In these Instagram days it seems any book can find itself tagged a #ForgottenClassic a little more than an hour after its published, and so the best books have to await the time when we find them, just beyond the nearest rise, waiting for us when we get to them. Kass Fleisher’s Dead Woman Hollow (SUNY Excelsior Editions, 194 pages) is one of the latter, a book for the ages, published just short of four years ago as I write, a historical novel in three parts and with two intermezzos, titled “Before” and “After” respectively and perhaps unsurprising. But that’s all that’s unsurprising about this tightly woven, triple-stranded, tragic yet transcendent, even triumphant, ages-of-women chronicle set in the mountains of twentieth century Appalachian Pennsylvania.
It’s a hard book to describe though an easy, and compelling, read. NPR luminary and poet Andrei Codrescu describes it as “tak[ing] its place alongside True Grit, My Antonia, and Deliverance,” a list that will strike the careful observer as taking a bloody turn at the end. The publisher’s website identifies the hollow, an actual place, as “a shady glade named for a rattlesnake-bit mother left to die in 1908,” and then itself alludes to its predecessor texts just a mite more subtly than saying #JustLikeTrueGrit.
Well, it is and it isn’t that and that’s what makes it a new kind of American classic. What holds together the aforesaid three-stranded ship’s rope hawser of its plot are three different characters with the single shared name of Jenny, women whom we are led to understand also share the same reincarnated spirit— in my mind as an Appalachian apparition of the female Tibetan boddhisatva of compassion and action, Jetsun Dölma. Fleisher’s version of this triple-headed-goddess is tracked over the span just short of three generations of American history— and of American women—from suffragettes circa the First World War hauling a one-ton Women’s Liberty Bell on a flatbed truck along unpaved small town roads; to hardscrabble, hollow dwelling Depression era girls scraping together slumgullion for the family table while daddy looks for work; to the murderous, near decade-long bad dream of the Reaganite eighties, a nightmare which, speaking of reincarnation, we currently seem as a nation about to revisit, once again hunting down women as— and this is where Deliverance comes in— does the mountain man who stalks the final Jenny’s and her lover Gwen as they hike through these mountains toward the end of the novel.
I read Dead Woman Hollow in two sittings, the first through part one and the “before” meditation/intermezzo, and the second to the end. I mention the staging of my reading because it informs my experience of the novel’s (magic) realistic substrate, an utterly compelling evocation of time and place and voice, as well as, yes, certain literary archetypes of the True Grit, My Antonia fashion, that, taken together, make the first Jenny and her father so present and thus finally so lost. Lost not just in the violence that swallows them but lost in history including— once the second part began— the reading history of the reader’s, of my, expectations. If there was a whiff of Coen brothers to the way the novel begins with the hacking of a corpse by a girl hearkening to how she was trained to cut firewood, it moved quickly to something uniquely Fleisher’s own, and of a kindred intelligence and imagination to her mordant, contemporary memoir Talking Out of School where she likewise manages to convey the strength of women under attack in a way that turns notions of victimhood inside-out.
Still I was surprised, in a way I shouldn’t have been, by both the love and lore of the father-daughter relationship, the way this new historical woman distills her own particular strength from a different genetic grain. For Jenny the father links it to place, but also to hurt:
Think. Like with the chickens. It’s not that you shouldn’t care, sweetie. It’s that you look through your cares, to some larger thing. It’s all right to be sad, sweetie. Of course you don’t like to hurt things. But look at all of us. Look at us. Your people. Think about what we need.
Put us back on our place, he had said. Put us back on our place.
And then died.
Jenny and father’s story was compelling in a fundamental way but also for me in one that recalled my ex father-in-law, a southern Ohio hunter, fisher, outdoorsman, gardener, tool & die man and how carefully he taught his daughter the skills of knowing land and creatures. The sentimental parts of me wanted something of that quality to continue after the second part of Dead Woman Hollow, and these were the kinds of readerly expectations upon which Fleisher plays her solemn continuo. The span of time in the “Before” intermezzo which follows part one—an Olsonian (that is, poet Charles Olson’s) panoramic view of the unfolding of a glaciated history and the infolding and exfoliation of hills and vistas— serves to decompress a reader’s sentimental expectations and establish an inhabited narratological distancing that seemed an advance on self-reflexiveness and yet presented a present-tense voice.
Even so, I bridled briefly as the next Jenny took on the name and guise of someone I had, perhaps sentimentally, come to love and admire in a few carefully sketched pages, whose assault I had mourned and whose retribution I had celebrated. Whatever reluctance I had in coming to her did not last long and I was instantly caught up in the each successive Jenny, understanding them each in turn to be true descendants of a line of heroic women figures. Indeed they are inheritresses (the noun here gendered because that gender is earned, and paid for, again and again by each) of not just the successive violences upon their line but the continuing—nay, sustaining—dignity and righteous anger that indeed sustains them and reassures us of the possibility of goodness.
None of which, of course, is to deny that this is a mournful book, not so much an indictment (at least in the local, political sense of the word, with its promise of perhaps occasional redress in the midst of nonetheless successive assaults) as it is a prophecy, with the full force, the bloody maw of the prophetess, of that word.
The second Jenny section commenced with a familiar tone that I’d come to savor in Fleisher’s prior work, a recognizably ironic narrative intelligence presenting not a forced but rather a slyly fanged smile behind the prose. But at its surface there was a new sharpness. Fleisher’s prose shimmered with a newly refracted and faceted light I hadn’t seen in her earlier work, illuminating the more finely honed edges of her writing, flickering in the steely mirror along the bevel of its blade. The richly erotic, Sapphic episode of lovemaking that precedes the horror befalling Jenny and her lover Gwen as they camp along the Appalachian trail is particularly surprising and powerful on this account. It is as if Fleisher summons pre-netporn tropes of erotic writing by way of both evoking a kind of capital-R Romance in the Victorian sense where the word can still excite the flesh, but also as an exploration of the eros-thanatos border Susan Sontag meant to limn with her famous line that “What pornography is really about, ultimately, isn’t sex but death.”
There is a deeply compelling sense of impenetrable (that word chosen carefully) mystery about this encounter between the final Jenny and Gwen that brings to mind Luce Irigaray’s words from “When our lips speak together”:
Two lips kissing two lips: openness is ours again. Our ‘world.’ And the passage from the inside out, from the outside in, the passage between us, is limitless. Without end. No knot or loop, no mouth ever stops our exchanges…Are we unsatisfied? Yes, if that means we are never finished. If our pleasure consists in moving, being moved, endlessly. Always in motion: openness is never spent nor sated.
The attacker’s rage at such muliebral openness makes his violence not simply a redneck, Deliverance-like lashing out, but a ferocious, bestial longing for what no man can ever attain, a blood longing if you will, born of a horrified recognition of a primal scene of an utterly different sort than that which set off Freud and Lacan (although perhaps not Kristeva and Cixous) in their accounts of same. The culminating sacrificial scene involves murderous longing to be sure, leading not just to a femicide but, and here is Fleisher’s wisdom, a suicide against the Other within him, whose presence within the attacker, or any man, reminds us of all we lack, our own fundamental absence, our senselessness, our abraded and numbed sensuality. Against this fundamental and founding violence, Fleisher and the women of her novel marshal a like power to that Irigaray situates in lovers’ discourse, that is the power to “Speak, all the same…a language [that] isn’t formed of a single thread, a single strand or pattern, but comes from everywhere at once.”
The lover in Irigaray’s text complains, “You touch me all over at the same time. In all senses. Why only one song, one speech, one text at time?” Fleisher in this book takes her place among those women who touch and form us in multiple songs, speeches, texts, all at one interwoven and layered time. Such layered time gives her writing cinematic qualities, understanding cinematic here to be an elegiac adjective, a summoning:
Jenny hefts the axe overhead, forces her arms, shoulders, and back to hew into—and he’s stubborn, still no give, still nothing like the chickens with their necks crunching with a flick of wrist, like twigs really. No give but red, red, in truth a darkish red dribbling, a stain gathering on cloth, flannel maybe.
To say that Fleisher seems to accomplish a cinematic quality purely through metaphor and metonymy rather than through the superimposition of visual images would not accurately account for something much more complex that the novel accomplishes. For it calls us to our own recognitions of what we have seen before in our own lives and what we are able to construct of what we see in words and our own souls alike. “What one sees” is Charles Olson’s guiding principle for the linkage of history and the local, history as “the ‘istorin’…which makes anyone’s acts a finding out for him or her self, in other words restores the traum: that we act somewhere at least by seizure, that the objective (example Thucydides, or the latest finest tape-recorder, or any form of record on the spot— live television or what —is a lie as against what we know went on, the dream.”
I know the locales of Dead Woman Hollow as both a dream and a reality, the hills of Appalachia where my childrens’ mother grew, the Juniata that gave its name to the college where the fiction writer, poet and my old friend Janet Kaufman studied after growing up on a Mennonite tobacco farm in much the same parts as Fleisher’s novel and among much the same people (the fugue of the Amish Jenny at the end of “after” is a prose poem, with a sense of conjoined eros and menace that I recall from living among the Amish in Iowa). And yet I realize that I knew them not at all, or not at all in the way that Fleisher shows us in this mixed requiem and triumphant anthem, where, as Olson says of ‘istorin, “no event is not penetrated, in intersection or collision with, an eternal event.”
–Michael Joyce, author of Foucault, in Winter, in the Linnaeus Garden, 2015
Well, Jenny says. Meet your Cumberland Valley.
Turning, Dean Stewart gasps. Emerald reaches, buttressed by garnet—emerald spreads, spills in a sultry haze. Small farms grid the mounds and knolls, bordered by the glint of low creeks in afternoon sun. Bright houses, heavy barns, broad bales of hay speckle the edges of brick-red roads. Dark corn stands surrounded by brown stubble of grain. Beans lope up, down, and around red aisles, potatoes fast behind.
In the center, a town. Steeples stretch, a dome rises from the middle, homes clutter the edge.
In the distance, through air fuzzed with moisture, a long, low ridge hangs below gentle puffs of white.
Good heavens, Dean Stewart breathes.
Crickets and cicadas drone. A robin flies at full velocity onto a maple sapling, then swings forward and back on the fine limb.
I can see why you call it God’s country.
Jenny lowers herself onto the boulder. Dean Stewart follows her lead.
Silence, but for the drone.
I would wager that you’re capable of sitting here for hours on end.
I would wager that you do so frequently.
What’s that mountain in the distance? The other side of the valley?
And on the other side of that is….
Civilization, some say. But, Gettysburg. York if you head south.
Ah—Gettysburg. Our next stop. And our greatest national disaster.
Guess so. Jenny squints at sky. I heard about worse in these parts.
I’m sure you have. And this is—Blue Mountain.
Yes. The people in town call it North Mountain.
It’s all in the angle of perspective, I suppose.
Below the Mason-Dixon line, they call this same mountain the Blue Ridge.
A rose by any other name….
The robin takes flight, leaving the sapling tossing in its wake.
And what, Dean Stewart says, is the name of that crazy river down there?
That’s Conodoguinet Creek. They say it zigzags for a hundred miles to get to Harrisburg. That’s about thirty miles from town as the crow flies.
The Indians must have used it to travel there.
They got tired out if they did.
How do you know this hill so well?
My father brought me here, Jenny says. To hunt.
You’re saying your father taught you to hunt?
Do you like hunting?
No, ma’am. But it’s a blessing I know how to do it.
Yes, it’s good to be of use to a father. Mostly our brothers seem to own that privilege.
I’m of use to my mother now.
Your father no longer hunts?
He’s no longer with us.
Dean Stewart gazes at the bouncing sapling, where the robin has settled again. Of course, she says. I know better than to ask a question like that of people who live in the country. I’m sorry about your father.
Jenny leans back on her hands. He was sick for a while, she says.
A pair of hawks spiral into the sun.