Hardcover: 280 pages
Publisher: Hub City Press (May 1, 2016)
"Franks' debut is a thoughtful exploration of one woman's quest to live life on her own terms."-Kirkus Reviews
Over the Plain Houses tells the story of what it was like to be a woman, wife and mother in rural North Carolina in 1939. It also tells the story of the gradual disintegration of one woman’s marriage. Over the Plain Houses is a stunning novel of love, betrayal, madness (Brodis thought his wife was a witch and a sinner) and change. It is filled with the rich landscapes and details of earthy country life.
In Over the Plain Houses, we meet Irenie Lambey wife of Brodis Lambey. We learn first hand how the life of a farm wife married to a former logger turned fundamentalist preacher (whose self declared mission was to spread the word of God) changes when the USDA sends Virginia Furman a modern woman and government employee to Irenie and Brodis’s town to teach the women modern ways of housekeeping as other USDA employees had previously come to town to encourage the men to grow “modern” crops like tobacco that would provide a better income for their families.
The former simple lives and beliefs of many of the farmers and their wives were challenged by Virginia Furman and her progressive (at the time) ideas. One of the concepts Irenie struggled with was Brodis's interpretation of the Biblical Eve and Adam’s relationship.
"Listen. Eve shall be ruled by her husband and in sorrow bear children. She shall spend her life disappearing, and the blue flame shall sputter and shrink into its own self for years to come."
"Do you own Mama?" she asked her father in the midst of her confusion.
Irenie's mother had said to her, " 'You don't have to be like Vina Jones.' Mrs. Jones had birthed a child every year for seventeen year running."
What did a woman in 1939 do when she did not want another child, abortion was illegal? What will Irenie do?
Julia Franks' descriptions of nature, the farm animals and the passing seasons adds to the authenticity of the story. The descriptions are filled with sensory impressions that made me feel I was there watching the logs tumble down the falls in the water or I was there when the hounds went on a night walk with Irenie. I could feel the soil and the night air. I was there in Irenie’s and Brodis’s bedroom seeing the square of light filter through the one small window at night while they lay under a quilt in a sparsely furnished room where the Bible was by the bed. Franks’ descriptions of place with visual vignettes is superb. Franks depicted the outer world of this couple with the eye of an artist and botanist and she portrayed the inner world of these two with compassion and the insight of a writer who gets her characters completely. You can’t help feel her empathy for them even if they act terribly.
In the hands of a lesser writer Brodis and Irenie could have become one-dimensional characters, a fire and brimstone preacher and a woman who wanted to be free. In Franks’ hands they became conflicted people like many of us wanting to live their dreams.