Book Review: “Carolina Belle” by Rose Senehi
Belle McKenzie, the story’s protagonist, ruefully notes that people take apples for granted and little suspect their historic importance. Rose Senehi, in her Acknowledgments, admits that she lived in the midst of New York State’s apple industry for years knowing only that the Empire was the most popular variety.
Her interest began when she moved to North Carolina and noticed a taste distinctly different from New York apples. When Winesap, her favorite variety, disappeared from stores during the winter, Senehi researched and discovered “that they were an antique variety that the Colonists grew.” Antique apples? Intrigued by the concept she began researching: In order to write Carolina Belle, I interviewed orchardists throughout the region and still felt that I needed a hands-on experience. I worked at the North Carolina Cooperative Extension’s experimental orchard every Tuesday for six months where I learned to prune, pick, graft, and check for ripeness. Also, I spent a day in his orchard with Lee Calhoun, who has collected over 400 antique apple trees from all over the South.
Belle’s grandfather Jeremiah “Pap” McGrady, patriarch of the fifth-generation McGrady clan, owns McGrady Orchards, North Carolina’s largest. After Mindy, his only child died, Pap raised her daughters Belle and Missy. Missy operates the orchard’s road stand and works as a beautician to save money for a salon franchise. Belle, as dedicated as Pap, is his heir apparent, a justified honor.
Like Pap, she is up at dawn to work the long hours that their 100,000 trees require. Beyond sharing his goal of productivity and profit, Belle longs to discover the Great American Apple, an apple “thrillingly tangy and crisp like a cool valley morning, yet with the lingering sweetness of mountain dew.”
Belle, at age 12, discovered her neighbor Jake’s orchard of 400 rare varieties. Within his collection, Belle became convinced, existed the gene combination that would produce her Great American Apple. Jake taught Belle to graft, dubbed a plot of land “Belle’s Half Acre,” and encouraged her research. Now, age 27, Belle is a botanist and an expert pollinator with thirteen years of meticulous records to her credit.
McGrady Orchards, however, is an Eden in appearance only. Matt, a company employee, and Belle were engaged until he married Rita. He is recently divorced, but Belle set rigid boundaries that she demands Matt respect. Much to her annoyance, Pap and Missy hound Belle to give Matt a second chance.
Another major conflict for Belle is that Pap despises Jake. Belle’s mother died in a car wreck when she ran off with Randy, Jake’s only son, also killed. Belle and Missy have always suspected that Pap told them only what he thought they should know about the wreck, but neither have the courage to confront him. Also, he has always been secretive about their parentage, but Belle, after she discovers a document by chance, hopes to solve the mystery.
On the business scene Ken Larson, owner of a major orchard, asks to purchase land for a cidery. Pap refuses, but decides, with Belle’s hearty approval, that the time has come for the McGrady Orchard to produce cider. Belle, however, must graft 2,300 trees from an orchard threatened by impatient developers. Long accustomed to dealing with business threats, Pap knows just what to do.
Pap and Belle’s work ethic, their generosity, and their determination to preserve apple history and lore make them admirable characters. As they relate the apple’s history to anyone who will listen, readers learn as well. Apples, the only fruit that early settlers could preserve during the winter, were a crucial food source. The names of apple varieties lend the story a poetic ring: Albemarle Pipping, Dula Beauties, King Luscious, Limbertwig, and Nickajack. Senehi’s descriptions echo the poetic tone: “Like an endless bolt of corduroy spooled open on the landscape, row after row dotted with red orbs faded into the distance.”
Pap is especially admirable because his orchard is the epitome of workplace tolerance. When Belle complains to her Aunt Pam (Pap’s sister) that “Pap is more comfortable on a man-to-man basis …” Pam chides her, “Agriculture is a man’s world in general, but don’t get any ideas about them being chauvinistic …” What better proof that Pap is not a chauvinist than designating Belle his heir??
Raphael, a Latino, has obviously worked for Pap many years as a respected and trusted employee. Whether Pap hires neighbors or Raphael’s family and friends, he and Belle work with them. The orchard’s working conditions are as safe as Pap can provide, and he pays decent wages on time. He asks Miguel, Raphael’s son, to help Belle with her grafting project. When the boy shows an aptitude for the intricate technique, Belle’s lessons begin ensuring McGrady Orchard’s future.
Regional apple growers will especially appreciate that some of the characters are based on historical people. Jake and his orchard of antique apples is loosely based on Lee Calhoun. Aunt Pam’s tales are based on Pat Freeman’s stories about her parents, founders of Freeman Orchards, now operated by Pat and her husband.
For an author who knew so little about apples, Senehi did a fine job of catching up and creating an admirable blend of history and fiction.
Author Bio: Rose Senehi lives in Chimney Rock, North Carolina. Carolina Belle is her eighth novel and the fifth in her Blue Ridge series of “stand-alone” books. Among them, Render Unto the Valley was awarded a 2012 IPPY Gold Medal for Fiction–Southeast. Dancing on the Rocks was awarded the 2014 Indi-Reader Discovery Award for Popular Fiction. In the Shadows of Chimney Rock was nominated for the 2009 SIBA Book Award. The Wind in the Woods was nominated for the Thomas Wolfe Memorial Literary Award. She was a featured author at the South Carolina Book Festival; the Readers in the Rockies Symposium in Crested Butte, Colorado; the Piccolo Spoleto Festival in Charleston, South Carolina; the Amelia Island Book Festival; and the Carolina Mountain Literary Festival in Burnsville. For more information about Rose Senehi and her novels, visit her website: www.rosesenehi.com.
View from My Catio
(Tuxedo Cat Par Excellence)
Greetings Fans and Friends:
Here we are in April, the merry month of jonquils, daffodils, and tax returns. Mary is hoping for an enormous return so she can purchase clothing from Ivanka’s line. Not that she is even remotely interested in style, but we are always wearing tuxedos. Therefore, we hold her to exacting standards of feline servitude, especially when as she tidies our litter boxes. We excused her from wearing five-inch heels, though, because hobbling around on crutches would definitely delay our meal schedules. And, being a nosey old thing, Mary is eager to see what happens when Melania arrives in Washington, D.C.—if ever she does—expecting her clothing line to be touted from political pulpits. A human writer would say that they expect a real “cat fight,” but not me. I refuse to lower my species to the wretched—and scary as hell—level to which human politics has plunged since January 20. If it’s any comfort, my species is pulling for people working to stop the plunge. You’re more than welcome to dump the “plungers” in our litter boxes. We wouldn’t know the difference from the regular contents.
Purrs and Cream,