Butterfly Weedby Donald Harington
The raucous and poignant story of Doc Swain describes how he becomes a physician without attending medical school, his ability to heal patients with the "dream cure," his pursuit by a student and a music teacher from the high school at which he teaches, and the heartbreaking choices he must make.
Harington's series of novels about this fictional Arkansas community (The Choiring of the Trees, 1991, etc.) and its eccentric population ("Stay Morons") has been distinguished by an idiosyncratic blend of lovingly rendered detail (on the language, beliefs, and history of southern mountain life) and wild fantasy. This latest installment, a history of the complex love life and remarkable medical achievements of Doc Colvin Swain, Stay More's "dreaming Doctor," is no different: The title derives from an incident in which a chaste young woman, fleeing an unwanted suitor, is rumored to have turned herself into a butterfly, or a flower, to escape. While the bawdy record of Swain's affairs is at the heart of Harington's crowded, exuberant story, we also get a robust portrait of the doctor's special gifts, his patients, and his times (from the end of the 19th century to the 1950s). Apprenticed as a young boy to a hill doctor, he learns to use both a wide range of herbal remedies and conventional cures. But what really sets him apart is his trancelike ability to visit his patients at night, in their dreams, and to treat them successfully on some nocturnal astral plane. The most painful irony of Swain's career is that beautiful, beloved Tenny (Tennessee), the true love of his life, is the one patient he can't save. She dies, horribly, of tuberculosis. But, this being Stay More, she lingers on as a spirit, watching over Doc, waiting for him.
Such material would evaporate in the hands of a lesser novelist. But Harington, an ingenious, wise storyteller and a sly stylist, able to catch the tang and vigor of the spoken word, makes Doc and the other inhabitants of Stay More seem as real as the mountains they inhabitand also as mysteriously timeless.
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This is one of the most creative and entertaining books I have read in years. Harrington's unique use of the English (Ozarkian?) language is playful and witty and, in the end, very intelligent. The story itself is mystical and powerful. I am delighted to have finally discovered this author. How could I have missed him all these years?