This week in our Summer Reading Blog Series we pull in a pinch-hitter and hear from Corinne Serfass, the daughter of Blair’s Margaret Couch.
The idyllic summers of my childhood and adolescence are tied tightly in my mind to being barefoot in the tall grass of the Appalachian Mountains with blackberries crushed in my hand. I had the never ending afternoons of summer break to spend with all manner of books, starfish-ed on the sofa at home or sequestered in a copse of trees at camp. As I grow into adulthood I find that I want my summer reads to retain that hazy pleasure where the real world is magnified in a way that transcends my day-to-day experience. Like the John Prine song Paradise, whose words I remember from those self-same summers, my summer reading pick for this year lies in “a backwards old town that’s often remembered so many times that my memories were worn,” and the town is Stay More, Arkansas, the fictional setting of Donald Harrington’s With.
With is nestled in the wilderness of the Arkansas Ozarks with tangential appearances by Stay More, both locations emitting the Southern Gothic ennui of settlements slowly fading into obscurity. Inhabiting these towns are humans, just as bleak and beat-down as their surroundings, trying, as many of us do, to lose themselves in a dream of something better. Following such a dream is what finds Robin Kerr abducted and forced to live in a remote cabin in the Ozarks. The story follows Robin after her abductor dies and she is forced to fend for herself, paired with an unusual cast of supporting characters including a dog, a bobcat, and an in-habit (a spirit or haunting).
With reads like a grown-up retelling of Randall Jarrell’s The Animal Family with a hefty dose of Michael Chabon’s magical realism thrown in. Harrington’s narrative style adheres directly to the way Robin experiences her new world, helpful spirits and talking dogs alike, and requires very little suspension of disbelief for readers to find themselves in that cabin in the Ozarks.
Harington’s language grounds the book firmly in the Southern Gothic tradition and the sense that this young girl sits, physically and metaphorically, on top of hundreds of years of tradition and custom. The juxtaposing of Robin’s modern, pre-adbuction, life with the way she struggles to survive off the land when fending for herself highlights the nostalgia which colors our view of days long past. The sweat-soaked, dirt-scuffed nature of the narrative is what makes this a perfect summer reading book, even if you don’t have first-hand access to the humidity and late-afternoon sun of the American South.
Check back next week for another post in our Summer Reading Series!