By CHRISTINA LOVIN
Bottom Dog Press, 2012
The Homegoing by Michael Olin-Hitt is a reluctant trip back to a time and place remembered like something familiar, yet concealed beneath the mists covering a holler. At times we would prefer to forget, fearing what that fog conceals, only to find that what we had been searching for is hidden there. It may be true that you can’t go home again, but what is truer is that home never completely goes from any one of us. Ruthie Sherman has made it out. She’s shaken off all that she despised back home in the tiny Appalachian foothill town where she grew up. She is on her way to a new life, new friends and a new way of thinking, far away from her past. Or so she believes.
A summer visit to Laurelville makes it clear that the old ways of a backward town and its people, a dysfunctional extended family, a restrictive religion that Ruthie has shunned and unshakable bits of country speech still cling to her like the mud from Laurel Creek, where the ghost of her aunt Hannah, dead before Ruthie’s birth, is said to haunt the town’s bridge. Flowing through the town and Ruthie’s past is a strong religious fervor: sometimes a gentle current like the crik, where believers are baptized, sometimes a raging flood with Biblical vengeance, such as that on the night Hannah disappeared in its swift, relentless waters.
When Ruthie’s curiosity about Hannah’s untimely death drives her to action, she finds the hills around Laurelville filled with hushed memories and dark secrets, the town alive with whispers of murder and revenge. She learns the hard truths of her family’s past—a family tree intertwined like prickly brambles, in sharp contrast to the tender laying out of the dead in what these hill people call homegoing. Navigating the storms and torrents of hard won, cold comfort lives, is a family of believers, steered by Dartha, Ruthie’s despised, faith-healing, herbalist grandmother, who has secrets of her own and yearns, in the end, for redemption and her own homegoing.
The Homegoing presents an intriguing mystery, to be sure. What one of us has not had the desire to know the secrets carried by our parents and grandparents, to know not just how we are here, but why, and what that means in the our own lives. For those unfamiliar with small town life in a remote area, where religion is the law, and where breaking that law brings retribution, the book may seem to present Laurelville as a stereotype of Appalachian living, with its broadly drawn country folk, archaic language, and highly suspicious mindsets. For those who have experienced firsthand the restrictive nature of fanatical religious zeal and the desire to shed the shackles of such, however, the story rings true—not just the smoke from the stone chimney of a remote cabin, but rather the reality of the field stones dug with effort from the ground, hauled up the hill and carefully set into place to build that chimney, only to wish them torn apart stone by stone and scattered.
Christina Lovin is the author of What We Burned for Warmth and Little Fires. An award-winning poet, her work has been widely published and anthologized. She teaches English and Creative Writing courses at Eastern Kentucky University.