Bloodroot

I’m a bit late to the party in profiling Bloodroot by Amy Greene (it came out about a year ago to great acclaim, was featured in Entertainment Weekly and many other venues, and has been routinely applauded on best-debut and best-of-the-year lists) but I wanted to add my voice to the chorus anyway—because I enjoyed Bloodroot very, very much.

First, Bloodroot is like very few things I’ve read. Set in the mountains of Tennessee, it is exotic in the best sense of the word—a lush environment full of captivating details and authentic characters that, despite their initial foreignness, feel natural and accessible, unforced. A large part of this, no doubt, is Greene’s own background—she hails from Tennessee, and writes of this world with ease and authority, so details of scene and language roll out naturally, resulting in passages like this one, from early in the book:

It doesn’t take as much to poison a horse as people think. You just have to know what to feed one. A few oleander leaves, a little sorghum grass, a bit of yellow star thistle and a horse can choke faster than the vet can get there. Tie your horse to a black locust or a chokeberry tree and it could be dead within minutes. Bloodroot is dangerous to horses too. We have a carpet of it growing down the side of our mountain when springtime comes, thriving under the shady tree canopy high above our house. Daddy says such a lush stand is rare these days…Bloodroot can be harvested in fall but the leaves have died back, so it’s harder to know where the plants are. That’s why we always make the trip in early spring, when the flowers are spread across the slope like the train of a wedding gown.

Greene never writes as an outsider, and so reveals her subject’s grace.

Plotwise, Bloodroot is primarily the story of Myra Odom, who grew up on Bloodroot Mountain and eventually abandons it for town and Johnny Odom—as well as the stormy, ultimately destructive love that blooms between them. We see the passionate and sometimes literally torturous parts of Johnny and Myra’s lives, but the expansiveness of Bloodroot also lets us see Myra’s childhood, the aftermath of her life with Johnny, and its consequences on her two children. Amidst all this, there is mystery: until the end of the book, the exact nature of Johnny and Myra’s relationship—and how it ended—is unclear. Johnny has disappeared, and Myra is implicated. Tension in Bloodroot is generated by the systematic exploration of Myra’s character, and the limitations of the other characters to know her.

Bloodroot is also a triumph of point of view, and how it can develop tension in a plot. Bloodroot is divided into multiple sections, each of which features Myra’s story through the eyes of one or more of the main characters. Though each voice is spellbinding in its own right, the sequence of perspectives serves to initially keep Myra at a distance—allowing the reader to never fully trust or understand her, almost yearn for her—and then to bring her close. By the end, where Johnny Odom is given his own say, a combination of these perspectives has been achieved, so that Myra seems at once both known and unknown, clear and mysterious and lovely.

The characters in Bloodroot are passionate and moving, bearing their struggles with dignity and pain. Their lives are hard, and more than once throughout the book I felt emotionally devastated as one more tragedy in a seemingly endless thread threatened to unravel them. Saying more about the book, I think, would wreck what made it magical, or ruin the most powerful moments for someone approaching the book for the first time. So I’ll leave it at this: Bloodroot is fantastic. Read it, by all means, read it.

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