Stories of privilege and poverty intertwine in eloquent ‘Ash Grove’


Ash Grove
Wanda Fries
Ginkgo Leaf Press, 2012


”Unfinished business. That’s what they say keeps us here long past the time when we should have faded to a wisp of memory, a draft of cold air in a dark corner under the stairs.” So states the ghost of Anne Brinson at the beginning of Wanda Fries’ eloquent book, Ash Grove. Anne has been dead, the victim of a violent unsolved murder, for many years. Drawn back to the Appalachian mining town of Ash Grove after the brutal murder of his father Cleave, Will secretly hopes to find the answers as to who was responsible for his mother’s death so many years before. Contrasted against the gritty existence of the miners with their hardscrabble lives and union struggles, Will lived a life of privilege as the son of the owner of Brinson Mining Company and a mother whose memory is tainted by rumors and his own remembrances. With his father gone, it is up to Will alone to learn the truth.

Privilege and poverty with their universal stories come together on a daily basis in a mining town. Ash Grove is no different. Deana Perry, whose childhood story is far different than Will Brinson’s, has moved away and made a new life for herself and her daughter far from Ash Grove, as well. Now she reluctantly finds herself back in her home town, just in time to bid a final farewell to her dying father, Wayman, who has been the bane of her existence most of her life. Her memories of a drunk and abusive man make it difficult to feel any sympathy for the empty shell she witnesses on the hospital bed beside which her mother keeps faithful vigil. But when Will contacts her to learn if Wayman might have any information about his mother’s death, Deana has her own ghosts to deal with, and coming back to Ash Grove has brought them all alive with their taunts and warnings.

A tale spun out as if from a reel of dynamite fuse, Fries’ Ash Grove winds a precarious, rocky way through darkness, back into the light. Like the mine shafts that pierce the peaks around Ash Grove, through the deft storytelling of the author, the plots twist and turn, narrowing into blackness and dead ends. Characters disappear around corners, and then reappear as suddenly as a coal train around a hairpin bend. A delicious delving into the stony black heart of a town and its long-held secrets, Ash Grove provides that rollercoaster feeling one has on a fast ride along a mountain two-lane: frightening, exhilarating, but in the end, awfully satisfying.

Christina Lovin is the author of A Stirring in the Dark, What We Burned for Warmth, Little Fires and Flesh (forthcoming). An award-winning poet, her work has been widely published and anthologized. She teaches English and Creative Writing courses at Eastern Kentucky University.

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