And for a publishing house, big or small, having a title in this elite club means revenue. So for Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, the recent selection of Robert Morgan's Gap Creek, is a coup to be remembered.
It's possible to discern a pattern in Oprah's selections. Many of the novels are written by women, and follow women through some crisis of marital or family life. Stark moments of tragedy often occur early in the books, to be resolved--ideally--through much soul-searching hundreds of pages later.
Though Gap Creek was written by a man, it does somewhat follow the pattern. Gap Creek's narrator is Miss Julie Harmon, whose marriage turns her into Mrs. Hank Richards. The tragedy begins in the first paragraph, as Julie reminisces about her brother Masenier, who dies young and worm-infested.
Born poor in Appalachia, Julie carries the burden of work at home, where her father is ailing and there are no living sons. Hoping that her marriage to a handsome fellow from the mountain over yonder will free her from chopping wood, 17-year-old Julie is in for a rude awakening.
Her husband moves her to Gap Creek, just inside the South Carolina border, where she keeps house for a cranky widower in exchange for their room and board. It's an inauspicious beginning to Hank and Julie's life together.
Jobs are scarce and Hank can't seem to keep one, so the newlyweds are pushed back into a cycle of poverty. Plagued by floods, uncertain finances and the stress of a young marriage, the couple seems perpetually on the brink of a breakup.
Robert Morgan writes about the Richards' hand-to-mouth existence and life in Appalachia with remarkable ease. The book is set at the turn of the 20th century, and he deftly evokes a time when men actually carried lunch in pails and women foraged in root cellars. In a scene that heaps more trouble upon Julie and Hank, Morgan shows Julie slaughtering a hog and preparing the meat for curing. The details of scalding and scraping the hide are raw, vivid and nausea-inducing.
While Morgan gets to the core of being poor in the mountains, he doesn't romanticize poverty or tell the reader that love is enough to get you through your troubles. Nor is poverty politicized, as it is today; Gap Creek's characters are poor because of circumstance, not because they are lazy, have too many kids or don't want to work.
Julie and Hank are what we'd call the working poor, laboring so hard that they barely have time to grieve. And there's plenty to cry about: the loss of an infant daughter, the fading away of dewy marriage dreams, and vanishing livelihood.
This is not to say that Morgan has penned a somber work of fiction. His passages about different varieties of beans and cabbage, and his portraits of the hills in every season, betray more than a passion for detail--they demonstrate a passion for the land itself. Sweetness lingers in Julie's voice when she describes late fall in the woods as looking like "a rainbow had crashed onto the mountain and spilled its colors down the valley."
Julie's observations about her complaining, self-satisfied mother-in-law provide comic relief and show that hard work doesn't have to erode spirit.
Yet from first page to last, Gap Creek plods along. Its pace is not the fast one you'd expect from a story that includes all sorts of natural and manmade disasters. Midway through, temptation lured me into peeking at the last page of the book. And it's not a book in which English students can quickly identify all elements of the plot. Pressed to pinpoint the climax of Gap Creek, I'd probably fail. It's an often slow, bumpy ride from one point to the next.
In Gap Creek, there are moments of true beauty, when you can feel Morgan's concentration and investment in his subjects, and then there are the seemingly endless episodes of back-breaking labor and conflict.
If you can slog through the latter, it's worth it. All those pages of description can easily discourage and bore readers looking for action. Yet those same pages, taken as a whole, create an overarching mood and tension in the work that demonstrates something about poverty: When hunger pains gnaw and cannot be assuaged, minutes resemble hours and days feel like weeks.