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Southern is as Southern does

Sheila Kay Adams spins a fine yarn

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My Old True Love: A Novel
By Sheila Kay Adams
Algonquin, 289 pp., $23.95

You know you're reading a Southern novel if there's a granny, a cow and a death by childbirth within the first two pages. They are all here in Sheila Kay Adams' My Old True Love, a novel that veers, like the lives it chronicles, between the devastating and the humorous.

This is Adams' first book, though it doesn't read like one. The story, about a war over love and the War Between the States, is based on Adams' own family history. It takes place in Sodom, N.C., a mountain town that now has a population of just over 300, but was blooming with people during Civil War times.

The characters bubble to life like spring water. Larkin Stanton is a baby with piercing dark eyes who can hum before he can talk. His mother dies early on and he is raised by Arty Wallin, his female cousin and the straight-talking narrator who addresses the reader directly with spark and sass. As Larkin grows up--quickly as people can during tough times in the mountains--he falls for a young woman named Mary Chandler, the same woman Arty's womanizing, fiddle-playing brother, Hackley, has claimed for his own. In the chapters that follow, Arty meanders through stories about her life and the lives of those around her. She offers bits of wisdom: "For a woman that goes to studying a man's hands is thinking where she'd like for him to put them, and that is the gospel truth if it ever was told." But mostly, she hones in on Larkin, whom she considers her first born, and Hackley, the brother she loves.

The war serves as the backdrop of Love, and the topic of unionism makes much more of an appearance here than slavery does. Arty is fed up with soldiers from both sides when they steal the food she has stored for the western Carolina winter. The story turns to the politics of love after the fence-sitting Hackley is forced to fight with the Confederates. Larkin, at 17, stays home and Mary opens her heart. What happens in the subsequent chapters is the stuff you're not supposed to give away in spaces like this.

Adams uses local dialect when she writes "mayhap" and "they was nobody out there but me"--which at first can be a bit distracting. But it's authentic, too, and it is hardly noticeable once you're absorbed in the book with your own mouth watering for "big greaseys," or greenbeans.

Adams, who was technical director for the 2000 movie Songcatcher, has been a storyteller all of her life, and a singer of the old ballads she learned from her family and friends. Those ballads are as much a part of her history as the old stories are, and they are woven into these pages--often in their entirety--for there are stories in the songs as well. The ballads echo plot points, celebrating the good and giving music and lyrics to grief--functioning almost like a Greek chorus.

Adams' father used to refer to storytelling as "holding forth," which was something that came easily to Adams. The written word didn't come as easily when she first began this novel in the third person. When she switched to first person and let Arty "hold forth," it spilled out, easy as you please. As a result, you begin this book by reading it. But soon after, you're no longer reading, you're simply listening.

Sheila K. Adams will read from My Old True Love on Wednesday, May 26 at 7 p.m. at Quail Ridge Books & Music in Raleigh. Call 828-7912 for details.

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