Desert Isle Keeper
Raney is a Southern novel, but don’t look for gracious antebellum mansions surrounded by magnolias and populated by society matrons and belles. This is the Appalachian South, the South of pine trees and Baptist churches, where accents twang instead of drawl. And Clyde Edgerton nails the voice of the region exactly. I should know; I grew up in that world.
The year is 1975. Raney opens on the eve of the wedding of Raney Bell and Charles Shepherd, a young couple drawn together by their mutual love for bluegrass music. Otherwise, they are a study in contrasts. Raney is a child of the rural North Carolina area in which the novel is set, while Charles is a well-educated young man from Atlanta drawn to the area by a job in the community college library. Raney is Free Will Baptist; Charles is Episcopalian. She is theologically and socially conservative, and she doesn’t question the racist assumptions with which she was raised (though it’s clear that her attitudes spring from ignorance rather than malice). Charles has the typical beliefs of a liberal of the 1970’s. She values her close-knit family circle, while he craves his privacy. Raney is the story of how these attracted opposites build a workable marriage.
One of the many beauties of this book is the way Clyde Edgerton takes two characters who could easily be caricatures and instead turns them into believable, sympathetic human beings. And he never allows either Raney or Charles to be totally in the right. While I almost always agreed with him, I found Charles’s liberal sanctimoniousness just as exasperating as Raney’s Old South traditionalism. And if you’ve ever been in a long-term relationship, you’ll recognize the petty bickering over the right way to wash the dishes as well as the deeper conflicts that arise from attempting to blend contrasting family lifestyles and traditions.
The secondary characters are also vividly real, from Charles’s big city liberal vegetarian mother to Raney’s shattered, struggling World War II veteran Uncle Nate. In particular, the women of Raney’s family are at once a supportive community and a force of nature.
While it has many serious moments and a few heartbreaking ones, Raney is fundamentally a humorous book. It’s the best kind of humor too – it grows from Raney’s naïve yet quirky worldview, and from character interaction. You may laugh at Raney and Charles rather than with them on some occasions, but it will be the wry laughter of recognizing in them the same human foibles you and your own friends and family share.
But what truly makes this novel shine is Raney herself, as the first-person narrator. Some samples:
Raney on her wedding night:
“Well, I’m not a prude. Getting drunk at your wedding is one thing, but I can understand a little private celebration, maybe – as a symbol of something wonderful happening. Something symbolic. So I didn’t say anything about the champagne. It’s very hard to find fault on your wedding night with a dozen red roses staring you full in the face – even though a still, small voice was warning me.”
Raney on her first visit to an Epsicopal church:
“The priest had a yellow robe with a butterfly on the back. Now that is plumb sacrilegious if you ask me. A house of worship is no place to play Halloween…I was a little nervous about drinking real wine in church. But when I thought about it I ended up figuring maybe that was the best place to do it and God would forgive me.. I want you to know the priest gulped down every bit that was left over at the end. That was an education to me.”
One caveat: Raney and her relatives use the “n-word” regularly. It’s a realistic portrayal of how many rural Southerners spoke and thought twenty or thirty years ago, but it might make some readers uncomfortable.
Give Raney a try if you’re looking for a read that’s at once a lighthearted love story and a stunningly accurate portrayal of human nature as hammered out in the first years of a marriage.