change and escape from the man who enters the house by force and imposes a forbidding will not only on Irene but also on their son, Matthew.

The sticking point that emerges is their thirteen-year old son, who is at a questioning age.  He just wants “to know,” especially Biblical matters.  When he wishes his father would enlarge on issues, Brodis’s response is that of a man “who was sure of his place next to Jesus.”  Thus to send up questions is to look into the Bible and find “disagreeables . . . . God’s word is like anything else.  If you expect to find something you don’t like, that’s exactly the thing you’ll find.”

But when Virginia approaches Irene, “her voice was urgent.” “I’m sorry to be so forward,'” she says.  “It’s just that . . . he’s so intelligent, so much keener than anyone else in his class.”  Brodis may say that Matthew has had enough education, but for Irene, well, Matthew’s world must become much larger just for the seeing, the honest questioning and answering.

The above conversation between Irene and Virginia takes place at Preacher Brodis’s church.  There’s a platform behind his pulpit where the saved members sit in formation, “the women in calico store dresses, their hair fastened in biscuits at the nape of their necks.”

This day, however, Irene is in deep conversation with Virginia, who keeps talking about a new school in Asheville “for exceptionally intelligent children.”  There are scholarships, and Mrs. Furman is convinced Matthew could get in.

Noting for a moment that this occurs in church, Irene decides that there’s no good reason for her not to sit in the regular congregation.  After all, there, “in the pews, her own mother sat among the sinners—now catching her daughter’s eye and patting the seat at her side.”  On impulse, then, Irene takes a place next to her mother and sisters and motions for Mrs. Furman to sit next to her.

When the church service begins with the choir singing “I Heard my Savior Speak to Me,” Brodis notes that people were settling themselves, “the men next to the window in the square of morning light” and, ironically, the “women on the other side of the aisle shadowed in gloom.”  Then there’s Irene, “in the pews among the sinners.”

But there’s more to this remarkable early scene.  Irene’s mother leans in for a whispered conversation and next to them a raft of aunts and nieces whispers and giggles.

Brodis broods:  These “days her private thinkings vexed him, like a walnut a man carried in his pocket.  He couldn’t leave off touching it, rolling it between his fingers, worrying and working it until the thing loosed itself and the two halves fell away as if they’d been meant to do all along.”

With the novel’s arc thus defined, the cracks that emerge widen and deepen.  To ease her marital suffocation, Irene takes to late-night rambles into the woods, her white night dress billowing.  These are spellbinding moments during which Irene stores homely but also strange keepsakes in a mountain cavern.  The images are ghostly but are also images of the possibility of another life for Irene.

Brodis, however, believes Irene is consorting with evil, her nighttime wanderings proof that she has become a witch.  His Bible-haunting dread builds slowly but dramatically.  From a modern, psychological point of view Brodis descends into madness; from his fundamentalist point of view, however, the only solution is a violent cleansing.  When Brodis visits the extension office to find where his wife has gone, he believes Mrs. Furman and her husband have ruined his way of life, that a “marriage vow [is] not a vow,” all of which is a lie, and all “lies come straight from the devil.”

So, Brodis’s world has become a world of trespasses and sins; intruders from the outside, no friends to God and Christ press in rudely and indecently.

His solution?  A violent demonstration of the Spirit’s power…

This is a fine novel, at times even mesmerizing.  The tendency may be to categorize it as part of the sub-genre of feminist literature, a classification of books in which men assert a sense of ownership over women, husbands over wives.  One should be mildly suspicious of arguments that assert male gender domination over every inch of society and life.  Franks’s debut novel, though, is less about feminine disobedience and more about a character’s innate desire to preserve herself and understand the stirrings of freedom not only for herself but also for her son, Matthew.

Isabel Archer (whose own husband’s “egotism lay hidden like a serpent in a bank of flower”) would likely believe the same but in a different time and a very different place.

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