By KAY HUBBARD
Joan Donaldson’s On Viney’s Mountain offers a compelling perspective on Tennessee mountain life in the late 19th century. The title is apt, because it is a story about the land (and all that lives there), told in wonderful detail by the 16_year_old Viney Walker, who is not an objective observer.
Viney loves the mountains and resents those who threaten upheaval of traditional ways. She is the youngest of three children, raised by aunts after the death of their mother and the disappearance of their grieving, troubled father. Viney’s brother Jacob works to hold the farm together, and her sister Lizzie dreams of the day she will escape from the dreary mountain life and live in high society.
Viney’s biggest frustration is the continuing family pressure she feels, summed up by her Aunt Alta’s admonitions to “be shut of your unseemly ways and wed.” Viney’s response is, “Send me a man who will treat me like I’m worth more than a mule, and I might pay him some mind.” Viney loves the mountain life, especially her weaving. She declares that the loom is a more satisfying companion than a husband or children. The weaving itself becomes a metaphor for the emotional storyline. She takes her frustrations out on the loom. Her colors and cloth come from the local land and animals. She weaves gifts for apologies. Her options are greatly increased as others purchase her work. She learns from her mother’s carefully preserved weaving instructions and develops new weaving patterns that reflect new life insights.
The magic of this narrative, which has as its historic center the establishment of the utopian community of Rugby in the Cumberland Mountains in Tennessee, is that the story and the time/place are intrinsically dependent upon each other, and both are well developed by the author. The world that she paints is not a simplistic mural of history, full of either/or choices and good guys and bad guys. The tale is complex, and the relationships are rich and authentic. At first Viney rejects all the new settlers, but she soon learns that they aren’t all the same-that they, too can learn, and that she is not the only person with dreams. Viney learns that life is complicated, full of difficult choices and holds promise beyond her first impressions.
The love story that develops is fast_paced, authentically described and full of wonderful complications. Viney’s attitude toward the outsiders is opinionated, confused, problematic, deceitful, talented, spiteful and ultimately transformed.
There is authentic, well_researched detail in the fiddling, dancing, weaving, sewing,quilting, dressmaking, corset fitting, farming, animal birthing and many more facets of 1880s mountain life. The dialect has a musical quality and consistently provides differentiation of individual characters (Irish, the mountain folk, the educated English). It becomes a seamless part of the narrative as the reader is swept along in Viney’s story.
The diverse cast of characters, each with a slightly different story, fills the background and makes all the historical detail come alive. The tapestry that Donaldson weaves is satisfying and engaging.
While the personal relationships and interpersonal struggles provide a fast_paced storyline, the author helps us understand the larger systems at play in the story. There are forces that are acknowledged and demonstrated skillfully by Donaldson. She seamlessly provides examples of the economic, social, religious and ethnic realities of the late 19th century. And she includes ecological and geographical detail that never seems superfluous.
On Viney’s Mountain is a compelling, illuminating and well_crafted novel. It opens the mind and the heart. It is a wonderful addition for any curious reader’s bookshelf.