“The Other Morgans,” by Carter Taylor Seaton

Reviewed by Donna Meredith

When readers first encounter AJ Porter in Carter Taylor Seaton’s novel The Other Morgans, they would be forgiven for judging AJ with a critical eye. The college dropout lives in a rural region of southern West Virginia, can’t pay her taxes, and uses grammar certain to make every teacher flinch. At first glance, she fits the stereotype of a down-on-her-luck, ignorant hillbilly.

But AJ ‘s actions will quickly dispel those notions. This feisty gal may be more at home on her farm than hobnobbing with the gentry, but woe to anyone who underestimates her business acumen and strength of character. AJ’s flawless sense of what matters most in life makes Those Other Morgans a superb story, both timely and timeless.

AJ has been dealt a tough hand. After her daddy dies, she drops out of college to help her mother keep the farm going. Then her husband dies in a mining accident and she is left to raise her little girl alone.  And if all that didn’t make life hard enough, a mountaintop mining operation is polluting her water, and additional pollution is likely to come from frackers who are buying up property all around her.

AJ is frustrated, yearning, because “She’d always wanted more, although she didn’t know what more was.”  Then a letter arrives that turns her world upside down, offering her and her family opportunities they’d never dreamed of. Her grandfather had left Virginia, likely “to get rid of the taint of slavery.” Now she stands to inherit “a substantial estate” from the Virginia branch of her family that she hadn’t even known existed until the letter arrived.

Despite the difficulties AJ has keeping her farm afloat, both she and her mother have strong ties to their land. AJ doesn’t want to yank little Annie out of school, taking her away from her friends and teachers. And can she just walk away from her boyfriend Dew—or would he come with her? We get an early glimpse of AJ’s courage and determination, when, undaunted by mother’s and Dew’s objections and her daughter’s tears, AJ drives off alone to Hadleigh, Virginia, to check out the Morgan estate.

The catch is that the inheritance comes with conditions. One is that she has to live there for a year before it becomes hers. And the estate must remain in the family. She is understandably appalled, and lets the lawyer know it in no uncertain terms:

“You’ve got to be freakin’ kidding me. He musta been crazy. Who’d want to leave their home and come to a place where they never been? Live for a whole year in some dreary old house and manage his affairs? No way, Jose! No freakin’ way.”

Far from dreary, the estate is luxurious beyond her wildest dreams. Even the horses live in a stable fancier than most people’s homes.

AJ quickly makes an ally of Isabelle, the older woman who conducts tours of the “ginormous” Morgan mansion. Isabelle delivers family journals and historical documents to educate AJ about the family history. These include journals of a slave buried in the family cemetery. It breaks AJ’s heart to read Moses’s words concerning his own son: “In a way, I’se sorry he be borned. All I did was make another slave.” She is also repulsed when she finds slaves listed on the property inventories: “What struck her most deeply was that they were listed as property like she would have listed her tractor, plows, or tools, if she’d made a similar inventory.”

In contrast to Isabelle’s welcoming smile, Tom Beckett, the farm’s manager, ignores and demeans AJ. Isabelle reassures the young woman that Beckett has held the position for years and does his job well:

“He’s a real curmudgeon and a control freak. You’ll get used to him, though. Don’t worry.”

“Huh! He better get used to me,” AJ huffed. She could be just as stubborn and wasn’t going to be intimidated by this man.

The ensuing clash between AJ and Beckett provides explosive conflict and also reveals the depth of AJ’s intelligence and spunk.

Lunch with Isabelle at the Hadleigh Country Club also reveals AJ’s character. Right away she notices every waiter is black and Isabelle refers to them as “boys.” When Isabelle introduces AJ to a couple of socialites who look down their noses at the newcomer from the country, AJ tells them off, pointing out their ignorance in not knowing West Virginia was a separate state:  “You think West Virginia is so damn backward that no one from there would possibly go to a country club. How does that give you the right to ignore West Virginia as a real state!” Humor rises from her indignation, since she has already let readers know she hasn’t ever been to a country club before.

As you might expect, exposure to this “Fairy-tale life” changes AJ. When together again, Dew spots differences in her hair, clothes, and foods she eats—and rejects them outright. He accuses her of getting “above her raising.”  AJ now realizes “they’d had little in common, other than where they lived, and the sex.”

Yet even though she has changed, she is not sure this tempting fairy-tale life is right for her. She realizes it took slavery to build all that wealth and to keep the estate going. So, will she go back to the farm or will she stay in Hadleigh? As she drives back to her farm for the first time, her inner conflicts become apparent:

But when the hills began to rise, her spirits rose with them. Suddenly she felt better, protected, and warmed by the closeness of her West Virginia mountains. It was the feeling she always got from them. Home.

Yet, as she climbed the familiar highway, she noticed, as if they hadn’t been there before, the small, dilapidated homes barely hanging onto the sides of the mountains. She began to count more than a few closed gas stations, grocery stores, bait shops.

How come I never realized how poor this area is before now?                                                                                        

Many opportunities arise for AJ as she interacts with the people of Hadleigh, and her life changes in ways she couldn’t have imagined even a year before. She develops confidence as she tackles challenging tasks, experiences loss and guilt, and ultimately builds new relationships.

The love West Virginians have for their families, their land, and their mountains shines through every page of this captivating tale, which could have been yet another Cinderella story, but becomes so much more.

Carter Taylor Seaton is the author of the novels Father’s Troubles; amo, amas, amat…an unconventional love story; the non-fiction Hippie Homesteaders, the biography of former Congressman, Ken Hechler, The Rebel in the Red Jeep; and a children’s book, Me and MaryAnn. Also in the works is We Were Legends In Our Own Minds: A Memoir of the Rock Era, which follows her husband through twenty-five years of interacting with the rock legends of the times. A native of Huntington, West Virginia, and graduate of Marshall University, Seaton has also lived in Columbus and Atlanta, Georgia. She has directed an arts and crafts cooperative to benefit low-income women, served as marketing director of several businesses, and run marathons.

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