September Read of the Month: “When Nighttime Shadows Fall,” by Diane Michael Cantor

Diane Michael Cantor

Reviewed by Brandy Renee McCann 

As a social scientist and native to southern Appalachia, I picked up Diane Michael Cantor’s novel, When Nighttime Shadows Fall (University of South Carolina Press, 2017), with interest. Similar to the characters in the novel, in 1976 my eighteen-year-old mother was pregnant with me. My folks were married at the time and living with my dad’s parents while they saved money for a trailer to go on the plot of land next door. They were part of a generation that watched the region transform under the social and economic programs from the new Appalachian Regional Commission and the War on Poverty. Cantor’s novel plays out in that context.

Set in 1973, most of the story is told by Laura Bauer, who lives in Atlanta with her parents; her mother is a Holocaust survivor (which has bearing on Laura’s work later in the novel). Laura’s family and friends think she is making a mistake when she takes a year off from her educational goals to take a job in the mountains of northern Georgia helping poor, pregnant teenagers. She runs a program that reaches out to expectant mothers to ensure that they receive prenatal care.

Cantor’s job portraying the situation of these young women and their respective situations is as tricky as Laura’s in helping them through their pregnancies. Among others, there’s Lisa, the white, 13-year-old girl impregnated by her brother; Mavis, the 17-year-old African American girl on the brink of marriage to a man she does not love; and Trina Kitchen, the white 14-year-old girl who hopes that her pregnancy will bring her the man she loves, the 30-something father of the children she babysits.  Both the writer and the protagonist must tell the truth of these situations with unflinching honesty, yet avoid the kind of stereotyping that has very real consequences for Appalachian people.

Another area where Cantor needed to tread carefully was in how she depicted mountain voices. The dialog has a local color feel, and Cantor seems to have an intimate familiarity with the rhythms of mountain speech. She captures the dialect without overdoing it, which too often is an irresistible temptation for writers portraying Appalachia. But Cantor has struck a fine balance in portraying the speech patterns without sacrificing readability, or worse, beating the reader over the head with colloquialisms. For example, when appropriate she uses quaint figures of speech that can still be heard in the region and were likely to be common in the 1970s, such as saying “carry me to the store” to mean “take or drive me to the store.” The grammar tends to line up to characters in a believable way on the basis of their age and education level. The local staff in her office have a southern mountain rhythm in their syntax, but they make fewer grammatical errors in their speech than do the young girls who’ve dropped out of school. Cantor has a real gift for characterizing the nuance of southern mountain dialects.

As for the development of the plot, the story feels, at first, like a series of vignettes in this character-driven novel. Each person Laura meets has a particular unfolding drama, and they know each other primarily through their association with Laura’s program. In the first chapter, on Laura’s first day on the job, we meet Judy’s mom. Sadly, Judy does not meet the inclusion criteria for the government-run program. The reader never meets Judy herself, nor her mother again. The story seems less about the pregnant teenagers and their families and more about Laura, an outsider to southern mountain culture who comes to terms with her own prejudices and assumptions about the poor women she serves.

For example, at first Laura often assumes the girls feel shame about, say, living in a trailer or the poor conditions of the backroads. But later in the novel she reflects that, as an outsider, she hasn’t been meeting the girls where they are. Laura was leading a meeting about breastfeeding and asked each of the girls to read aloud from a pamphlet. Some of the girls couldn’t read, and some had no interest in breastfeeding. Laura’s assistant Susan, a local woman, stepped in to smooth things over. After the meeting while they were cleaning up Laura says she felt embarrassed that Susan had to take over, adding that “I couldn’t shake the feelings of my own cloddishness. […O]ver the whir of the vacuum cleaner, I heard their halting, humiliated voices in my head.” In this scene Laura finally begins to transition from a naïve do-gooder to a more thoughtful young woman, less sure of herself.

One odd aspect of the book is that there are two chapters where suddenly the narrator becomes third-person omniscient (chapters 7 and 12). It’s not uncommon for writers to do this, but I was surprised that an editor didn’t catch this along the way—possibly because these were chapters where Cantor’s prose and storytelling really shined. It left me wishing that the whole story had been told by this omniscient narrator, as I often had mixed feelings about Laura. Laura’s perspective, while interesting, was too much of an outsider’s perspective.

Cantor lives in Atlanta. When Nighttime Shadows Fall is her second novel. Her readers no doubt look forward to reading more.

Click here to purchase this book:



Leave a Reply