REVIEW: Travel to a fictional Chatham County of yore in ‘Love and Lament’

Sep. 12, 2013 @ 09:11 PM

“Love and Lament” by John Milliken Thompson (Other Press, softcover, $15.95)

“Love and Lament” by John Milliken Thompson twines good storytelling and poetic writing to imagine how a woman in Chatham County experienced the years between the Civil War and World War I. In the novel it’s called Haw County, but it’s Chatham County, as the author’s research shows.
Young Mary Bet Hartsoe has much to grieve. Her family members die one after another when she is still a child, and she must find a way to cope and keep living with whom and what she has left. To say their existence was hardscrabble would put it mildly, even though her parents’ families did well enough for themselves, and her father owns a local store. It was a time when medical treatments were ineffectual and life and death came and went in a breath. Indeed, Mary Bet wonders if death is coming for her, too.
Thompson, who lives in Charlottesville, Va., has had his short stories published in multiple literary journals, and it shows. Some of Mary Bet’s experiences could stand alone as solid short stories. The first half of the book focuses on her youth in the country, and the rest when she moves to town seems like a new story, a new life for her. It is quite so for Mary Bet, a character we join vividly in the pages as she looks forward but is still tied to sadness. Hence, the love and lament.
The characters around her – her father, siblings, sheriff cousin, friends – add color to Mary Bet’s tree of life and loss. We are transported to another time to see Mary Bet’s father try to grow banana trees in the North Carolina Piedmont. We read letters from the front during World War I. We venture inside a mental hospital. We witness quite the poker game. We creep through the woods upon an illegal moonshine still. Thompson takes readers to all those scenes and more. And all we have to do to ride along is turn the page.

: 2 p.m. Sunday
WHERE: Flyleaf Books
752 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Chapel Hill