Nancy Wayson Dinan’s debut magical realist novel, Things You Would Know If You Grew Up Around Here, takes place in the Texas Hill Country in 2015 when Memorial Day floods washed over the region. The floods engulf the countryside and affect the lives of three women, Boyd, Lucy Maud, and Carla, who are each grappling with inner roadblocks: Boyd’s hypersensitivity to others’ feelings, Lucy Maud’s strained relationships with her daughter, Boyd and ex-husband, Kevin, and Carla’s bouts of New Age spirituality and dependency on Lucy Maud for emotional support.
Before the rain swarms Hill Country, Boyd’s partner Isaac, who bonded with her following a panic attack inside a high school cafeteria, disappears in the night. This prompts Boyd to seek him out in the wilderness, whose mix of winds that “sounded so much like [her loved ones]” and smells “of secret life underneath the surface” doesn’t so much render a landscape as it does drop one into a mindscape.
Meanwhile, Lucy Maud tries to salvage her relations with and feelings for Kevin by working together to find members of Lucy Maud’s family who have also disappeared. As for Carla, she sets off to find both Lucy Maud and Boyd but the high waters put Carla on a path that takes her away from her loved ones and closer to a manifestation of her biggest desire: A female-run commune that provides food, shelter, and a sense of connection that makes Carla “want to be a cog,” lest her purpose in life dissolve like the apparitions of Hill Country inhabitants, including a mother tending to her bedridden daughter in a house being overtaken by vines and thorns à la Sleeping Beauty, from years past.
Welcome to the realm of the unreal.
Author Dinan leverages her Texan heritage in a land where its history and roamers’ feelings manifest to convey the novel’s theme of connection in the many ways her characters help one another.
From Boyd assisting a lost boy hailing from the 20th century — who slowly decomposes before her with his irises overtaking the whites and teeth falling out over the course of his trek — to Lucy Maud pulling Isaac’s father Ruben out of a hole that he believes contains gold, the characters’ exploits illustrate the pain of loss and how one can salvage the feelings brought about by uncertainty, grief, and even wonder so they can be repurposed into benevolent action.
This sense of connection also extends to the characters and the land itself. Through the use of Grapes of Wrath-like passages that break up and foreshadow the narrative with Hill Country lore, Dinan pulls no punches when unraveling the worst aspects of humankind as she illustrates how individuals treating their environment with impunity can mirror how they treat each other, creating a ripple effect on our planet.
In Dinan’s novel, depictions of human irresponsibility and their effects on the land, such as the melting of poles that could cause “three quarters of species to disappear over the next century” and the horror stories made up about the Comanche tribe to compel whites to demonize and kill Native Americans, echo through the lenses of history.
But they also rear their heads in the present. The likes of Carla’s distrust of the military emerging upon meeting a National Guardsman, Ruben King’s gold-mining zeal, and Isaac’s initial dislike of rural life Hill Country all showcase how human stubbornness can drive a wedge between people’s potential and their willingness to change. Moments like these bear witness to Dinan’s brew of poignancy, understanding, and environmental magic, grappling with the messiness of human conscience like bean tendrils assuming a mind of their own and wrapping around Boyd in her produce garden.
It is intriguing that the trials and revelations the cast goes through—such as Boyd taking in a motherless baby girl—remain discrete for most of the story instead of converging into a climax that compels everyone to cooperate, to overcome their fears. Perhaps in a nod to the will of the land and the solitude of the scarecrow that comes to life in Boyd’s garden and roams Hill Country on its own, the novel keeps its characters on different paths since their trails are meant to be faced alone, like Boyd rescuing himself from drowning in a river that projects sounds from the past and has a current “like a hand that [has] reached out and grabbed her.”
Eerie, damning, and altogether enchanting, Things You Would Know If You Grew Up Around Here isn’t afraid to reveal the ugliness of its setting and characters. It’s a book of rugged beauty and raw empathy that revels in its unpredictability — conjuring up motifs and themes that run the gamut of empathy, self-discovery, snakes, and water. It encourages us to “let the pain be in the open,” to “let the light snake into the corners and show the extent of the darkness.” One can only guess how willing such folks will be to embrace the unknown. Both in the land and in each other.
Things You Would Know If You Grew Up Around Here
By Nancy Wayson Dinan
Published May 19, 2020