It is the summer of 1936 and the town of Yuneetah, Tennessee is disappearing. The Tennessee Valley Authority has dammed the river known as Long Man, which runs through this valley, and the water is beginning to rise over its banks and flow toward the surrounding farms and orchards. The townspeople are gone – relocated by the power company – except for Annie Clyde Dodson, who is determined to save her family farm for her three-year-old daughter Gracie.
Annie is just a day away from being forcibly removed from her home when Gracie vanishes in a severe rainstorm. As the frantic search for the little girl unfolds, so does a fuller picture of Yuneetah and its inhabitants. The result is a compelling portrait of a community with inextricable ties to the land, to the river and to each other.
Annie is resolute in her defense of her farm and her way of life, but her husband James has grown weary of fighting the elements and is ready to make a new start. Annie’s Aunt Silver ekes out a solitary existence in the hills but grieves for the departure of her only kin from the valley. Amos is a drifter who lives in the shadows but returns to visit his birthplace one last time.
The river Long Man flows through the center of each individual’s experience. A powerful character in its own right, the river gives and takes away in unpredictable measures, bringing nourishing irrigation one day and deadly flooding the next. The residents of Yuneetah fear Long Man as much as they depend on it.
Amos’ adoptive mother, Beulah Kesterson, reflects on this as the older townsfolk are uprooted from their valley. “The river had formed them, as sure as it had the land. The young might be able to take other shapes, but not her or the Willets. They were already mapped and carved out….It might be hard to love a place that had used them up, but it was what they knew.”
This strong connection to the natural world is at the heart of Long Man. Author Amy Greene, born and raised in East Tennessee, brings the hills and valleys to life with evocative descriptions that no city slicker could ever pull off. As Amos approaches Beulah in the woods, “The late summer trees gathered behind him, crowded up against the ditch as if to watch him come.” In the morning after the rainstorm, “When the sun rose it twinkled on the surface of the water standing everywhere like thousands of eyes coming open.”
Ultimately, Long Man is a story of ordinary people caught up in a time of extraordinary change. Readers will certainly recognize parallels in modern society, but unless we’ve been personally affected, we can’t really know what it feels like. Greene does an impressive job of showing us.