At fourteen, Cassie Wolphe’s way of life in Appalachia is being changed by the influx of modernity/postmodernity. She is in love with Jake McCollum, believes she will marry him and constructs her life around this central act, but like her brother, Ben, Jake rejects a life he believes offers nothing but hard work and poverty.
Forced to make a decision between her love of Jake and her love of the mountains, Cassie finds she can't leave, a choice which may define her life forever.
At once lyrical, emotionally charged, moving and heartbreaking, Oreads is a literary treat that will keep you compelled right to the very last page and beyond.
REVIEWS & ENDORSEMENTS
By John F. Lavelle (Winchester [UK]: Roundfire Books, 2016).
$18.95 paperback. ISBN9781785351839, 332 pp.
John F. Lavelle’s Oreads is an excellent story and an important one. This novel does for Vietnam War era Appalachia what Thomas Hardy did for Victorian England with Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Lavelle’s first novel explores gender roles, sexuality, and Appalachian regional influences, from setting to socioeconomic determinism. In Greek mythology an Oread is a mountain nymph, so Lavelle’s title, Oreads, emphasizes the powerful connection between the protagonist, Cassie Wolphe, and her mountainous environment. Focused on Cassie Wolphe’s developing sense of sexuality and social identity, Oreads guides readers through a treacherous path of inevitable heartbreak and willful resilience in the Allegheny Mountains of West Virginia.
The first chapter of Oreads immerses us in textures of Cassie’s daily rural life, the limits and desires of her adolescent imagination confronted with the gritty reality of a world that depends on grubbing enough money to get by. An opening domestic scene has Cassie at the kitchen sink: “Cassie scrubbed at the crusted-on remnants of the pork chops with a pad of steel wool, feeling for the baked-on food in the brown water” (3). Something as simple as a mother and daughter washing dishes together displays communal identity and an ethos for the story: “Her mother always spoke quietly when she’d caught the tempo of work, but still, her voice carried a raspy texture like rough cloth, the sound of a life lived outdoors. Her words rolled with the cadence of a song” (1). We feel the fabric of not only the steel wool, but also this shared life—one with women destined for domestic duties in a life burdened with the beauty and fatality of a ballad.
The key dilemma of Cassie’s life is whether to stay in her small town, near the mountains and family that she loves, or dare to enter an urban environment where she has no connections. She’s in love with a young man named Jake, but the course of true love never did run smooth, and it certainly doesn’t here: the terrain of this relationship matches Appalachia’s steep slopes and volatile streams. Cassie’s growing knowledge of Jake, her hometown, and the world beyond her is both an empowering and disillusioning experience. While learning to own her sexuality, Cassie struggles against religious guilt and sexual harassment.
Directly opposing Cassie’s autonomy is a man named Rancy, whom Lavelle portrays as brutal and ambivalent. Part of the depth of Oreads is the way Lavelle shows us multiple layers of this man. Restrictive gender roles and narrow socioeconomic opportunities in Cassie’s community prove toxic for men and women. One example of the nuance that Lavelle displays is in a sentence like the following, which offers a moment of repulsion, confusion, and disconcerting tenderness: “Cassie pulled her coat tightly around her. She could still feel Rancy’s large fingers holding her breast as tenderly as if it had been a baby chick” (185).
Rather than melodramatic simplification, Oreads offers realistic engagement with complicated social hierarchy in Cassie’s rural Appalachian community. Without revealing the full trajectory of the plot, suffice it to say Cassie’s progress is often from one loss and trial to another. Nor, is Cassie the only “Oread” to face an arduous life. For example, one of her friends, Darlene, who has neither a father nor Cassie’s beauty, nor any illusions of righteousness, resents Cassie’s family solidarity and moral sanctity. In a tense confrontation in the snow, Darlene rebukes Cassie for depriving Darlene of both social opportunities and companionship: “And here’s for getting all the good men and leaving me all alone” (70). Despite Darlene’s jealousy of Cassie’s greater opportunities, Cassie becomes more and more isolated while simultaneously taking on greater responsibilities. Her initial optimism shifts toward bitterness, but she continues to struggle toward a better future. Lavelle is to be commended for the courage of his vision, which does not compromise Cassie’s frustrations nor dilute primal passions that she experiences, whether desire, hatred, or nostalgia. Like Theodore Dreiser, Lavelle does not shrink from harsh socioeconomic consequences, but even in the darkest valleys of Oreads, Lavelle maintains an exquisite, compelling lyricism throughout the narrative.
Much more than a coming-of-age novel, Oreads has a profundity and scope that encompasses provincialism, class prejudice, and the Vietnam War. Emerging from a scene of legal entanglements, Cassie recalls the words of a friend: “It’s when we give in to them and let them do what they want with us that it’s over” (307). This exhortation expresses an underlying ethos of Oreads that the true antagonist in the novel is the invisible hand of cutthroat capitalism squeezing the throats of hardworking rural people, limiting the scope of their comprehension and options because of the necessities of subsistence. Not dogmatic, Lavelle also explores and burlesques some of the counterculture landscape of the ‘60s and ‘70s, offering a far-from-idealistic perspective on hippies, who might have been expected to provide a viable alternative to capitalist oppression in the novel: “A man walked up the road, a thin emaciated figure wearing filthy clothes. A knapsack balanced high on his back, his face hiding behind a bristly brown beard” (188). This man is not merely ill-kempt but ill-mannered—he wolfs down most of the family’s cooked chicken and then makes off with the rest--and Cassie is glad to see him go: “Cassie took her rake back up as the hippie walked on down the road, going to who-knew-where, but at least going” (191). The hyperbolic gastronomic humor of this scene dramatizes the absurdity of this shiftless but ravenous scarecrow of a man—and by extension critiques the hippy lifestyle and ideology, failing to provide a meaningful solution to the exigencies of work and duty in Cassie’s daily life.
Throughout Oreads, readers will experience the story as an homage to streams and mountains of Appalachia. However, the link between regional influence and identity, whether of the individual or the community, is not one Lavelle presents naively. Although Cassie feels confident at the end of Chapter One that “The mountains were as much a part of Jake as they were of her,” we see in the second chapter that Cassie realizes she “didn’t really know Jake” (21, 42). Lavelle poignantly depicts the depth of attachment to place, but does not rely upon natural beauty and a shared community as some sentimental panacea. When, for example, Cassie meets mature women at a pub, she is certain “this is where she belonged. She knew these women like she’d known Dee and knew Suzy, but unlike Suzy these three women were happy with their lot” (197). Later events challenge this harmonious assumption, and throughout the novel, Cassie is frequently forced to revaluate preconceptions about herself and the nuanced social strata of her community.
Most haunting and effective is how readers travel with Cassie’s central consciousness. Through a sort of Socratic earnestness, Cassie questions conventional platitudes and ideals, such as the notion that going off to fight in Vietnam was a masculine and patriotic obligation that actually benefitted Americans: “She wanted to say it was every man’s duty to protect his family, but that would be like sending him away, what Teresa did to her father. And how was he protecting her over there?” (105). At first rather prim and socially reticent, Cassie turns towards a range of social vices to obliterate her sense of a world that is ever more outside her control: “She wanted the feeling to be so strong it would wipe out everything” (203). She grows more and more pragmatic, and through the tensions between romantic idealism and bare necessity, Cassie struggles with moral dilemmas of working class lives and a young woman’s search for meaning in the Allegheny Mountains:
He handed her the bottle. She took another long drink. The last of the sun reflected off the windows of the farm houses below as if all of them were on fire, as if all the people burned inside--a few tiny colored dots spread over a darkening green world, insignificant against all the immense beauty. (202)
The poetic scope in that passage demonstrates Lavelle’s microscopic and macroscopic literary achievement. We apprehend through close observation the implications of passionate lives swept up in the darkness of a larger world, at once beautiful and terrible. Oreads is a lyrical and relentless gaze on a small corner of social life in West Virginia that profoundly represents the failure of the American Dream.
Jason Marc Harris
Jason Harris graduated with a PhD in English literature from the University of Washington and an MFA in fiction from Bowling Green State University, where he served as fiction editor of Mid-American Review. His stories have been published in EveryDay Fiction, Masque and Spectacle, Meat for Tea: The Valley Review, Cheap Pop, Riding Light Review, Arroyo Literary Review, Psychopomp Magazine, and Midwestern Gothic. He is the author of Folklore and the Fantastic in Nineteenth-Century British Fiction and (with Birke Duncan) Laugh Without Guilt: A Clean Joke Book. He teaches creative writing, folklore, and literature at Texas A&M University.
~ Jason Marc Harris, Appalachian Journal
5 Stars Oreads
Wow! This is a beautifully written book about a difficult subject - the lives of the poor in the mountains of West Virginia. It is the story of Cassie, a young girl trying to survive in the land she loves. The story begins when she is just 14 years old and continues into her early 20s. She strives to have a better life than her parents provided her. She wants the perfect life with the perfect man, but that would require her leave the comfort of the mountains and she's not ready to do that. What struggles must she face? What price must she pay? All because she doesn't want to leave her home town to try and find a better life, away from the poverty of the Appalachians.
I honestly don't know how this book hasn't received more praise and publicity. Hopefully it finds its way into the right hands for it to then skyrocket in popularity (maybe even be made into a movie, because it would be great). Lucky for me, the author found my blog and asked if I would read and review it. I'm so grateful that he did. It is a story that will stay with me for a long time.
And by the way.....it's pronounced Or-e-ads :)
~ Lynn Hough, Amazon
John Lavelle's first novel is a delight in every sense. Cassie Wolphe reminds all Baby Boomers of what it was like to come of age in the sixties and specifically, what life was like for a fourteen year old daughter of Appalachia. We understand the need to escape this life through the actions of Cassie's brother Ben and boyfriend Jake, but Cassie stays and it is her story which captivates us. Lavelle is a master of both dialogue and dialect and with these tools he deftly crafts Cassie's character as she grows up on the pages in front of us. There is some of Cassie in us all as we see her struggle against forces of the present and the past that are bent on destroying her dreams. In true heroic fashion, she vanquishes all of these forces and in the end, we are left with an odd sense of hope. ~ Michael Finnegan, Goodreads
5 Stars Must Read
Format: Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Oreads is a wonderful story of a teenage girl growing up in the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia. The author writes in a way that you experience Cassie's feelings during this vastly changing time in her life.
~ Kathy, Amazon
5 Stars Wonderful Read
Many thanks go to the author, who graciously provided a copy of Oreads in exchange for an honest review.
The name was the first thing that drew me to this book. The first thing I thought of when I saw it was the poem of the same name by Hilda Doolittle. (HD) It made me smile to see that same poem printed on one of the first pages of the book. As a teenager, I once had another of HD’s poems stuck to the front of my refrigerator, one more suited to the South Carolina summers: “O Wind, rend open the heat, cut apart the heat, rend it to tatters.”
The second thing that drew me to this book, before I had read the first sentence, was the description. Set in both the 1960’s and Appalachia, I went into this hoping that I would find something reminiscent of Winter’s Bone. Again, I was pleasantly surprised. The turmoil of the sixties provided an excellent backdrop against the characters of Cassie, Jake, and the various in laws and outlaws populating Cassie’s world.
The Cassie we meet in the beginning of this book is both sweet and innocent, and yet wise in ways that others around her don’t seem to understand. She is connected to the mountains, rooted in the flow of the seasons, and the cycle of planting, tending and harvesting. She can’t imagine, and doesn’t want anything more. When her brother Ben leaves home in search of a better life and adventures in San Francisco, Cassie is left feeling both confused and betrayed; how could he leave his family, his responsibilities? How could he abandon the very land itself?
As Cassie grows up, she both suffers losses in love and becomes educated in the unfair class war that is “city vs. town”, a struggle that still rages in small towns the world over. Slowly she comes to realize that the world is rougher and sharper than she was led to believe as a child. Left with no other options, Cassie finds herself in a fight to become self sufficient in a world that would rather see her shackled to a man for the sake of propriety. I thoroughly enjoyed this section of the novel, watching Cassie take on her battleaxe of a mother in law and fend for herself against both a world that offered her no comfort and a family that offered her no sympathy. In the end, Cassie demonstrated a fierce example of bravery, perseverance and the will to survive that made this reader wish for more.
~ Emily Maynard, Goodreads
5 Stars It is heartbreaking. It is raw. It is a fantastic read.,
Format: Paperback| Verified Purchase
This is a beautifully written novel. As someone who grew up in a similar region, the rust belt, it was very easy to identify with the complexities of each character. The reader is quickly drawn into each scene and becomes empathetic to the plight of those who wish to flee, as well as those who cannot break away. It is a heartbreaking. It is raw. It is a fantastic read. Well done. Dr. Lavelle. Your voice is unparalleled.
~ Nat, Amazon
A wonderful book. I feel like I read it too fast and need to go back and read it with even more appreciation for this author ~ Sheri Jackson, Goodreads
At fourteen, Cassie Wolphe's way of life in Appalachia is being changed by the influx of modernity/postmodernity. She is in love with Jake McCollum, believes she will marry him and constructs her life around this central act, but like her brother, Ben, Jake rejects a life he believes offers nothing but hard work and poverty. Forced to make a decision between her love of Jake and her love of the mountains, Cassie finds she can't leave, a choice which may define her life forever. At once lyrical, emotionally charged, moving and heartbreaking, Oreads is a literary treat that will keep you compelled right to the very last page and beyond. Author John F. Lavelle's "Oreads" is a compelling, creative, and original novel that is certain to be an enduringly popular and very highly recommended addition to community library collections. It should be noted for personal reading lists that "Oreads" is also available in a Kindle edition ($7.99).
~ The Fiction Shelf, Midwest Book Review
A lyrical coming-of-age novel, Oreads is a bittersweet journey depicted so vividly that readers see the fog on the mountains, smell the ripening corn, and feel the conflicted passions of characters who can't escape, yet can't go home again. A work to savor.
~ Susan Hubbard, author of The Season of Risks, Blue Money (Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize) and Walking on Ice (AWP Short Fiction Prize).
John Lavelle is one savvy, insightful, and fearless writer. The world of Oreads is far more vivid, chilling, and compelling than the one you’re living in. Trust me. Lavelle’s Vietnam-era northern Appalachia is a forbidding landscape of shattered lives and broken dreams where a desperate woman gets one last chance to save herself and her children. This is nightmare material of the first order, at once exhilarating and profoundly disturbing. It’ll leave you breathless.
~ John Dufresne, author of 'Louisiana Power & Light' and 'Love Warps the Mind a Little', both New York Times Notable Books of the Year.