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Unvarnished Tales of the Bygone South

May 28, 2000|ROCHELLE O'GORMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Poet and novelist Robert Morgan made a name for himself in 1995 by writing about North Carolina, his childhood home, in "The Truest Pleasure." He hit pay dirt earlier this year when his latest novel, "Gap Creek: The Story of a Marriage" was chosen by Oprah Winfrey for her book club. (HighBridge Audio; abridged fiction; four cassettes; five hours; $24.95; read by Jill Hill.)

The plot covers marriage, poverty, isolation, frustration, young love, death and hard work. A lot of hard work. Though the story begins in North Carolina at the end of the last century, much of it takes place over the border in the Appalachian high country of South Carolina. The story depicts the first year in the marriage of Julie Harmon and Hank Richards and is told from Julie's viewpoint.

It begins with two harrowing deaths in Julie's family, leaving her to work a hardscrabble farm with her mother and sisters. Out of necessity, Julie has become the family drudge, doing all the messy and difficult work the other women will not, or cannot, do.

Julie marries Hank after falling in love with him at first sight. She is 17 and he is 18 when he takes her away from her mother to live as the caretaker to an elderly and cantankerous old man in Gap Creek.

Descriptions of life on the farm, such as hog butchering, are vividly presented. Morgan writes of a way of life that no longer exists, and he does so with an unvarnished prose softened by unadorned eloquence.

This was rushed to press so quickly after Oprah picked it for her book club that a narrator had not yet been assigned and is not listed anywhere on the packaging. However, the talented voice that brings this story to life belongs to actress Jill Hill.

She captures the rawness of the story and an authenticity of both speech and setting with her soft, honeyed accent and textured performance. Her interpretation is countrified and her manner youthful and guileless. Hill deadens Julie's voice when tragedy enters her life, and fortifies it with iron when strength is required. Hers is a truly wonderful performance that enhances this carefully abridged version of a finely crafted novel.

*

Less delightful is the overly truncated audio version of Morgan's last novel, "The Truest Pleasure." (HighBridge Audio; abridged fiction; two cassettes; three hours; $18.95; read by Jill Hill.)

Also set at the end of the last century in the North Carolina mountains, it is about a marriage of convenience. Ginny needs help running her father's farm and marries Tom, who is as attracted to the property as he is to his bride. He is a no-nonsense type of guy, and Ginny is a Pentecostal who speaks in tongues. Religion is the basis for a rift between husband and wife that takes on a life all its own.

Morgan addresses many of the same themes in both books, but the details that provide shading and depth in "Gap Creek" have been cut out of this overly short and boring adaptation.

Hill once again enriches the material with her carefully wrought performance. She brings vitality to the fire-and-brimstone speeches of a preacher. We hear the pain of childbirth in her voice and the tenacity of a woman at odds with her husband. Her performance is the high point of the audio.

*

Tennessee is the setting for Michelle Lee West's latest novel, "Crazy Ladies," which spans 1932-1972. (Harper Audio; abridged fiction; three cassettes; five hours; $24; read by the author.)

It is not surprising to see another book about a multi-generational family of Southern women after the success of "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood," by Rebecca Wells. The overall tone of "Crazy Ladies" is lightly comedic, but the themes addressed by West are anything but breezy. Murder, adultery, crib death, rape and the social upheaval of the 1960s provide grist for this grit mill.

Though West's characters maintain our interest through eccentricity, the tone of the book and the themes addressed just don't jibe. True, there are some comedic moments, but for the most part these women often make poor choices with their lives. A decided lack of personal growth and a dearth of love among these ladies make for a depressing tale.

West's accent is Southern fried and brassy. She does a convincing African American dialect and successfully changes her tone, attitude and pacing for children's voices. While all of these women speak with Southern accents, it is to her credit that each sounds different enough to be recognizable. Though her spirited performance is enjoyable, West is sometimes too broad. She needed to tone it down somewhat to keep the caricatures out of the characters.

There are times when the audio sounds choppy as the story leaps across time and geographical locales. That is not the fault of the abridgment, however, but the manner in which West wrote her novel.

*

Rochelle O'Gorman reviews audio books every other week. Next week: Dick Lochte on mystery books.

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