When Robert Morgan’s third novel, “Gap Creek,” was published in 1999, it caused an unexpected stir. This was a book that told the story of Hank and Julie Richards’ very difficult life in rural Appalachia at the turn of the 20th century in a quiet, old-fashioned way. Poor, isolated and without ties to their new community, this newly married couple faced death, fire, flood, homelessness, swindlers, drunks and worse. In “Gap Creek,” very little good happened to good people, yet the book was wildly popular and was a huge bestseller. At its conclusion, Julie’s newborn baby dies, and readers were left wondering what was next for this desperate and ill-fated couple.
“The Road From Gap Creek” picks up the story, told now in the warm, sometimes sassy, voice of Annie, the youngest of the Richards’ four children. It opens in 1943 with the sad news of the wartime death of one of Annie’s two brothers, Troy. Soon, after the rest of the family learns of the tragedy, Annie takes the reader back to earlier times with her family.
And it’s here where this novel shines with a subtle brilliance. Robert Morgan starts with Annie’s experience of a present-day event, and then her telling becomes one long remembrance of her life up to that moment: of living with her brother (and parents’ favorite child) Troy; of Troy’s wonderful dog, Old Pat, who truly became another family member (and whose death the reader foresees with painful anticipation); and of Sharon, Troy’s fiancée, who never was fully accepted into the Richards family. Annie talks lovingly of her older sister, Effie, and her other brother, Velmer; of her husband, Muir, and his destructive brother, Moody; of her hardworking Papa, and of her beloved Mama, Julie, with her distinct and eccentric ways: “She once said it was a sign that God loved us that he put such colors in the world as you seen in the red of geraniums or the pink of dahlias or the dark purple of ironweeds along the road.”
In this moving narrative that covers a difficult and disturbing time in American history — from the relative comfort of the early 1930s into the decline of the Depression years, only to come out into the turmoil of World War II — Morgan has produced another stellar novel, one with greater depth, diversity and complexity than “Gap Creek.” This close, affectionate look at an American family surprises us with its charm, its intricate yet natural structure and its unforgettable characters. Annie says early on: “Nothing makes a meal perfect as apple pie and good strong coffee at the end.” Like that, this novel is just plain good.
Jim Carmin is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and lives in Portland, Ore.