Review of "Washed in the Water: Tales from the South"
by C.A. LaRue
Nancy Hartney’s debut collection Washed in the Water: Tales from the South is, with the exception of one story, “a gathering of women” that meanders like a slow, drunk river through the landscapes and religious and racial themes of the Old South. From lecherous preachers to lynchings to murderous backwoods bootleggers, Hartney chews on the violence and beauty inherent in communities from Georgia to Texas.
With narrators that are primarily young girls, Hartney explores what it means to harbor dreams bigger than your circumstances. Much of the tension comes from her own real life experience struggling to survive on a “hardscrabble tobacco farm” on the Georgia/Florida line, and later, amongst equines and their salty attendants in parts of Arkansas.
She is no stranger then to the darker corners of the Southern psyche. Yet what is most striking about her work is not this willingness to expose, but her photographer’s eye. Like Eudora Welty, who also had a side career in photography, she can capture personality in a single click.
For example, in “Last Love,” Hartney describes her main character like this:
“Leroy Jackson moved his ponderous fame toward the table under moss-draped oaks. He had a pronounced limp in his right leg, wore greasy bib overalls, and led a hound on a frayed rope.
‘Y’all men give me one of them there sign-up forms.’ He pointed and drawled in a demanding tone. His left cheek bulged with chewing tobacco and brown drool seeped into the creases around his mouth. He didn’t wipe.”
Hmmn? Not the type of fellow I want to hang around with, but he stays with you, as do other images like the three, bleeding tree stumps in “The Fig Trees.” After earlier, seemingly innocuous events, this closing snapshot is haunting.
Though compact, all the vignettes stick like heavy grits in the gut, defying easy digestion. Some of their impact should also be attributed to her skill in capturing the rhythms and nuances of Southern speak. You’ll find characters that rattle off nuggets like “Snakes and women. They evil… ” or “Not much to look at, but for a girl you sure enough strong.”
Then there is my favorite:
“Sister Lisa Dell, you a woman that God made ample. He done that meaning for you to share yourself.”
Alongside such vivid prose, the publisher also includes a smattering of delicate pencil sketches from artist Susan Raymond, which give the collection a pleasant, old-schoolbook feel.
That is not to say that the book is stale or old-fashioned. Issues examined through the eyes of travelers of the 1950s –’80s are still being played out today, and Hartney as a long-time Arkansas resident is immersed in them.
Stay tuned for more new releases from Southern writers by Pen-L-Publishing, and view Nancy’s photography page for raw images of kneeling porches, abandoned barns and rustic, Southern bridges.
C.A. LaRue is a writer/artist working out of New Orleans. She studied creative writing at Hollins University (then Hollins College) and holds a B.S. from the University of New Orleans. She is a registered member of the Tlingit Nation of Alaska with recent work in the Review Review and Belle Journal. Check out her blog and follow her on Twitter @bonesparkblog.