I was excited to read this book the day I read the book description in The Economist. The novel made the shortlist for book of the year on NPR, Amazon, New York Times, and a whole range of media outlets.
I knew that the book was lyrical, well-researched and well-done. But the setting resonated with me in particular. The book is set in Southern Appalachia in the 1930s during the transition from subsistence farming to modern industrial life.
The passages detailing the environmental destruction, the tradeoffs between self-reliance and community and progress, the details of religious life, and the natural world of the southern Appalachians all make the book a worthwhile read.
But for me the book went further than simply a good read in historical fiction.
I’ve heard that the real power of literature is that it is the only way to live a life that is not your own. Everyone’s daily life is infinitely more complex than what we all see on the outside. Literature is the only way to access the way other minds interact with the world and others.
And that is where Over the Plain Houses really blew me away. The book describes the thoughts, intentions, background, and moment by moment life of several characters in a way that was accessible and riveting.
The setting, the “good” characters, and the “bad” characters are both simple, and black-and-white…but also messy, complex, and difficult. Two of the scenes in the book describe what are stereotypically known in movies and culture as cut and dry evil events. But come out as simply tragic and deeply human as the consequences spiral.
The only downside of the book is that Franks’ writing is so well-researched and so culturally spot-on that I do think you have to have a working understanding of Southern Appalachia and Christian Fundamentalism to really understand some references.
I don’t want to write anymore because spoilers really would affect the power of this book. If you want a review with spoilers, NPR has one.
Otherwise, I highly recommend getting this novel from the library, your local bookshop or from Amazon.
- Editor Rating
- Rated 4.5 stars
- Over the Plain Houses
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Over the Plain Houses has an incredible setting, very nuanced characters who live lives that are spellbinding and as complex as real-life.