Bloodroot Mountain is not a setting in Amy Greene's debut novel, it's a larger-than-life character: It has presence and life and story. Set in the Tennessee mountains during the Depression, Bloodroot tells the story of four generations of Lamb family women, who are rumored to be witches. Themes of love, truth, and beauty are pivotal, and they are explored with grace and hope, but there is also rage, wickedness, and hate. I raced through Bloodroot — read it in one sitting — because I absolutely could not put it down. Recommended By Dianah H., Powells.com
Synopses & Reviews
A stunning fiction debut about the legacies — of magic and madness, faith and secrets, passion and heartbreak — that one family wrestles with across generations, from the Great Depression to today.
Told in a kaleidoscope of voices, Bloodroot is at once a moving exploration of familial love and the story of 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 but is destined never to have her; Myra's children, who must reckon with all that they have inherited from their mother; and John Odom, the young man who tries to tame Myra and meets with disaster.
With grace and unflinching verisimilitude, Amy Greene brings these characters — the people of her native Appalachia — vividly to life in an evocative, astonishing tour de force.
"Despite a few vivid moments, this uneven debut, a four-generation Appalachian family epic, loses sight of the intriguing mythology it lays out early on. Though Byrdie Lamb inherited the mystical powers of the 'granny women' of her grandmother's mountain village, she's failed to protect her family: daughter Clio runs away from Bloodroot Mountain at 17 to get married and is later killed, along with her husband, in a car accident, leaving their daughter, Myra, in Byrdie's care. And though Byrdie tries to raise Myra right, Myra falls under the spell of an abusive alcoholic. Her children, twins Laura and Johnny, grow up largely in fear, and eventually social workers remove them from their home. As adults, they return for different reasons: she for comfort, he for revenge. Narrated by several members of the Lamb-Odom clan, the narrative initially swirls around the mystery of Byrdie's powers, but as the story plays out, her gift (or, perhaps, curse) is unfortunately backgrounded by the violence of those who marry into the family and sow ruin. Greene has a sharp eye for combustible moments and a fine ear for dialect, but the follow-through doesn't do justice to the setup." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"This stunning debut novel is a triumph of voice and setting....With a style as elegant as southern novelist Lee Smiths and a story as affecting as The Color Purple, this debut offers stirring testimony to the resilience of the human spirit." Booklist (starred review)
"Pitch-perfect voices tell a story loaded with lyric suffering and redemption — bound to be a huge hit." Kirkus Reviews
"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
"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
"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
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. Here is a spellbinding tour de force that announces a dazzlingly fresh, natural-born storyteller in our midst.
About the Author
Amy Greene was born and raised in the foothills of East Tennessee's Smoky Mountains, where she lives with her husband and two children.
Reading Group Guide
1. Rather than relying on a single narrator to tell this moving, complex story that takes us from the Great Depression to today, Amy Greene uses the voices of six characters in different time periods to share their memories, their family histories, their connections to one another, and the circumstances that have enriched their lives or led to unintended sorrow. Why do you think she chose to tell the story this way? How do the characters’ voices differ from one another—their language, dialect, and colloquialisms—both between and within the generations?
2. Byrdie, for all the losses and heartbreak she’s experienced, remains resilient, selfless, and loving. Why do you think Amy 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—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—and do you think it even existed in the first place? Why do you think 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 often described as a place of great beauty. All of the female characters marry and have babies at a young age, which often 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 does this contrast create tension in the novel? 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. Why do you think the ring is so important to each of them, beyond its material value? 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? How does her encounter with Hollis affect her? Do you think her institutionalization is unjust? 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 that Myra is at all to blame, or is John entirely at fault for the brutality that ends their relationship? Or is it in their bloodlines—did they inherit 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 in the novel? 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 do you think Myra doesn’t 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, and that he has long since forgiven Myra, even though his body bears the evidence of her revenge? Do you believe him when he says that he still loves Myra? Do you think it’s possible that, as the product of an abusive father and an alcoholic mother, he 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 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” (p. 291). 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.” Which characters in the novel do you think illustrate this statement best? Do you agree?
The introduction, questions, and suggestions for further reading that follow are designed to enhance your Reading Group’s discussion of Amy Greene’s compelling debut novel, Bloodroot—a sweeping, multigenerational story set in the hardscrabble hollows of Eastern Tennessee.
Read exclusive essays by Amy Greene from 2010