“Every man, every woman, carries in heart and mind the image of the ideal place, the right place, the one true home, known or unknown, actual or visionary.” Through its epigraph — courtesy of Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire — Jayne Moore Waldrop’s Drowned Town makes no qualms about how much value people put into a sense of place.
Set in western Kentucky, where working the land can mean “shoveling mud-caked streets and sidewalks, pumping out perennially musty, wet basements, and moving furniture to the attic,” Drowned Town serves as a tale of two narratives. On one hand, there’s the evolving relationship between the land and its people from the mid-twentieth century onward. Changing times bring forth changing tides of folks, what with the TVA expropriating property in the newly christened Land Between the Lakes (LBL) to launch “midcentury government projects [that make room] for flood control, hydroelectric power, tourism,” but not much else — not even the land’s old-timers.
On the other hand is the relationship between childhood friends Cam and Margaret — the latter “a city girl, born and raised in Louisville, accustomed to urban life and its amenities.” Upon being invited to Cam’s wedding near LBL, Margaret takes a break from her life as a lawyer to attend the event. But upon their reunion, the two must confront personal trials stemming from their work and family lives, which mold their reality into something that “looked familiar yet almost unrecognizable.”
It’s through this process of reflection that Waldrop underlines how one’s character and purpose in life can be defined by the space one occupies. Cam and her friends discover a church that “survived only because TVA didn’t know about it” and renovate it for the wedding, in turn rejuvenating the land’s religious community. Out-of-towner David embraces his love of LBL by deciding to take up year-round residence in his summertime cabin — uprooting his loved ones and inviting them, including his woebegone wife Kate, “to feel the same connection, one of the few remaining links to his side of the family.” Such endeavors highlight how far people will go in life to make themselves one with familiar, pleasant surroundings and circumstances.
That desire to belong can, however, be more conducive to tearing relationships apart should one go too far in seeking physical and emotional safety. Local youngsters Sonya and Emmie argue over whether they should explore the razed remains of pre-LBL homes, with Sonya eschewing the buddy system to go there on her own — as if to get away from her abusive dad and instead “[live] in one of those pretty houses, all by herself.” Rose Wetherford’s dementia leads to her focusing on the past, going as far as to pressure her daughter Cam into taking her to her childhood home in Mint Springs — despite the family estate being “torn down, its venerable trees uprooted, the [family] graveyard moved up the hill.” Drowned Town underscores the perils of letting melancholy and the fear of uncertainty steer one’s conscience.
But the same sense of place that can make one overly dependent on the familiar can also act as the cure to being rudderless. Real estate appraiser Elmer begins to respect the land more when he agrees to hear local farmer Nate’s story on the land and governmental forces, “having to pack up and leave a homeplace that had withstood floods, droughts, births, deaths, joys, hard times. A true home.” Margaret gradually comes to share with Cam and her friends an appreciation of the land — “one transformed by immeasurable loss but where something beautiful rose from all that was missing.” This new love even compels Margaret to take up the locals’ case against further development plans for free. Waldrop uses this willingness to focus on the character of one’s newfound surroundings to spotlight how life can be like a puzzle in which fragmented parts come together and form a renewed reality and sense of purpose in life.
That feeling of fragmentation also manifests itself in how some stories can feel disconnected from one another. From a side tale centering around a long-time convict and his observations of the changing landscape to frequent time jumps and perspective shifts in between chapters, it can seem as if Drowned Town conveys through its structure the characters’ feelings of aimlessness owing to “destruction of home and history.” Perhaps the prose’s sidestepping and event summaries could be Waldrop’s way of depicting her characters wandering around in life and letting time fly as they seek a rangier vantage point from which to appreciate the expanse and beauty of reality.
As with the shifting Kentuckian landscape, Drowned Town treats its audience to the ebbing and flowing of emotions that come with forging and embodying a sense of identity through place. Like A Wall of Bright Dead Feathers and The Big Empty, Waldrop’s ode to an America of yore doesn’t shy away from depicting how melancholy can make nostalgic folks prone to being out of touch with reality. But as the moments of levity and environmental observation demonstrate, the book also never loses sight of the joys of inhabiting a land that feels like “a thin place that more closely connected heaven to earth, water to land, past to present.”
By Jayne Moore Waldrop
Published October 26, 2021