December Read of the Month: “The Woods of Fannin County” by Janisse Ray

Astounding as it may seem for admirers of Southern author, poet, activist Janisse Ray, The Woods of Fannin County (Janisse Ray, 2022) is her first time publishing fiction. Maybe more surprising is her anxiety over venturing into fiction. The Woods of Fannin County is an unfathomable story, and perhaps, fiction made it easier to tell such a terrible truth. In 1945, eight siblings were driven by mule and wagon into the Blue Ridge Mountains and abandoned in a dilapidated cabin by their mother, father, grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, community, church, law enforcement, and strangers. If anyone listed here was not directly culpable, as the Woods’ immediate family were, they still failed these children and themselves. Strangers, aware of the situation, but who chose to look the other way—bystanders to a crime—are not free from blame. “Friends” are not listed because clearly these orphaned children had only themselves for friends.

The novel begins in the past on the morning ten-year-old Bobby Woods, the protagonist, eavesdrops on a conversation between his grandfather, Mr. Allen, and mother, Ruby Woods. They are deciding the children’s fate: “In that moment the boy somehow understood that this was a day he would remember…he felt surrounding him, touching him from all sides, a terrific and blinding secret, one that he would spend his entire life trying to uncover and also to decipher.” Ray really draws the reader in—what is this secret? But Ray is a poet, and after introducing this suspenseful scene, she cleverly slows the tempo down detailing the long journey from the grandfather’s house in Morganton, Georgia, to Loving, Georgia, the children’s future home. And “home” is used loosely here. There is a photo in the book of the cabin as it appeared in the 1970s; the earth is reclaiming it. The physical journey the eight children made that day initially by wagon and then by foot would have been arduous, especially at their ages ranging from an infant to ten years old. That journey’s toll on the children—not being told where they were going, why they were going there, just going, going, deeper and deeper into the Blue Ridge Mountains—is cleverly drawn out. Symbolically, is it a journey Bobby and his siblings had just begun, travelling a road that started with the ugly whispers between a mother and her father until those secrets were revealed to be abandonment.

The first chapter begins on that fateful day in 1945 and then Ray flashforwards to 2010; the siblings gather for Thanksgiving and start piecing the events together. Ray moves forward chronologically covering the four-year period the children lived in the woods: four years without adequate shelter or clothing; four years of foraging, stealing, or starving; four years without access to medicine, doctors, basic hygiene; four years unloved and abused. Through flashback and the memories of a young Bobby, the reader discovers the backstory around his parents, Ruby Allen and Roy Woods, and his grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. Allen. Structurally, Ray wrote a framed narrative and as a literary device it is highly effective.

The story shifts with each chapter between two voices of the same character: a young Bobby in third-person point-of-view who was abandoned in the woods, and adult Bobby, looking back upon his childhood. While it is important for a mature Bobby to expose his family’s dark secret, it is equally important that he be given the space to voice his pent-up rage, shame, and pain. It might seem jolting to move back and forth from past to present so frequently, from boyhood to adulthood, but Bobby’s story is so emotionally charged these “breaks” are needed. If the adult character set the frame, never breaking through that fourth wall, waiting until the end to share his feelings and thoughts, the effect would be lost on the reader. It would be too much at one time. Also, Bobby and his siblings never spoke about their great secret; they blocked it to the extent they question that it even happened. This is a common way trauma victims protect themselves from their grim reality. Ray’s metafictional approach to the story is brilliantly accomplished with a self-reflective Bobby trying to make sense of a situation too absurd to make sense of.

The narrative surrounding the four-year period the children spent living in the woods ends when Bobby is fourteen and he and his siblings are “rescued” and moved to the children’s home at Georgia Baptist. Ray concludes, bringing the narrative to the present-time, sometime during 2010 or afterwards, with a mature Bobby explaining why he decided to write this book. It’s a complex story told simply; Ray’s love for language and nature seeps through with her vivid descriptions of this Appalachian setting, but it is never overly ornate so as not to distract from the story itself.

Jannise Ray Photo by Christopher Ian Smith

Ray forewarns her readers in the beginning that the book is not meant for small children to read, and yet it is about children, which makes it even sadder. Ray is unwavering. She confronts tough themes— abandonment, shame, poverty, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse—head-on. And while The Woods of Fannin County may be read in one setting, it is not an easy read. At its core, this story is about survival and pure sibling love—a positive to take away from the Woods’ story. If Janisse Ray’s The Woods of Fannin County is any indication of what to expect from her journey into a fictional landscape, we are lucky readers.

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