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Wednesday, 11 March 2015 13:56

Book captures turn-of-the-century north Georgia

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bookIn Annaliese From Off (Five Points Press, ISBN 978-0-692-24434-0, 362 pages, $15.99), Lindy Keane Carter gives us a rich, old-fashioned family saga set in the Georgia hills at the turn of the last century. 

The year is 1900, and John Stregal, a prosperous attorney living a comfortable life in Louisville, Kentucky, believes that he can make a fortune harvesting timber in Georgia. He forces his wife, Annaliese, and their children to make the move into this primitive community, promising them that they will all return home in two years. Accompanying them on this journey are John’s brother and partner, Ben, and his wife Lucenia, whom Annaliese dislikes and who advocates for the social justice causes of the day, including women’s rights and birth control.

Once they settle into the homes their husbands have built for them near the logging mill, the common trials of the two women gradually bring them closer together. Deprived of the comforts of Louisville, they face an attack by a mountain lion, angry moonshiners, neighbors suspicious of their intentions, and harsh living conditions. As they endure their time in the wilderness, it also becomes clear to Annaliese that her husband is slowly sinking, as had his father, into madness. 

Annaliese From Off makes for a worthy read on several counts. With a fine eye for details, Carter captures the spirit of the people and land of the north Georgia hills during this time of transformation. Her portrait of Ruth, a young woman who is hired along with her newly-wedded husband to help Annaliese, gives us an intimate look at a spunky young woman undaunted by her lack of education or cultural sophistication. Other characters we meet — the school ma’rm, the owner of the local boarding house, the two Cherokee whom Annaliese befriends, the attorney who falls in love with her — are likewise alive on the page.

Carter also brings us an age when progressive politics were rapidly changing the nation. With McKinley’s assassination in 1901, Theodore Roosevelt became president. He set up the U.S. Forest Service and began strenuous efforts to establish national wilderness parks and programs stressing conservation of natural resources. Ben and John Stregal represent those fortune-hunters who at the time were slashing down entire forests, seeking to provide for America’s rapacious demand for timber. Through them Carter shows us how this approach to the business of logging so often led to hillsides and mountains left barren of trees.

What I found particularly charming about Annaliese From Off was its focus on family life, particularly on Annaliese as mother and wife. Near the end of the novel, she tells Henry Chastain, the attorney who has come to love her that she’s a “weakling.” He replies: 

“Anna, I won’t hear this. You’re the strongest woman I know … Strong enough to lose your best friend and love her two boys like your own without a lick of support from Ben … And you’re strong enough to bear Ruth’s secret and not run her off out of spite. All this time you’ve tried to help John despite what he put you through. No, you’re no weakling.”

Finally, Carter clearly put a great deal of time researching Analiese From Off. She gives us detailed accounts of daily life a century ago: the foods people ate, the way they cooked, the clothing they wore, the flowers and herbs they grew and gathered, the social amenities they observed. Her novel is a time machine of paper and print, designed to sweep the reader away into another era. (One quibble: on page 125, John tells his family and guests that the Cherokee were forced off the land “30 years ago.” Later in the book, Carter gives the correct dates for the Cherokee removal).

Highly recommended.

•••

In My Sisters The Saints: A Spiritual Memoir (ImageCatholicBooks, ISBN 978-0-7704-3651-3, 222 pages, $15), Colleen Carroll Campbell gives us an inspiring account of her spiritual struggles as a college student, a young professional, and a wife. 

While in college, Campbell experienced her first spiritual revelation, which was a desire for change. She speaks of arriving back at her apartment complex after a long night of partying. Suffering from a “monster hangover,” she entered the apartment, which stinks of stale cigarettes and beer, looks at her roommates, who are sprawled on a sofa listless from a night of partying, and decides she no longer wants to live this way.

The remainder of this fine book recounts her journey to make her life more worthy. Along the way, she works as a journalist and a Washington speechwriter, helps her aging father deal with his dementia, and fights the battle faced by so many women between professional success and marriage and motherhood. 

While engaged in these struggles, Campbell slowly becomes enamored of certain female saints: Teresa of Avila, Therese of Lisieux, Faustina of Poland, Edith Stein of Germany, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, and Mary of Nazareth. Inspired by the biographies and literary works of these women, Campbell finds the strength not only to surmount the various crises and anxieties of her life, but also to discover even in her darkest moments joy and gratitude.

My Sisters The Saints is a thoughtful, moving memoir about the conflicts of our time and one woman’s way of engaging those conflicts. 

Annaliese From Off by Lindy Keane Carter. Five Points Press, 2014. 362 pages.

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