“You ain’t never going to understand until you’ve been through it.”
Politicians from the president on down will hear this plaintive statement when they campaign in North Carolina this year. It will happen when they talk about jobs and their plans for economic recovery in towns that have lost the furniture factories or textile mills on which those towns were built.
North Carolinians who have only heard and read about the experiences in mill towns can get the feel of living through the times of factory closure by reading a powerful new novel being released this week.
“Goliath” is the title of the new book by Susan Woodring, who grew up in Greensboro and lives in the North Carolina foothills. Goliath is the name of the fictional mill town near Hickory where the action takes place.
The story opens when Vincent Bailey, 14, discovers a body along the railroad tracks near his family’s home. The body belongs to Percy Harding, head of the Harding Furniture Factory, the town’s sole industry. Vincent’s shattering experience later plays an important part in the story.
In the meantime we meet a host of characters and follow their lives in intimate detail as they adjust to the loss of Percy Harding and the impending closure of the furniture factory.
“Goliath’s” lead character is Percy’s longtime secretary, Rosamond Rogers. Her emotional attachment to her boss bordered on love, and she had been deeply dependent on him. Her own husband, Hatley, had left years ago, leaving Rosamond and her daughter, Agnes, to take care of themselves.
After Percy’s death Rosamond drifts into a relationship with a married former lover, an elderly teacher from a nearby town. But he soon returns to his wife. All the men in her life, she thinks, leave her. Her new boss, Percy’s son, treats her distantly, reminding her every day of how dependent she had been on the interdependent partnership with Percy.
Daughter Agnes has returned to Goliath from a failed college experience and a failed brief marriage. Agnes gets a job in a convenience store and takes up with Ray Winston, the son of Rosamond’s next-door neighbor, Clyde, a widower and the town’s former police chief.
Ray is a county employee, but his calling is to be an evangelist. He goes door to door preaching the gospel. He is serious about his religion, but he loves Agnes almost as much as he loves the Lord. Religion and church play an important part in the town and in the story.
Similarly, Doris Betts, the popular North Carolina writer and teacher who died a few days ago, wove religion into her writing unapologetically. But, as North Carolina and the South become more like the rest of the country, our “Christ-Haunted” landscape has been fading from the fiction of many younger writers.
Clyde, who does not share his son’s religious zeal, is protective of his neighbor, Rosamond. Initially, she deflects his interest, although it seems clear from the beginning that she needs a man like him rather than those who always leave her.
The novel is full of other quirky, “Anne Tyler-like” characters like the gossipy daughter of the town undertaker, the 96-year old baseball coach, the high school girl who leads a group of suicide note writers, the distraught husband who threatens to jump off the roof if his wife leaves him, and a host of others who gather at the town’s drugstore, diner, bar, and church.
Read this book for the factory-closing experience, for its unforgettable characters, or just to get to know the writing of Susan Woodring, who, with this book, joins the ranks of North Carolina’s best writers.