Delacorte Press, 336 pp., $23.95
According to Pamela Duncan, there's nothing more fascinating, or revealing, than listening to a group of women sitting around talking about their lives--talking about love and sex, marriage and divorce, parents and children, sickness and death, and occasionally, even about work. These topics filled the pages of Duncan's critically acclaimed first novel, Moon Women (Delacorte, 2001) and reappear in this, her second book, Plant Life, in which Duncan brings to life the people of a small mill town in rural North Carolina. With an ear tuned to the cadences of language, and the ebb and flow of small talk, with its intimacy, gossip, game-playing and unsolicited advice, she creates a compelling story of the lives of ordinary people, and does so with compassion, familiarity and honesty. There is a sense of urgency in this novel, for it explores a world of tightly knit families and small mills, many of which supply the life-blood of these communities, a world that is rapidly vanishing from the American landscape.
Set in the town of Russell, N.C., over the span of several seasons, Plant Life opens with Laurel Granger's return home after 15 years away in the glitz of an almost other-worldly Las Vegas. She's 36 and dragging with her the baggage of a lifetime, a tinge of the once pronounced Southern accent she's tried so hard to get rid of, and the remnants of her now disintegrated marriage. She's also towing a U-Haul trailer with all of her worldly possessions, which she leaves parked, appropriately enough, in the local Wal-Mart lot when she first hits town. Although returning home seems to her like an admission of defeat, Laurel realizes that she has no other place to go ("She was a cliche, a grown woman forced by circumstances beyond her control to move home with her parents. The humiliation of that alone might be enough to kill her.")
And so, at Christmastime she shows up in Russell to spend the holidays with her parents and her brother Cecil. She has no idea how long she'll stay, but she does have the fear that she might "end up one of those pitiful people who lived in their car because they had nowhere else to go." She soon decides to move back in with her parents for a while and "let them decide what she ought to do." Little does she know, but this decision is the beginning of Laurel's reawakening, of her understanding of her past, her mother, her grandmother, and of her place in the small but comforting world of her childhood home.
Like her central character, 41-year-old Pamela Duncan grew up in the rural, small-town communities of western North Carolina (in the towns of Black Mountain, Swananoa and Shelby) amid the extended families and textile mills that make up the setting for Plant Life. Duncan's father died in a car accident when she was 10, but her mother and stepfather worked in the local mills and furnished her with the stories of their co-workers' lives and of life in the textile mill that sparked her own writing. When her stepfather was laid off from his job in the mid-1990s, Duncan soon got her first and harshest lesson in the economic realities of the late 20th century in America: Companies were closing down production facilities in the States and moving them overseas to China, or right across the border into Mexico (many believe this is a direct consequence of the United States' participation in the NAFTA agreement). In North Carolina, workers in the textile industry have taken the brunt of the layoffs and have, as a consequence, suffered the most economically.
In Plant Life, Duncan uses a series of individual monologues to introduce a variety of female voices who tell the story of the kind of small town she used to live in and still misses, but to which she knows she can never really return. In addition to Laurel, we meet her mother Pansy, a woman going through the early stages of menopause who has worked for most of her life at the Revel Textile Mill, the chief employer in Russell. Although little of the action takes place inside the mill, the "plant" is an ever-present backdrop, one that shapes and defines the lives of the characters.
We also meet Maxann, Lottie May and Percilla, Pansy's feisty childhood friends and co-workers at the mill, three women who furnish the vitally important support system that Duncan believes is crucial to the survival of people in close-knit communities like Russell. Two more women, one dead and one still living (but just barely), fill out this group of remarkable women: Idalene, a 75-year-old, soon-to-retire mill worker who has known Pansy and her family for years, and Pansy's mother Alberta, better known to all in town as "Maw Bert." Although she has died some years before the novel opens, hers is one of the central controlling voices in the narrative and the one that reveals some of the deepest secrets and greatest wisdom.
Through these characters' lives and conversations, we learn that the human spirit is indeed strong and resilient. And in the words of Lottie May, they will take "whatever little bits throwed" their way and make the most of them. Through Laurel's re-entry into her former life, Duncan explores some of the critical issues that drove her to write this book in the first place, a central one being the debunking of the "If-you-work-hard-and-show-up-every-day-you'll-have-your-job" myth.
Some of the other significant cultural themes that surface in the novel are ones that American writers and social critics have been wrestling with for at least the past 20 or 30 years: the disintegration of the family, the rising divorce rate, the seeming loss of traditional values, the human need for companionship and reconciling the past with present realities. In the hands of a less skilled writer, a novel that examines these themes would quickly descend to the level of a Harlequin romance. In Duncan's hands, however, each receives the sensitive treatment it deserves--without condescension and without sentimentality.
The contemporary American cultural landscape has seen a proliferation of memoirs about one family dysfunction after another: confessional television shows like Dr. Phil, Oprah, Jerry Springer and Montel, and an explosion of "reality shows," each one more titillating than the shows that preceded it--all of them trying to satisfy our country's thirst for tragedy and redemptive healing. It is refreshing, finally, to read a novel that explores some of today's social realities and does so convincingly in the language of homespun wisdom. As Maw Bert tells us early on in the novel, "Sometimes it's better to stay ignorant and not know what all else is out there in the world, what all you might like but won't never get to know for yourself." Sure, she's proposing that ignorance really can mitigate the pain, but in the context of the world in which she has lived and died, sometimes that's not such a bad thing.
Ultimately, Plant Life is about Laurel's coming to terms with her own life. It is about acceptance and home and the many ways one can define that term. It's about finding a place where you can plant your roots and being comfortable with all of what that entails. In this day and age where young people can't seem to wait to escape the stifling confines of their hometowns and venture off to find a life totally divorced from the one they've always known, Pamela Duncan tells the story of one whose life ended up right back where she started.