Render Unto the Valley by Rose Senehi
Reviewed by Mary Ickes
Ms. Senehi, a … “Southern writer known for weaving environmental concerns into her contemporary fiction,” has again blended authentic and fictitious characters and settings into a tale accurately portraying North Carolinian beauty and culture. Render Unto the Valley, the third stand-alone novel in her Blue Ridge Series, confronts the complex and occasionally treacherous process of rescuing North Carolina’s farmlands and mountains from unscrupulous heirs and developers. Pearl Whitfield, an 89-year old fifth-generation farmer owning 600 acres of prime land, falls prey to her maniacal grandson.
The story opens in February 1985 with the background of her grandchildren, Karen (age 12), Travis (9), and Amy (5), living in the Whitfield clan’s original log cabin outside Fairview, North Carolina.
Angie, their promiscuous and alcoholic mother, wasted funds from Pearl, meant for heating oil and food, on attempting to look like Cher. She abandoned her children for days and permitted her boyfriends to beat and sexually threaten her children.
Karen, with the maternal loyalty scorned by her mother, protected Travis and Amy from the boyfriends, attacked anyone tormenting them or badmouthing her mother, fended off starvation with flour pancakes, and tended the wood fires on winter nights. If Granny Whitfield visited during Angie’s absences, Karen, threatened if she tattled, quietly hid with Amy and Travis. As an adult she recalls, “I remember standing at the window crying as I watched her car pull away.”
Despite her desolation, Karen studied diligently, especially art, and appreciated beauty. Amy declared that she intended to raise only animals … “much nicer than people.” Everyone admired Travis … “with his sandy blond hair, big blue eyes and … good marks in school with commendations for good behavior.” Only Karen and Amy knew that he chopped a leg off Amy’s kitten, hanged her puppy from a tree, and poked out their dolls’ eyes with a pencil. Fed up with motherhood, Angie finally dumped her children with Granny Whitfield and disappeared.
Twenty-five years later, Karen, widowed with a daughter, Hali, has been working for fifteen years at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City as the American Wing’s Curator of Special Exhibits. Beneath her efficient, determined, and ambitious facade lurks dread that people will discover that she’s nothing more than … “a scrappy mountain girl with dirt in her nails and a twang in her voice.”
As she predicted, Amy, married but childless, owns a successful boarding kennel, raises purebred Daschunds, and reigns over a peaceable kingdom of goats, pigs, a horse, and a mouthy sun conure parrot that rides on her shoulder yelling, “Get Back! Get Back!” The only chink in Amy’s contentment isresentment that … “Granny and Karen covered up every rotten thing [Travis] ever did.” Unlike Amy, they refused to believe that one day …
The day arrives when Amy notifies Karen that Travis, shortly after moving in with Granny Whitfield, forced her into a nursing home, reducing their feisty, hardworking, story-telling grandmother to a drugged invalid. Furthermore, Bruce Whitfield, cousin and trusted advisor, discovered that Travis has Granny’s … “power of attorney and the farm’s been put in his name. All six hundred acres.” The new deed is dated eight days after her appointment to sign papers with the Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy for an easement protecting her property. Confident that she can negotiate with Travis in person, Karen rejects Bruce’s advice to begin immediate criminal action.
She accepts a job as director of the Asheville Folk Art Center and returns to her childhood home in Fairview.
Travis’ arrogant self-righteousness about brutalizing his grandmother – “By the time he got finished with the old crow she was so broken she could barely sign her name.” – stuns Karen into the reality of her brother’s depravity. Further investigations are not encouraging.
As Amy wheeled Granny out the nursing home door, the staff, as ordered by Travis, threatened to arrest her. According to Karen’s lawyer, a fraudulent notary is their only hope of invalidating the new deed, a detail that the cunning Travis would hardly overlook. Tom Gibbons at the Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy considers Karen a disgruntled relative until hearing that Mrs. Whitfield is in a nursing home and unresponsive. Seven months earlier, he recalls … “she related every fact about the place from memory, back to naming the carpenters who built the house and barn.” Completely fooled by Travis’ charm and deceptive concern for his grandmother, Tom gave Travis the final easement papers awaiting her signature. Cousin Bruce discovers that Travis has contracted with a trucking company to sell 200 acres of land for equipment storage. He also tells Karen that Travis seized Granny’s financial assets and then registered her as a nursing home pauper.
Karen’s lawyer, Tom, Bruce, and Amy, with justifiable anger and fear, demand that she begin criminal proceedings against Travis before he injures someone else. Though she tries to explain, they cannot comprehend that between Karen and the diabolical Travis stands the beautiful little boy she protected and who said, “You’re nice, Karen … You’re my real mother.” Karen’s deliberate hesitation leads to a sibling showdown that irrevocably settles scores from their cabin days.
Fear not, Reading Friends, Ms. Senehi alternates the grim details with subplots ranging from conservancy business, to romantic pursuits and genuine mountain people. Tom Gibbons, a fictitious agent of the Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy, works with Josh Freeman, an elderly farmer seeking a conservation easement on his property … “to make sure that nothing bad would happen to it.” Less satisfying is vying for the deed on a 1600-acre tract of land abandoned by a bankrupt developer. These negotiations pale in comparison to his difficulty in courting Karen, whom he’s constantly standing-up because of conservancy emergencies.
Cousin Bruce Whitfield, based on C. Bruce Whitaker, Fairview, North Carolina’s town historian, is suspicious of Karen’s big city ways, yet he proves a loyal father figure to her and Hali. As Karen listens to him teaching Hali about mountain people, she wistfully recalls Granny’s stories. When Karen finally opens up about their lives in the cabin, Bruce realizes how unfairly he has misjudged Karen and Amy.
Finally, for a non-native like me, when Karen and Hali turn onto Route 9 at Black Mountain, Render Unto the Valley becomes an alluring travel guide through North Carolina’s environmental and historical treasurers, from Hickory Nut Gorge and Lake Lure to Sherrill’s Inn and Old Fort. At the Hickory Nut Gap Farm, the Clarke clan promotes sustainable farming: … “no synthetic pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers.” They shop at Bubba’s General Store in Chimney Rock and dance at a hoe down at Old Fort’s Mountain Music Center. In the not-too-distant future, like the ardent tourist following a guide book, I shall begin at Route 9 in Black Mountain with Render Unto the Valley and begin visiting the Places Mentioned in this Book (following Ms. Senehi’s Acknowledgments).
Since Ms. Senehi lives in Chimney Rock, research is often a matter of walking out her door and down the street to consult her panel of experts.
That explains her stories’ authenticity and numerous awards. In the Shadows of Chimney Rock was nominated by the Southeast Independent Bookseller’s Association as the best book written about the South for 2009. The Wind in the Woods, second in the series, was nominated for the Thomas Wolfe Memorial Award. Render Unto the Valley received the IPPY Gold Medal for Fiction-Southeast. She is currently working on her seventh novel, set in downtown metropolitan Chimney Rock.
View from My Catio
(Tuxedo Cat Par Excellence)
Ms. Senehi’s book about wasting North Carolinian land and mountains inspired me to weigh the holiday catalogs that Mary (while muttering expletives) lugged in from the mailbox. I also weighed the Hendersonville’s Times-News’ inserts for Sundays during November; Thanksgiving Day (serious expletives on that 5.3 pounds); and Wednesdays and Sundays during December.
When I reported to Editor Sandi on December 18, 2012, my grand totals were: Times-News inserts: 21 pounds 13 ounces. Catalogs: 10 pounds 14 ounces (even though Mary is registered on a no-catalog list) Grand Total: 32 pounds 7 ounces Here’s an idea: ask a statistician to estimate how many pounds of paper are wasted in Henderson County during a Christmas season. Then, on a picture of pristine North Carolinian mountains (if any still exist) blacken out the acres of trees felled to produce that year’s paper. To be fair, the estimated amount of recycled paper could be subtracted, but trees are felled to start the cycle, so why bother? And what will I do all this information, you’re wondering?
Maybe write another Christmas classic:
‘Twas the year before Christmas
And the chainsaws were abuzz
Executives danced their jigs of greed
Caring not at all for the animals needs.
Definitely first draft, but I have a whole year to ponder. Ideas welcome!!!
Purrs and cream,