Gap Creek by Robert Morgan | Hardcover | Barnes & Noble
Gap Creek: The Story of a Marriage

Gap Creek: The Story of a Marriage

3.5 1136
by Robert Morgan

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There is a most unusual woman living in Gap Creek. Julie Harmon works hard, "hard as aman" they say, so hard that at times she's not sure she can stop.

People depend on her. They need her to slaughter the hogs and nurse the dying. People are weak, and there is so much to do. She is just a teenager when her little brother dies in her arms. That same


There is a most unusual woman living in Gap Creek. Julie Harmon works hard, "hard as aman" they say, so hard that at times she's not sure she can stop.

People depend on her. They need her to slaughter the hogs and nurse the dying. People are weak, and there is so much to do. She is just a teenager when her little brother dies in her arms. That same year she marries Hank and moves down into the valley where fire and visions visit themselves on her and where con men and drunks come calling.

Julie and Hank discover that the modern world is complex, grinding ever on without pause or concern for their hard work. To survive, they must find out whether love can keep chaos and madness at bay.

With Julie, Robert Morgan has brought to life one of the most memorable women in modern American literature with the same skill that led the Boston Book Review to say that he writes "with an authority usually associated with the great novelists of the last century."

In this novel, Morgan returns to the vivid world of the Appalachian high country to follow Julie and Hank in their new life on Gap Creek and their efforts to make sense of the world in the last years of the nineteenth century. Scratching out a life for themselves, always at risk of losing it all, Julie and Hank don't know what to fear most--the floods or the flesh-and-blood grifters who insinuate themselves into their new lives.

Their struggles with nature, with work, with the changing century, and with the disappointments and triumphs of marriage make this a powerful follow-up to Morgan's acclaimed novel, The Truest Pleasure.

Editorial Reviews
In a beautiful Appalachian town bordered by the Carolinas, Julie and Hank Harmon share their tumultuous first year as a married couple. Morgan illuminates life in Gap Creek in fascinating detail as the young couple struggles to deal with tragedy after tragedy.
David Harsanyi
Morgan’s Gap Creek is an Appalachian town on the border of the Carolinas. In this world, Mother Nature rules and misfortune is an accepted fact of everyday life. With delicate, detail-rich prose, Morgan relates the story of young Julie Harmon and her husband Hank’s first year of marriage. Their brutal life—filled with death, oppressive winters, fire, flood and about every other calamity a writer could conjure up—tests their love, not to mention their physical and emotional endurance.

Morgan’s talent for gracefully illustrating the practical details of rural life is astonishing. Gap Creek’s beauty is found in its depiction of the dazzling Appalachian landscape and its people. Yet with all its lush, rustic imagery, investing emotionally in Gap Creek is quite a chore. The inhabitants fall so quickly from one tragedy into the next that the reader develops an immunity to their misfortune. Nonetheless, Morgan succeeds in painting a heartfelt picture of southern life.

Fred Chappell
Gap Creek is the work of a master. Robert Morgan knows every corner, every inch, of the way of life he portrays in this deeply affecting book. He has created one of the most admirable heroines in modern literature; I feel that I'll remember her always. Here is strength and grace and immeasurable courage: a triumph!
Loyal Jones
A poet's vision illuminates this starkly beautiful story of a strong young woman prevailing over natural disasters and tragedies, as well as cultural barriers, in the first year of her marriage in the last year of the last century. Robert Morgan tells her story with the certitude of a sure knowledge of a receding way of life in a changing Appalachian region.
Stewart O'Nan
In examining the hard, honest lives of his people, Robert Morgan gives voice to a time and place rarely imagined. Gap Creek speaks of things both intimate and eternal.
— author of The Names of The Dead, Snow Angels, A Praye for the Dying, and A World Away
New York Times Book Review
Morgan is among the relatively few American writers who write about work knowledgeably, and as if it really matters....You begin to feel, as you sometimes do when reading Cormac McCarthy's or Harry Crew's early novels, that the author has been typing with blood on his hands and a good deal of it has rubbed off onto your shirtsleeves. ...his stripped-down and almost primitive sentences burn with the raw, lonesome pathos of Hank William's best songs.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The ordinary folk of Appalachia are Morgan's subjects, and here he offers another compassionate tale of poor people enduring brutal working lives and harsh deprivations with stoic dignity. While not as memorable as The Truest Pleasure, this story of a North Carolina mountain girl who marries at 16 and with her new husband goes to live in Gap Valley, over the border in South Carolina, is a quiet tale told with simplicity and tenderness. Julia Harmon has become accustomed to sawing firewood, digging ditches and caring for the livestock on her family's farm while her father dies of consumption. When she marries Hank Richards and begins to keep house for their mean-tempered landlord in Gap Creek, she has no idea of the disasters that await during her first year of marriage. Daily life is hard enough for Julia--hauling and then boiling gallons of water to wash clothes, butchering a hog and rendering lard, and scrubbing, preserving and baking. But then a fire envelops the kitchen and fatally burns the landlord, a flood almost destroys the house and outbuildings and ruins all their provisions, and a cold snap kills off everything else. Julia is pregnant and Hank has lost his job, and both have been gulled by sharpies into giving up their tiny savings. Moreover, Julia realizes, Hank is immature, hot-tempered and burdened with a defeatist attitude. Morgan's skill in character delineation is evident in his descriptions of Julia's maturation as she learns to handle her husband's frightening moods and behavior. Most impressive is his description of childbirth, which Julia endures alone. Tragedy follows, but when the young couple seem to have lost everything, a grudging fate finally smiles on them. Morgan's familiarity with all the aspects of rural life, from grueling domestic tasks to labor in the fields and woods, sometimes tempts him into detailed descriptions that verge on the tedious. Yet the narrative immerses the reader in a time, early in this century, and place when five dollars was a fortune, home-made jam a lifesaving gift and the simple act of going to church a step toward survival. (Oct.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Hard work and suffering seem to be Julie Harmon's lot in life. The ablest bodied of her family and in her teens, she works like a man in the fields to support the rest. After her younger brother dies in her arms, and her father follows, little wonder that she jumps at the chance to marry handsome Hank. He hits her and proves unable to hold a job, though their lovemaking sometimes becomes a rare respite from her life's misery. A fire during a vividly described hog-rendering scene kills their landlord, throwing their future into doubt. By the eviction scene, many listeners will be rolling their eyes. Authenticity redeems the novel, along with Julie's first-person narration--simple, uneducated, but ringing true. Morgan's novel was Oprah Winfrey's January 2000 selection, so patrons will want this title.--John Hiett, Iowa City P.L. Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Morgan, the "poet laureate of Appalachia" (The Truest Pleasure) writes with a gritty, elemental candor about a South Carolina couple's tumultuous first year of marriage. Julie, the narrator of this turn-of-the-century tale, begins with the story of the death of her brother, followed by the death of her father, all before she has turned 17. Hank passes by her house one day and, with an abrupt simplicity, proposes matrimony. The two marry and set off for remote Gap Creek, South Carolina, where they make an arrangement with a Mr. Pendergast for living quarters. A crotchety malcontent, Pendergast agrees to put up the pair in exchange for housekeeping and laundry. So, Hank goes off in search of work, and Julie—resourceful, indifferently brave, and admirably industrious—tends to the difficult Pendergast. In a fire, the landlord is injured, and on his deathbed he begins describing hell to an unruffled Julie. Morgan offers vivid descriptions of killing and butchering a hog, later of plucking and skinning a turkey (Julie does both), as well as of Pendergast's final death and the flood that overtakes the couple's small homestead. Calamity follows calamity: Julie is cheated of her small amount of money, there are threatening sleet and ice storms, and the possible return of Pendergast's heirs is a pervading dread. There's also an earthy description of childbirthing, but when the premature infant dies, Julie and Hank find strength with their church and religion. An ideal example of a regional tale: free of "local color," respectful of his people, entirely free of condescension, Morgan offers a gliding, unhurried story of sufferings and hope that is simple andragged, but never seems alien. This couple's relentless misfortunes are given no more drama than they need, and all the compassion they deserve.
“Jill Hill narrates the audio book with a convincing accent that will have you thinking and talking with a drawl once you’ve finished listening. Her performance of Julie’s stark sentences captures the tone perfectly and will make you forget that Julie is indeed a fictional character.”
From the Publisher
“Jill Hill narrates the audio book with a convincing accent that will have you thinking and talking with a drawl once you’ve finished listening. Her performance of Julie’s stark sentences captures the tone perfectly and will make you forget that Julie is indeed a fictional character.”

Product Details

Gale Group
Publication date:
Edition description:
Large Print
Product dimensions:
5.64(w) x 8.67(h) x 1.00(d)

Read an Excerpt

"Set the canner further back on the stove," Ma Richards said. All the good feeling from the dinner table was gone from her voice.

"I've got to leave room to set the other one on," I said.

"You won't need room if that tips over on you," Ma snapped. She had changed back to her old self.

Instead of answering I started carving up more fat at the table. I sliced twenty times this way and twenty times crossways. The fat sliced easy as clotted cream or thick jelly. My left hand was so slick with grease I couldn't pick up anything but the blocks of fat. I raked the knife across the board harder than I needed to, to show how determined I was to get the job done and ignore Ma.

There was a little blood on the fat and on the board also, and I hardly noticed when I felt a nip at the end of my middle finger as I held a slab down to slice it. But when I saw the bright blood on the white fat I knowed I'd cut myself. A drop fell from the end of my finger, and then another. "Oh no," I said.

"What have you done?" Ma said.

"Just a nick," I said.

"Don't get blood on the lard fat," Ma said.

I grabbed a dishcloth and wiped the grease off my finger. I'd cut a place on the tip about the size of a pinhead. But it kept bleeding bright red drops. I cleaned off the left hand with the cloth and tore a strip from a fresh linen rag. I bound up the finger as best I could to stop the bleeding.

"That's what comes of being in a hurry," Ma said.

"I'll have to be more careful," I said. I wasn't going to take the time to get mad at Ma, and I wasn't going to stoop to the level of her snideness. With the bandage on my finger I finished slicing up the second pan of fat and then lugged the heavy canner to the top of the stove. But as I slid the container onto the stovetop I pushed it too far to the right and hit the canner already there. The boiling fat rocked like a wave had been sent through it. I backed away and seen a tongue of boiling lard spit up and over the rim as the wave sloshed on the side of the canner. The flung grease hissed on the stovetop and turned to crackling bubbles and smoke. But there must have been enough grease so that some of it busted into flame, for I seen fire on top of the stove. That might not have amounted to nothing, except the rocking and sloshing continued in the canner and the hot oil spit out again and leapt right into the flames. With a whoosh the fire flared on the stovetop. I think it would still have been all right and just burned there sizzling on the metal except a little more grease sloshed out of the pot and the fire caught onto that and followed the splash back into the pot. That was when the fire blazed up in the canner itself. All the hot oil caught at once and the flames jumped to the ceiling, lighting the kitchen.

"Oh my god," Ma said.

I looked around for something to throw on the flames. There wasn't a blanket or quilt anywhere. There wasn't anything bigger than a dish towel.

Now a grease fire is a worse kind of fire than usual. A grease fire hisses and jumps from one spot to another. There was grease all over the stove and all over the kitchen. The flames darted from one spot to another.

Ma run out to the back porch and got the water bucket. I'd heard that throwing water on boiling grease is the worst thing you can do, and I hollered for her to stop. But she flung the bucket of water right onto the flaming pot. You would think cold water would put a fire out, but the dousing exploded in a hiss and made the boiling lard splash in all directions. The flames followed the leap of the splash. The water just spread the fire. Flames landed on the second canner of fat and on the dishpans full of fat on the table. The whole kitchen seemed to turn to flames before my eyes. The curtains on the wall caught fire, and heat blistered my face.

"We'll have to get out," I yelled to Ma. I pulled her toward the back door. Smoke was already so thick you couldn't see much but the flames in the kitchen.

Mr. Pendergast come running in with another bucket of water.

I guess he must have been to the spring. "Don't throw no water," I hollered. But he flung the water right on the fire, making even more smoke and steam.

"I've got to get my money," he shouted.

"What money?" I said. It was so hot I could barely stand in the doorway.

"My pension money," he yelled.

"You come back," I said, and grabbed at his arm. But he had already jerked away. He dropped to the floor and crawled under the smoke. I knelt down where I could see, out of the worst smoke, and watched him work his way to the right of the stove.

"Get back here," I hollered.

"You better stop him!" Ma screamed.

I knowed Mr. Pendergast kept a can of kerosene sometimes used to start fires behind the stove, but I had forgot about it. He reached into the corner behind the wood box and brought out a pint jar. And I think he would have made it out except for this explosion that flared up behind the stove. It must have been the kerosene catching fire. I screamed as the flames covered Mr. Pendergast up.

"Let him go," Ma shouted. But I couldn't just leave Mr. Pendergast laying there in the fire. I had to try to help him. He was screaming and the fire seemed to be right on top of his head.

"Take his foot," I hollered to Ma, but she was already out the door and on the back steps coughing and trying to get her breath. "Grab hold of his foot," I said.

I took hold of Mr. Pendergast's feet and yanked as hard as I could, and he moved a little. I was coughing too and felt smothered from the smoke. I jerked harder and got Mr. Pendergast halfway out the door. And then Ma took one of his feet and helped me pull him onto the porch.

Mr. Pendergast's hair was burning, and part of his shirt was burning. I didn't have nothing but my apron, and I put my apron over his hair and snuffed out the flames. I burned my hands a little, but got the fire out. And just then Ma brought a bucket of water still warm from the washpot and throwed it on his shirt. We rolled Mr. Pendergast over on the wet porch and seen how bad his face and forehead was burned. The skin looked black on his forehead and scalp where his hair had been. His eyebrows was burned off and the skin on his cheeks looked red and peeling, and bloody in places under the soot.

I was thinking we had to put something on his face and on his back where his shirt had burned. What you put on burns is butter or lard or some other kind of grease or oil. There was butter in the spring house, but the lard was burning up in the kitchen. And then I thought, No, I'd better try to put the fire out first. If I can I've got to save the house. I stood up and looked in the door.

"You stay out of there," Ma Richards hollered. "Nothing you can do."

Smoke poured out the door and out the windows. You couldn't see nothing in the kitchen. I couldn't even see any flames. That made me think nothing was burning but the lard, and maybe that could be put out. I looked around the porch and seen a pile of tow sacks by the hoes and shovel and mattock. They had been used I guess for taking corn to mill or carrying leaves to put in cow stalls. I grabbed up eight or ten sacks and run to the washpot.

"What are you doing?" Ma Richards called.

"Putting out the fire," I hollered back. I plunged the sacks into the pot and pulled them out streaming warm water. With my arms around the dripping sacks I run toward the back door.

"You stay out of there," Ma yelled.

I leaped up the steps and run past Mr. Pendergast into the smoking kitchen. The smoke was so thick I couldn't see much. Bending close to the floor I walked to the stove and throwed wet sacks on the burning canners, and then the smoke boiled up worse and I couldn't hardly see what I was doing.

I run back out to the pile of sacks and got eight or nine more and carried them to the washpot.

"You stay out of there!" Ma screamed. But I didn't pay no attention to her. I carried the hot dripping sacks against my chest and hurried through the back door. I figured if the house could be saved I had to try. I'd started the fire, and I had to stop it. I stepped across Mr. Pendergast laying on the porch. He was starting to wake up from the smoke swoon, and hollering.

Fighting my way into the smoke, holding my breath and bending down low as I could, I put sacks on the burning grease on the table. I flung sacks on the burning can of kerosene and used the rest of the sacks like a shield to walk up to the burning curtains and jerk them down and smother them.

I started coughing, and every time I coughed I breathed in more smoke. Smoke burned my eyes so I couldn't see nothing. I put a hand over my eyes and started toward the door. To keep from breathing smoke I held my breath, and it felt like my chest was going to bust. The longer I held my breath the more it felt like my chest was ready to explode. And then I couldn't find the door. Smoke was everywhere and my eyes stung so I couldn't see. And I couldn't breathe for coughing and smothering myself. The smoke was so thick I couldn't tell up from down, or remember where the door was or where the table was. I was so weak I couldn't hardly stand up. My knee knocked against something hard, and my head banged on a sharp corner. There was nothing to breathe but smoke, dirty, greasy smoke.

Somebody pushed me and lifted me, and the next thing I knowed I was hobbling and tripping down the steps out into the yard where the air was cool. It was Hank helping me outside. The air was fresh, but every time I took a breath I coughed, and smoke burned in my lungs and in my throat. I bent over and felt something wet leap in my throat, and found I was throwing up on the ground. I was trying to throw up all the smoke I had swallowed, but puked out tenderloin and grits and butter, now sour and bitter. I had to throw up everything. I heaved until tears come to my eyes and I was so weak I was trembling.

"What in the world happened?" Hank said.

"Julie bumped a canner and the lard caught fire," Ma Richards said.

When I was empty I stood up straight and wiped my mouth and brow. "You could have been killed," Ma Richards said.

"The fire is out," Hank said. He looked through the doorway into the smoke. "You put it out just in time, before the floor or walls caught." He stepped out on the porch fanning the smoke with his hand. I looked through the back door and seen the smoke was settling in the kitchen. The top half of the room was already clear. And I seen Mr. Pendergast laying on the porch floor groaning. His face looked awful with its burns, but he was still holding the pint jar, and in the jar was dollar bills and coins like sliced pickles. A silver dollar had rolled out of the jar onto the porch.

What People are saying about this

Doris Betts
Julie Harmon is like other strong mountain women created by Harriette Arnow, Lee Smith, and Wilma Dykeman; she survives poverty, flood, and pain by mixing hard work with love. Perhaps because he is a poet, Morgan uses her voice in simple but luminous prose that tells the truth whether about the beauties of Appalachia or the human struggles during childbirth and death throes.

Meet the Author

ROBERT MORGAN is the author of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, most notably his novel Gap Creek and his biography of Daniel Boone, both of which were national bestsellers. A professor at Cornell University since 1971 and visiting writer-in-residence at half a dozen universities, his awards include Guggenheim and Rockefeller fellowships and an Academy of Arts and Letters Award for Literature. He was inducted into the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame in 2010. Find him online at

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