Fiction tells the truth about North Carolina’s changing rural landscape
We have changed.
More urban. Less rural and farming.
At least that is what the latest Census is telling us.
But the story is more complicated. It is more interesting, too. Out in the formerly all-rural counties of our state, new kinds of residents have moved in. But lots of the old-time residents are still there.
How do fifth-generation farming families interact with back-to-the-land newcomers, suburbanite encroachers, and retirement community residents?
The census does not give us the answer.
Maybe the answer can be found best in fiction.
Chatham County’s award-winning writer Marjorie Hudson has given it a try in a new book of short stories, “Accidental Birds of the Carolinas: Stories about newcomers and natives, and the healing power of the rural South.”
Hudson sets her stories in a fictional Ambler County, which is much like her own Chatham County. Like Chatham, Ambler is rural by tradition, but growth from nearby cities is expanding across the county lines. At the same time, idealistic young people from all over the country are still moving to rural Ambler to try their hands at living on the land and off the grid. The natives and the “accidental” newcomers are characters who move through Hudson’s stories.
In “The Clearing,” a woman running away from a broken relationship moves into an old farmhouse in bad repair. When the pipes freeze, a crusty local plumber named Whiskey Collins fixes them. Before you know, he is fixing everything for her. They may be an unlikely pair, but when they wind up making love in the water of a spring hole, neither seems to care that they might not be meant for each other.
In “Rapture,” an old-timer named Sarton Lee and his wife, Miss Irma, had a daughter Trudy, who was a mess. When she died of a drug overdose, Sarton and Irma were left to raise Trudy’s daughter, Nancy. They love her. Then she falls sick, and, as Sarton says, “The good Lord in his wisdom dragged it out for a full year, that son of a bitch.” There is much more to the story but, quoting Sarton again, “You are never so alone as when a child dies.”
“The High Life” is the story of Dip, a 15-year-old runaway, who is working at a carnival that has stopped in town. He helps Royal, a hard-core carnival man, who, ugly and dirty as he is, still is a great seducer. Dip has a hard time adjusting to his new life and ultimately runs away again.
Nina is married to a mentally ravaged-by-war soldier who turns his wrath on her. A voice tells her to leave. Driving through North Carolina, she sees a sign, “Providence,” which gives the story its title. She stops, finds an old house to rent for $50 a month, and settles in.
In “Home,” a young woman marries Carter, who lives on a farm. Carter’s son from his first marriage loves the farm where he, his mom, and Carter, once lived. The new wife’s marriage is haunted by her thoughts of Carter’s first family’s life on the farm where she now lives.
In the title story, a retired Army colonel trying to get used to subdivision life in Ambler County loses his wife unexpectedly. He finds himself ill equipped to deal with his new circumstances.
“The Outside World,” really a novella, tracks the marriage of a student at Chapel Hill who falls in love with her professor. She follows him to a farm in Ambler County, where he tries to replicate the experience of Henry Thoreau, resulting in special challenges to their lives and marriage.
Sometimes fiction is the best way to tell the truth.
This time, Marjorie Hudson’s fiction does the job.