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 Historical Fiction Review    

 

 

My Old True Love
By Sheila Kay Adams
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2004
Hardcover, $23.95 (289 pages)
ISBN: 1-56512-407-3
 
 
 

Paying keen attention to the nuances of relationships between individuals as well as between people and their geographical and temporal contexts, Sheila Kay Adams writes a uniquely private and complex Civil War novel.  Adams elegantly interweaves folk songs an nature into her narrative in ways that never stray from her purpose, which is to tell a family’s story.  The narrator explains the importance of telling her family’s stories with vigor: “I am a keeper of all manner of tales.  I sometimes get tales all mixed up in my head, and they is things that I cannot for the life of me separate out and determine if they are memories or things that have been told to me.”  The memories and “things that have been told” in My Old True Love are, like the interspersed songs, by turns simple, visceral, sweet, and painful.  This plaintive yet wry novel is impossibly haunting, powerful, and unforgettable.     

Almost immediately, Adams establishes the role of music in her novel and in her heroine Arty’s life.  When Arty’s aunt dies in childbirth, Arty finds her mother and grandmother crying, and herself haunted by music: “Crazy-like, the words to an old love song run through my head.”  As we bear witness to the events of Arty’s life, from her early marriage to her accounts of the Civil War, we see how much music regulates and mediates her perceptions of the world.  Arty, like her brother, often finds herself lost “in them stories,” and the reader in turn finds himself lost, searching for truth in the stories embedded in the music, for the truth in Arty’s accounts of her family.   

As powerful as Adams’s descriptions of the music that plays such an ineluctable role in My Old True Love is her deployment of nature as an integral component to the people whose stories she tells.  For example, Arty describes her early years as marked by “just the right amount of sun and rain.”  Whereas, when her husband goes to war, she describes herself hardening and the landscape around her characterized by extremes: 

Though I had never been soft-bodied like a lot of women, now I was lean and did not have one bit of fat on me.  I want you to know it was with the most satisfaction and no small amount of pride I carried in my heart as I walked through them fields and seen the first shoots of corn and wheat coming up. 

When it first started to rain I was so thankful, but after a week my heart went heavy as a rock. 

Arty’s life is built, Adam’s so deftly showcases, by her relationship with a landscape that simultaneously informs and responds to her grieves, her labor, and her joy. 

Despite Adams’s careful juxtaposition of songs into her narrative and her evocative descriptions of place, My Old True Love rings false in a few crucial moments because of a clumsily handled use of dialect.  Admittedly, the reason these instances stand out is because Adams is usually right on target—most of the time, her characters speak with authenticity and veracity.  However, some of her phrases are overdone, usually because of verb form and tense as when Arty states, “I had not knowed where he was or if he’d been killed or nothing for the longest seven months that had ever rolled over my head.”  Again, this is a minor quibble and noticeable only because—for the most part—Adams so precisely constructs the voices of her family members (the story of My Own True Love is drawn from a combination of Adams’s family history and fiction).    

My Old True Love is Adams’s first novel and follows her collection of short stories, Come Go Home With Me.  In addition to the ballads interwoven in her novels, Adams is a successful performer on the clawhammer banjo and has recorded All the Other Fine Things, What Ever Happened to John Parrish’s Boy?, My Dearest Dear, and Christmas on the Mountain.  She also served as the technical director of Song Catcher.   

 

Emily Bowles
Southern Scribe Reviews

 

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