I'm no expert in Appalachian literature, although I did enjoy Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods a few years ago, and so I'd never really heard of Where the Lilies Bloom until it came time to read it as part of my 1001 quest. It's a powerful read. Coincidentally I've read a few books this year about poor sharecropping families in the American South. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (see my review) and Sounder (review soon-ish).
Where the Lilies Bloom tells the story of the Luther family who live a hard, rather meagre existence in a run down home in a remote part of North Carolina. Mary Call is our 14 year old narrator. She lives with her father Roy Luther, and her siblings Devola, Romey and Ima Dean. Roy Luther is quite unwell and preparing himself and the family for his death. He asks Mary Call to take over when he's gone, to look after the family, and stop her older sister the beautiful yet "cloudy-headed" Devola from marrying the slovenly, mean neighbour and landlord Kiser Pease. It's a lot to ask.
So it is that Roy Luther has requisitioned me to give him a simple, homemade burial when the time comes. After I am sure his heart and breathing have stopped, I am to wrap him in an old, clean sheet and take him to his final resting place which will be within a stand of black spruce up on Old Joshua. We have not talked about how I am to get him there.
It's all a rather intricate set up for the classic orphan tale. The children's mother has already died "of the fever" four years earlier, and Roy Luther is ailing rather quickly. It's a hard enough life with a father to head the household, but is about to become harder still for four children living alone in the wild mountains of Appalachia.
He's let things beat him, Roy Luther has. The land, Kiser Pease, the poverty. Now he's old and sick and ready to die and when he does, this is what we'll inherit- his defeat and all that goes with it.
But Mary Call is tenacious, and this is a story of determination and persistence in the face of true adversity. No first world problems here. Their house is crumbling around them, they have very few resources, and a harsh winter is setting in.
I'm not going to let this beat me. If it does, everything else will for the rest of my life.The Luther family turn to "wildcrafting", gathering wild buds, roots, leaves and bark, to make money. In an afterword the authors tell that they were inspired to write Where the Lilies Bloom after they moved to Boone, North Carolina and met people earning their living this way. "There are whole families who occupy themselves thus and earn a fair living at it, but this is not an occupation for the lazy, the squeamish of the fainthearted."
Where the Lilies Bloom is full of strong, memorable characters, I think I will remember them for some time.