What Silas House knows best is telling stories--stories about family, about place, about home. In his critically acclaimed debut novel Clay's Quilt, a young man learns that the loss of one family can result in the formation of an equally supportive new one. His latest novel, A Parchment of Leaves, tells how a Cherokee woman navigates the swirling emotional waters of the Kentucky backwoods, and how independent women survive in the midst of racial prejudice and the brutality that accompanies it.
"What I know best is storytelling, and that is what I think literature should be, first and foremost--telling a good story," House said in a phone interview from his home in Lily, Ky. "I grew up listening to my uncles and Daddy tell stories at night after they got home from work. It was just a natural part of our lives."
In a recent Newsday interview, he explained the genesis of A Parchment of Leaves: "I was raised around strong women, in a very matriarchal culture. They might've been quiet about it, but ultimately they made the decisions. They'd all overcome something--poverty, abusive relationships. I really wanted to honor the strong women I grew up around. The book is sort of a hymn to those women."
House sets this homage during a seven-year period around the First World War in three Kentucky settings. In Redbug Camp, Cherokees must still must fight for the right to the land their ancestors have lived on, and racist ignorance still blights relationships among the people. Meanwhile, Irish immigrants who arrived earlier in the 19th century have taken a firm foothold in Black Banks, where many of them still bear the prejudices of old.
But in a sense both are mere backdrops to the power of nature and the resilience of the women at God's Creek, the small community nestled in the "hollers" of a place called God's Mountain, where Vine, a Cherokee woman, and Irishman Saul Sullivan settle after their marriage. House describes it as "a pretty place that held noise within its closeness like a voice in a cupped hand."
Where Clay's Quilt disclosed a young man's reconstructed life through a third person narrator, almost the entirety of Parchment speaks with a powerful female first-person voice. After a third-person prologue in which Vine saves the life of her future brother-in-law, House turns the narration over to her. The Cherokee woman tells us her mother gave her the name Vine in "hopes that I would help the earth to produce . . . to put my hands into the soil and find joy in seeing what come forth."
From the outset of her story, she's articulate, direct and honest:
I wanted Saul Sullivan, plain and simple. That was all there was to it. I didn't love him--that came later--but I thought that I did. I mistook lust for love, I guess. I knowed that I could fill up some hole that he had inside of himself and hadn't even been aware of until laying eyes on me. Saul looked to me like he needed to lay his head down in somebody's lap and let them run their hand in a circle on his back until he lulled off to sleep. I knowed that I was the person to do it. I had been waiting a long time for such a feeling to come to me.
What follows is her search for fulfillment through love, family, and the support of her friends, Serena, Aidia and mother-in-law Esme.
Family is crucial in the House's works: In Parchment, family and home become the centerpieces in a delicately balanced world where humans and nature cultivate an uneasy relationship.
House responds with an emphatic "no" when asked if he agrees with the cultural commentators who say that the family is a dying part of the American fabric. "I've traveled all over the country and what I see is that people still value the family," he says. "My friends in New York City can't be with their families, so they've created their own families from the circle of friends they have."
Family also figures as a fundamental source in Parchment: House based his narrator on his Cherokee great-grandmother, Martha Sizemore. "I wrote the book so I could have a strong, extraordinary great-grandmother to call my own," he says. Though he had little physical evidence of her life to work with, House chose to "present a character who is molded by her heritage without actually knowing what it was."
In Vine he has just such a figure. She tells the story of her life with Saul and his family, and about her longing for her own family, left back over the mountains in Redbud Camp. It is a story about her Cherokee heritage to be sure, but it is more a story that crosses ethnic lines to find, in a newly created family, the comforts of what the old one is no longer able to offer.
Another central element that seems to permeate House's novels is a reverence for nature and the power it has to communicate the fundamental truths of life. The novel's title comes from James Still's poem "I Was Born Humble": "There is so much writ upon the parchment of leaves,/So much of beauty blown upon the winds,/I can but fold my hands and sink my knees/In the leaf pages."
But both tranquility and violence take place in the midst of nature, and Vine never shrinks from telling her story straight. Whether it's the racism of local magistrate Tate Masters who "made it well known that his plan was to run the Cherokees off," or the familial violence that happens inside the homes of those who live in the mountains, Vine weaves nature through her narrative like the patterns of the quilts so ubiquitous in House's novels.
Vine hopes that "maybe all the secrets to life [are] written on the surface of leaves, waiting to be translated." She thinks, "If I touched them long enough I might be given some information that no one else had." As she struggles to understand her own behavior and that of others, she routinely seeks knowledge and solace in the leaves of the redbud tree from her family's home that she transplanted in the front yard of her new home with Saul. Thinking of the tree, Vine says that all she wants is "to be like that--to just be--that's the most noble thing of all."
For Silas House, what makes sense is "mattering to someone, being important to someone." The thought echoes those of his narrator, who ultimately comes to believe "that's all anybody can ask for, if you think about it--to have somebody love you and depend on you and take care of you when you're sick, and mourn over your casket when you die. Family's the only thing a person's got in his life."
House believes if he can tell a story about the ancestors that live inside of him, he's done his job as a writer--"that's something that no one can take away." He has done just that in A Parchment of Leaves.