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Named for a flower whose blood-red sap possesses the power both to heal and poison, Bloodroot is a stunning fiction debut about the legacies—of magic and madness, faith and secrets, passion and loss—that haunt one family across the generations, from the Great Depression to today.
The novel is told in a kaleidoscope of seamlessly woven voices and centers around an incendiary romance that consumes everyone in its path: Myra Lamb, a wild young girl with mysterious, haint blue eyes ...
Named for a flower whose blood-red sap possesses the power both to heal and poison, Bloodroot is a stunning fiction debut about the legacies—of magic and madness, faith and secrets, passion and loss—that haunt one family across the generations, from the Great Depression to today.
The novel is told in a kaleidoscope of seamlessly woven voices and centers around an incendiary romance that consumes everyone in its path: Myra Lamb, a wild young girl with mysterious, haint blue eyes who grows up on remote Bloodroot Mountain; her grandmother Byrdie Lamb, who protects Myra fiercely and passes down “the touch” that bewitches people and animals alike; the neighbor boy who longs for Myra yet is destined never to have her; the twin children Myra is forced to abandon but who never forget their mother’s deep love; and John Odom, the man who tries to tame Myra and meets with shocking, violent disaster. Against the backdrop of a beautiful but often unforgiving country, these lives come together—only to be torn apart—as a dark, riveting mystery unfolds.
With grace and unflinching verisimilitude, Amy Greene brings her native Appalachia—and the faith and fury of its people—to rich and vivid life. Here is a spellbinding tour de force that announces a dazzlingly fresh, natural-born storyteller in our midst.
“Masterful. . . . A fascinating and authentic look at a rural world full of love and life, dreams and disappointment.” —The Boston Globe
“If Wuthering Heights had been set in southern Appalachia, it might have taken place on Bloodroot Mountain…. Brooding, dark and beautifully imagined.” —The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
“That rare sort of family story that feels intimate instead of epic. . . . Alluring and wonderful.” —Louisville Courier-Journal
“Greene’s prose will cast a spell on you.” —Glamour
“Amy Greene’s Bloodroot can stand proudly beside Alice Walker’s The Color Purple and Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle, two works which likewise examine the isometric push of the human spirit against the immovable forces of tyranny and poverty. Greene’s novel has everything I savor in fiction: flawed but sympathetic characters, a narrative as unpredictable as it is engaging, and a setting rendered with such a vivid palette of local color detail that you’d swear you were there.” —Wally Lamb, author of The Hour I First Believed
“Reminiscent of McCarthy’s early Appalachian fiction. . . . Hard to put down. . . . What consistently remains is Greene’s spot-on account of a land and its people—with its old-fashioned Scots-Irish dialect and its close-knit communities, its homespun Christianity and its folk remedies.” —Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
“Bloodroot takes place in Appalachia and, yes, Greene lovingly describes its mountains and hollows, its waters filled with bluegills. . . . But this story is really about the fraught, sometimes dangerous, bonds between children and their mothers.” —The New York Times Book Review
“Haunting . . . Woven into [Bloodroot] is mountain magic, family history, rural poverty and each generation’s effort to make things better for their children.” —Knoxville News-Sentinel
“Stirring . . . The wild beauty of Appalachia is . . . entrancing. . . . The novel’s charm comes from its hints of magical realism. Women with ‘gifts’—to heal, make love potions and put curses on their enemies.” —USA Today
“Bloodroot spins a web of tragic history, mountain lore, and forbidden love amid the beauty of east Tennessee’s hill country. . . . Will steal your heart.” —The Madison County Herald (Mississippi)
“One of those warm, wise novels that turns into a word-of-mouth sensation. . . . [Bloodroot’s] weird swirl of Southern Gothic and bleak domestic drama keeps the pages turning. . . . Greene has a vivid sense of her mountain and its surrounding communities and that sense of a natural wonderland slowly coming unhinged gives the book [its] soul.” —The Onion’s A.V. Club
“Bloodroot is a marvel of a first novel, its world deftly conjured, with a mood and magic all its own. I don’t know what captivated me more, the vividness of its voices or its evocation of a corner of the American landscape both foreign and familiar—but I was riveted from start to finish.” —Arthur Golden, author of Memoirs of a Geisha
“Romantic, riveting, and beautiful: Bloodroot demonstrates how the soul of one woman can possess the spirit of many. . . . Reminiscent of Toni Morrison. . . . Filled with passion and poetry, Bloodroot is an exciting beginning for a literary career.” —Sacramento News and Review
“A magical story, a story of passion, madness, a mystery, and a wild and tempestuous place.” —Hudson Valley News
“[Bloodroot’s] power is awesome, peeling away layers of the human experience like an onion until it reaches a message of redemption. Greene proves herself a newcomer to watch.” —The Star-News (Wilmington, NC)
“Brilliant . . . A tapestry of voices and lives so rich and intricate that each and every storyline holds the reader spellbound. . . . The voices ring as true and intimate as any I have ever heard. Hats off to Amy Greene, an immensely talented writer.” —Jill McCorkle, author of Carolina Moon
“Nothing less than an epic—a story of madness and magic that spans four generations, an emotionally tangled tale that requires six disparate voices to tell and offers no easy resolutions to the conflicts of the heart.” —Nashville Scene
“Greene’s debut novel is one that sticks with you, gets under your skin, and wrenches your gut. It enchants with the magic of legend, and chills with the meanness that can fester in people. Greene writes a world both delightfully fanciful and painfully real, a testament to the strength of deep roots and the fragility of old ways in an increasingly paved-over world. . . . Mesmerizing.” —Orion magazine
“Amy Greene is a born storyteller who depicts the voices and folkways of Appalachia with both eloquence and verisimilitude. A striking debut by a gifted writer.” —Ron Rash, author of Serena
“Creates indelible, endearing images of the mountains, the small towns, and the townsfolk [of Eastern Tennessee].” —Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
“It’s spooky what Bloodroot did to me: it caused me to have a vision of Amy Greene typing at supernaturally speedy speed, thousands of beautiful novels just like this one purring out and away from her fingers. And there I am, in a rocker by a sunny window, forevermore reading them. That would be heaven to me.” —Carolyn Chute, author of The Beans of Egypt, Maine
“Bloodroot is a literary page-turner filled with characters—and a place—so real that they threaten to burst from the seams of the book and take over. . . . Bloodroot is the best Appalachian novel to come out of the region in a long, long while, ushering in a fresh new voice that speaks for a whole generation.” —Silas House, author of Clay’s Quilt and A Parchment of Leaves
Myra looks like her mama, but prettier because of her daddy mixed in. She got just the right amount of both. The best thing about Myra's daddy was his eyes, blue as the sky. They'd pierce right through you. Myra ended up with the same blue-blue eyes. I always figured she was too pretty and then John Odom came along. Now I'll die alone. It's not that I'm scared of being alone with this mountain. I love it like another person. I just miss my grandbaby. Me and Myra's mama wasn't close. Clio had little regard for me or Macon either one. Myra's the daughter I always wished I had.
I didn't see nothing wrong with John Odom at first, but even if I'd seen that snake coiled up inside his heart I wouldn't have tried to stop her. I could tell by her eyes Myra had to have him whatever the outcome. Now I know the outcome is no good. This morning I went to see her and it broke my heart in two. I can't stand to think about what he might be doing to her beside of them tracks. Through the years I got tougher than a pine knot, but something about getting this old has softened me up. I reckon I have too much time to think about my troubles these days, without Myra here to talk to.
I should have seen what was coming after that time she got in late from the library. She was supposed to have been studying with one of her school friends. But I caught a funny shine in her eyes. "What have you been up to?" I asked.
She went to the sink and got a glass of water, gulped it down like she'd been in a race. She turned around and her cheeks looked hot. She smiled with water shining on her lips. "I'll tell you later, Granny, I promise. Right now I want to keep it just for me."
"You're silly," I said, but the way her eyes shined made me nervous. Then I got busy tidying up the kitchen before bed and forgot all about it.
When I finally laid down, I fell asleep as quick as my head hit the pillow. Thinking back, it was an unnatural sleep, like I had drunk a sleeping potion. I had a dream that I was standing on a rickety bridge over muddy water. The roar of it was so loud I couldn't hear nothing else. Then I seen there was things getting carried off in the rapids. It was pieces of our house on Bloodroot Mountain. The leg off of my favorite chair. The quilt I made for Myra when she was a baby. A drawer out of the kitchen buffet. A baby doll Myra used to play with. Some floorboards and a few shingles and even the front door came rolling by. Then there was a crack and my foot went through the boards of that old bridge. It started coming apart, jagged pieces dropping and rushing away, until I was hanging on by a scrap of rotten wood, my feet dangling over the water. If I fell it would carry me off, too. Finally I couldn't hold on no longer. Just as I was dropping, I jerked awake, wringing wet with sweat. I set up on the side of the bed, heart thudding so hard I was afraid it might give out on me. I should have knowed right then. Grandmaw Ruth always said it's bad luck to dream of muddy waters.
Last night I closed the door to the smokehouse where the bloodroot is kept in cardboard boxes, away from the mice and bugs. I stood there with my back against it, looking across the yard. The house was dark with my parents sleeping and all my brothers gone. Behind barbwire the pasture made a chain of starlit humps. I took the feedbag, heavy with corn, to the barn on quivering legs. The cows are sold and the field was still, but from the barn came fitful knocking sounds. Wild Rose never rests. Daddy had to put her up because she's been getting loose more often. I think I know why. Myra Lamb is gone from her house down the mountain and Rose has been looking for her.
I went to the black opening of the barn and turned on my flashlight. The knocking sounds stopped at once. I could sense Wild Rose waiting for me in the shadows of her stall. The smells of manure and damp hay turned my stomach. Walking deeper into the barn, I saw the reflective shine of her glassy blue eyes and wanted to turn back.
"Rose," I said. "I brought you something good to eat."
The horse didn't stir as I came down the aisle, like she knew what I was up to. She's never liked being touched, but she usually lets me strap on the feedbag. I was hoping the taste of sweet corn would hide the bitterness of what I'd laced it with.
"You hungry?" It was hard to hear myself over the thudding of my heart. Part of me couldn't believe what I was doing. Maybe I was still in bed asleep.
Wild Rose took a few steps toward the front of the stall. I could hear her breath snuffling through the wet channels of her nostrils. Somehow, even before she charged, I knew that she had figured me out. She exploded out of the stall door as she had out of the trailer the first time I saw her, a storm of splintering wood and pounding hooves, with a scream that threatened to split my head in two. I dropped the feedbag and the flashlight and clapped my hands over my ears. I felt the hot passage of her body like a freight train in the dark, the force of it knocking me down. Then she was gone, out the barn opening and across the hills, leaving me to lie in a mess of spilled corn and bloodroot.
When I was a girl I lived across another mountain in a place called Chickweed Holler. Until I was ten years old, me and Mammy lived with Grandmaw Ruth, and two of Grandmaw's sisters, Della and Myrtle. I used to crawl up in Grandmaw's lap to study her face and follow its lines with my finger. She stayed slim and feisty up until the day she died of a stroke, walking home in the heat after birthing somebody's baby. Myrtle had hair soft and white as dandelion fluff that she liked for me to comb out and roll for her. They was all good-looking women, but Della was the prettiest. Her hair stayed black right up to the end of her life, and she didn't have as many wrinkles as Grandmaw. I reckon it's because she didn't have to work as much in the sun. She was the youngest and Myrtle and Grandmaw still babied her, old as all three of them was.
It was just me and Mammy after my daddy passed away, so Grandmaw took us in. We lived in a little cabin with a porch up on stilts. I liked to play under there, where they kept mason jars and rusty baling wire and all manner of junk for me to mess in. Chickweed Holler was a wild place with the mountains rising steep on both sides. From Grandmaw's doorstep you could see a long ways, wildflower fields waving when the summer winds blowed. That land was in our family for generations and Grandmaw and my great-aunts loved it as good as they did any of their kin.
All the neighbors thought the world of Grandmaw and her sisters. They was what you call granny women, and the people of Chickweed Holler relied on them for any kind of help you can think of. Each one of them had different gifts. Myrtle was what I've heard called a water witch. She could find a well on anybody's land with her dowsing rod. People sent for her from a long ways off. Sometimes they'd come to get her and she'd fetch the forked branch she kept under her bed and hop in their wagon. She'd be gone for days at a time, depending on how hard of a trip it was. Della was the best one at mixing up cures. She could name any root and herb and flower you pointed at. Another thing she was good for was healing animals. She could set the broke leg of the orneriest hunting dog and it wouldn't even bite her. One day I seen her in the yard bent over the washtub scrubbing and a bird lit on her shoulder. It stayed for a long time. If she noticed, she didn't let on. I stood still, trying not to scare it away. When I told Grandmaw about it later, she said animals are attracted to our kind of people, and so are other people of our kind. She winked and said, "Don't be surprised if the feller you marry has the touch. People with the touch draws one another." I've always remembered that, but I don't reckon Macon had none of the gifts Grandmaw and her sisters had. I didn't either. It's odd how the touch moves in a family. You never can tell who'll turn up with it.
Grandmaw had the best gift of all. She claimed she could send her spirit up out of her body. She said, "You could lock me up in the jailhouse or bury me alive down under the ground. It don't matter where this old shell is at. My soul will fly off wherever I want it to be." She told me about a time she fell down in a sinkhole when she was little and couldn't climb back out. She had wandered far from the house and knowed her mammy and pappy couldn't hear her. She looked up at the sun between the roots hanging down like dirty hair and wished so hard to fly up out of there that her spirit took off, rose, and soared on back to her little house in the holler. That's when she figured out what her gift was. She had no memory of being stuck in a hole that day. What she remembered was watching her mammy roll out biscuit dough and romping with her puppy dog and picking daisies to braid a crown. Grandmaw wasn't even hollering when a man out hunting came along and his dog sniffed her out. That's the gift I wish I had. I'd go back to Chickweed Holler right now and see if everything still looks the same.
It doesn't take as much to poison a horse as people think. You just have to know what to feed one. A few oleander leaves, a little sorghum grass, a bit of yellow star thistle and a horse can choke faster than the vet can get there. Tie your horse to a black locust or a chokecherry tree and it could be dead within minutes. Bloodroot is dangerous to horses, too. We have a carpet of it growing down the side of our mountain when springtime comes, thriving under the shady tree canopy high above our house. We have to walk quite a piece each year to find it. Daddy says such a lush stand is rare these days. My brother Mark, Daddy, and I used to go up there with hand spades and a sack, noses red in the leftover cold of winter. Bloodroot can be harvested in fall but the leaves have died back, so it's harder to know where the plants are. That's why we always made the trip in early spring, when the flowers are spread across the slope like the train of a wedding gown. We had to be careful not to damage the roots. When Mark and I were small, Daddy would yell at us if we were too rough, "That's money y'uns is throwing away!" He taught us to shake the roots free of clinging black soil and brush off the bugs and pluck away any weeds that might have got tangled in. Then we had to move fast because bloodroot is easy to mold. We'd head back down the mountain with our sacks to spray the roots with the water hose attached to the wellhouse spigot, washing away the dirt. Once the roots were clean we put them in the smokehouse to dry for about a week. Daddy or one of us would check them for mold once in a while, and when they broke without bending they were dry enough to store. Sometimes we got up to ten dollars a pound. I've heard bloodroot's good for curing croup, and it's even been used for treating certain kinds of cancer. Some of it we kept for ourselves, to use on poison ivy and warts. I've known bloodroot to last in a cool, dark place for up to two years. It will also kill a horse. Daddy told me so last spring, the last time we went up the mountain to dig.
It was March and still cold enough to see our breath. Daddy lumbered along beside me and Mark walked on ahead because, even though we're both grown, he always had to be the fastest. We heard the crack of Wild Rose's hooves before we saw her.
"Dang horse," Mark said. He hoisted himself up by a sapling onto a shelf of rock. "She's loose again."
Daddy shook his head but I saw a grin ripple under his beard. His beloved Rose could do no wrong. Not far up the mountain we saw the bloodroot, a lacy white patch littered with dead leaves. Wild Rose stepped out of the trees near the scattering of flowers and stood looking down at us, tail switching. Her beauty took my breath away.
"I don't believe I've ever seen her stray this far from home," Mark said. "She must be looking for something to eat up here that she's not getting in the pasture. Do you think she needs a dose of vitamins, Daddy?"
Wild Rose blinked at us indifferently for another second or two, then lowered her head to crop at the mossy grass beside the patch of bloodroot. All of a sudden Daddy sprang forward and threw up his arms. "Hyar, Rose!" he shouted. "Git!" Wild Rose turned and thundered off between the trees, tail high.
"Shoot, Daddy," Mark said. "You scared me half to death."
"Wouldn't take much of that bloodroot to kill a horse," Daddy said. He straightened his stocking hat and picked up the sack he had dropped. He moved on with Mark but I stood looking after Rose for a long time.
"This here's a three-man operation, Douglas," Daddy finally called. I went and joined them on my knees among the flowers.
2. Byrdie, for all the losses and heartbreak she’s experienced, remains resilient, selfless, and loving. Why do you think Greene chose to begin Myra’s story by going back into Byrdie’s sometimes painful history? How does Byrdie foreshadow what’s to come for Myra, both in her dreams and premonitions about John Odom, and also through her own experiences—namely her romance with Macon and the loss of her own children? What does Myra learn from Byrdie, and what lessons does she forget too easily?
3. Magic plays an important role in this story, just as it has in the real lives of generations of Appalachian families. Byrdie is the niece of “granny women” who believe that a curse on her family will be lifted when a baby with “haint blue” eyes is born, yet Myra’s birth seems to lead to even more trouble for the Lambs. Why doesn’t Myra’s birth break the curse? Do you think the curse even existed in the first place? Why do tradition and superstition exert such a strong hold on the family, even on an educated character like Ford Hendrix?
4. Appalachia is depicted as an often bleak place in this novel, where poverty, abuse, and violence are endemic. Yet it is also described as a place of great beauty. All of the female characters marry and have babies at a young age, which at times makes their lives more difficult—their husbands can be unreliable, even cruel—but some of their relationships are shown to be warm and loving. How do these contrasts create tension in the story? What social, political, and economic questions do you think the novel raises?
5. In Doug’s narrative, he speaks of the allure of Bloodroot Mountain and the important role the natural world plays in his boyhood relationship with Myra. What does the mountain represent to Doug and Myra, and to the other families who live there? How does their isolation from the rest of the world cause problems, and how does it occasionally benefit them? Why do you think Myra has “itchy feet,” and how does she pass that restlessness on to her children?
6. Wild Rose is an untamable horse with whom Myra seems to have a special, even primal, connection. What does Wild Rose represent for Myra? For Doug?
7. Byrdie passes the blood red ring she stole on to Myra, who in turn gives it to Johnny and Laura. Beyond its material value, why is the ring so important to each of them? What else does Myra pass on to her children—what less tangible legacies does she leave with each of them?
8. Why do you think Myra loves Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey”? How does poetry provide both her and Johnny with a means of escaping reality in some of their worst moments? How does Johnny’s own writing help him get past all the hardship he’s experienced?
9. What life-changing insights does Johnny gain while serving time in jail? What does he mean about becoming empowered and learning to use his anger in more productive ways?
10. How do you view Johnny’s chance meeting with Ford Hendrix? Is it coincidence, or is something more powerful at work? What do Johnny and Myra find appealing in Ford? Do you think Ford’s visions are real, or are they, along with his tales of how he lost his finger, part of his storytelling gifts?
11. What draws Johnny and Ford to Carolina? In addition to her healing gifts, how is she different from other women? How does the experience of living with Ford and Carolina in the idyll they’ve created in the woods—and the way this experience ends—change Johnny?
12. Why is Laura attracted to Clint? What do they have in common? Does Clint share any of Macon’s qualities, and does Laura share any of Byrdie’s? Why does Clint begin to withdraw after their marriage? Why can’t Clint tell Laura what’s troubling him? Do you think he drowns on purpose—is it a suicide or an accident? Why would he want to kill himself?
13. What does the patronizing attitude of Laura’s doctor say about the attitude of the outside world toward the people of rural Appalachia? How does the representative of Children’s Services confirm that attitude? Knowing Laura as you do, do you think it’s possible that she would kill her baby rather than give him up?
14. At the end of Laura’s and Johnny’s narratives, what changes have they undergone that enable them to stop believing in curses and to visit their mother for the first time? How has their relationship—and the fact that they are twins—evolved to come full circle in some ways?
15. At the beginning of the section Myra narrates, we can tell that something is not right with her, and we learn later that she is living in a mental hospital. Do you think Myra is mad, or haunted? Is her institutionalization is unjust? How does her encounter with Hollis affect her? Why do you think she doesn’t want to leave the hospital? Is she really content there?
16. Myra believes she has succeeded in bewitching John Odom into falling in love with her by swallowing a chicken heart; she also comes to believe she too is culpable in the disintegration of their marriage. Do you think Myra shares in the blame, or is John entirely at fault for the brutality that ends their relationship? Or is it in their bloodlines—could they have inherited legacies of violence from their parents? What role does fate play in what happens between them?
17. How does the magic that brings Myra to Ford—if it is magic—differ from that which brings Myra and John together? Compare Myra’s first meeting with Ford to the first time she sees John: do her feelings for Ford provide a counterbalance for her other relationships with men? Does Myra’s time with Ford help her find the courage to leave John, or is it John’s brutality that gives her the power to break down what has kept her prisoner?
18. Why does Myra not seem to care whether Ford or John is the father of her children? Who do you imagine is the father, and does it matter to you either way? Would knowing change the meaning of the novel for you?
19. Is it surprising that John is alive and living up north or that he has long since forgiven Myra, even though his body bears the evidence of her revenge? Do you believe him when he says he still loves Myra? Do you think that, as the product of an abusive father and an alcoholic mother, John has the capacity to be redeemed?
20. Were you surprised, along with John, to see Doug reappear in the story? Do you agree with Doug’s idea that loving Myra has cursed both men?
21. Why did John visit Myra back in 1996? What did he realize about her resilience in spite of her long years in an institution? Is the ending of the book an unexpected coincidence? Or is it perhaps one last magical act, giving John the capacity to change his life? And does he?
22. Thinking about Johnny, Laura, and Sunny at the novel’s conclusion, John Odom says, “I used to think I was born worthless, considering the people I come from. But when I saw that blue-eyed baby years ago, it made me wonder” (pages 364–65). How do Myra and Johnny wrestle with similar questions of their own? What do you think the novel is trying to say about inheritance and destiny?
23. The bloodroot flower has the power to poison and to heal, and while the lives of the characters in Bloodroot often seem bleak, the novel seems to end on a hopeful note. Amy Greene told one interviewer that “the discovery in the novel is that it is possible to take what’s good from the life you’ve lived and move forward, and leave the rest behind.” Do you agree? If so, which characters in the novel do you think illustrate this statement best?
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Posted January 23, 2010
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Even though the book is filled with tragedies and heartbreak, it's a compelling story of the consequences of life choices and overcoming them. The author does a great job developing each character, so you can see the point of view through each characters' eyes. I cared so much for the characters, I was sorry to see the book end. I wanted the story extended to see how the generations of charaters completed their life story. I highly recommend this book. It's a great gift to give to book lovers!!
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Posted February 20, 2010
Set in modern day, the family plantation located in Bloodroot, an imaginary location near the "real origins of the Choctaw and Chickasaw delta country" of Jordan Mississippi. China hates her connection to the Old South and its injustices, her memories of childhood summers there still haunt her, so she hasn't been back in years. She wouldn't have agreed to go now, except her mother told her that her legal expertise was needed to keep Great Aunt Tullie out of jail. Tullie Coldwell is a difficult old woman at best, due to a degenerative, progressive, ultimately fatal neurological disease that is hereditary. China must determine if her Great Aunt Tullie is guilty of homicide. The plantation manager has been found dead after receiving a blow to the head from Tullie's cane, the investigation leads to disappearances, deaths, family secrets, and property disputes.both present and past.
A mystery written by a woman for women to read, I say this because of peppered recipes, and majority of characters are women with only a few evil men to hate. Each chapter begins with a recipe or quotation from herbalist note of local plant and it history.
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