My rating: Oh, gosh. This is a hard one. The writing is unique and enjoyable to read; the heroine’s voice is individualistic and uniquely portrayed. But the plot is where I held my head in agony. I get that this is a book aimed at the children’s/teens’ market, and therefore perhaps to be expected to be slightly simplified, but the plot was so full of holes that I kept stopping and going “What…???!!!” But the poignant bits were genuinely heartbreaking, and the story as a whole just might have happened. Just maybe…
Okay, I need to commit myself to a rating. How about an 8/10, with reservations. If a bit better developed and with more attention to plausibility, this one could well have been worth a 9 or even a 10 from me.
This is basically one of those bleak Appalachian stories all about abject poverty and fiercely stubborn people living in various degrees of squalor among fabulous natural beauty. And, predictably, we are taken behind the superficial vision of “dirty hillbillies” to see into the glorious nobility of the characters’ souls.
I am sincere in putting forth a rather cynical generalization of this type of fiction, which was abundant in the 1960s and 1970s, at least in the juvenile novels I was finding in my school library. There seemed to be a certain trend to showing all of the dreary details in kid-lit, with an amazingly strong hero, or, more frequently, a heroine, overcoming all sorts of obstacles and ending the book staring off into the gleaming sunrise (metaphorically speaking) of a better future. Hyper-realism combined with a fairytale ending. (“Did we play upon your deepest emotions, young reader? Well, here’s a nice resolution to make it all better.”) However, as the next development in youth fiction of the 1970s, 1980s and beyond was of brutally unrelieved bleak endings, I guess the “happy” fabrications are a mite easier to handle.
So here we have a family of five people living in a tired shack on twenty acres of share-cropped land in North Carolina’s Great Smoky Mountains. Widowed Roy Luther, patriarch of the family, is seriously ailing. About to die, in fact. Before he does, in a heart-rending episode, he makes his four children promise that they will bury him in a hand-dug grave, not inform anyone of his demise, and take care of each other. They are not to accept charity from anyone, and the eldest daughter, eighteen-year-old Devola, described as “cloudy-headed” (quite obviously mentally handicapped to a certain degree), beautiful in appearance and childishly happy in nature, is not to marry the wicked landlord, one Kiser Pease, who is actively pursuing her.
Fourteen-year-old Mary Call Luther is our narrator, and the heroine of this dramatic novel of survival.
Roy Luther has made me promise him some things:
When the time comes, which he hopes will be in his sleep, I am to let him go on as quietly as he can, without any wailing or fussing. I am not to call any doctor or allow anyone else to call one. If it happens at night I am to wait until morning before I tell the others: I am not to send for the preacher or undertaker. The preacher has a mighty voice in these mountains but he expects to be paid for his wisdom. And the undertaker, for all his hushed, liquid speakings of how paltry his tariff will be, can be ill-humoured and short-tempered when the time comes to divvy up as we found out in the case of Cosby Luther, my maternal parent, who died of the fever four years ago.
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. Were you to ask Roy Luther it would shame him to have to say aloud that it will have to be in Romey’s wagon and he’d have to say what for me to do with the feet which will surely drag because the vehicle is but a toy.
Quite a charge for a fourteen-year-old; as Devola is incapable of taking charge, and the other children are even younger than Mary Call. Brother Romey is only ten, and smallest sister Ima Dean six.
From the tragedy of a slowly dying father, the story turns to farce with the discovery of Kiser Pease in a state of sickness alone in his house; the siblings decide to try some home remedies out on him, immersing him in a bathtub full of stewed onions to break his fever. Holding Kiser hostage in his weakened state, Mary Call forces him to sign a paper giving the Luthers the title to their farm, which he does with surprising meekness.
Roy Luther lingers on, and the children turn to wildcrafting to make grocery money. Wildcrafting, for those unfamiliar with the concept, is the gathering of wild plants, generally for medicinal purposes. The Appalachians are a rich hunting ground for this purpose – ginseng, goldenseal, witch hazel and mayapple are just a few of the wild herbs fetching high prices at the drug store in the nearby settlement.
Roy dies and is buried by Mary and Romey in the most brutally poignant episode in this emotional little story; I swear a tear or two formed in my own eyes as I read this part. But the children soldier on, pretending to everyone that their father is still alive, and preparing as best they can for the fast-approaching cold time.
Disaster after disaster strikes the diminished family; winter is barely survived; but with spring a series of unlikely events brings a positive conclusion of sorts to this saga of endurance.
All in all, a decent enough fiction for the pre-teen to adult readership. Abandon your sense of disbelief at the first page, and just let yourself go; it’s the easiest way to get through this one, believe me.
If presenting this to your children as a novel study or social studies curriculum supplement, there are some truly interesting features in the story. The wildcrafting parts are based on fact, and would, to my mind, be the most valuable episodes to emphasize and research further. As for Appalachian life, I am of the opinion that this is a highly dramatized version. There is no real sense of a specific time period; one could assume the story is set in some time from the 1940s up until the 1950s or 60s. There is electricity, radios, freezers, cars, and tractors, but people are still farming with mules as well, and ignorance and superstition are rampant.
I have mixed feelings about this now-classic drama. Some parts are strong and beautifully written; other elements, such as the aforementioned shaky plotting, leave me at a complete loss.
I will be watching for other titles by this husband-and-wife team. I’ve recently read a later novel of theirs, Hazel Rye, and found it intriguing. Like Where the Lilies Bloom, a bit “light” despite the serious themes addressed, but with a certain charm and appeal, and containing passages that stay with one long after the book is reshelved.
Where the Lilies Bloom was also made into a movie in 1974, which I have not seen. The stills included in this copy of the novel show a rather inspired casting, going by appearances alone, though it appears that the movie plot differs somewhat from that of the book. The actress playing Mary Call Luther, Julie Gholson, looks perfect for her role, and the other children appear suitably cast as well. If you’ve seen this movie, or, better yet, read the story, I’d be interested in your own reactions.