book by Jonis Agee
annotation by Tisha Reichle
Before I sign up for a workshop or class with any writer, I always read at least one of her books. If she has multiple novels, I choose the one that has some element similar to what I’m doing with my own writing. I selected South of Resurrection by Jonis Agee because it is in a rural setting with characters who are not wealthy; these are the people of my childhood. The characters also battle nature and a history of racism; this has been the chaos of my adulthood.
Immediately, Agee sets the stage with a place where the narrator, Moline, will experience turmoil. After 23 years away, Moline returns to her home town of Resurrection, “the sort of no-count, nowhere place … [that] could not be revived to a bedraggled glory” (1). The character’s musing about the place establishes her as an outsider who only crawls back home because she is broken and has no place else to go. The tension created between person and place makes the town of Resurrection a character in the novel, one that wreaks havoc on numerous relationships, not just on Moline’s. I want to make the setting of my novel come to life in that same way.
The character of Resurrection intensifies as the region experiences weather extremes. In the middle of a conversation with her childhood friend, Titus, who is the town’s preacher at the black church, Moline notices the “steady darkening of the sky from the clouds bellying up against the hills … the hollow went dim and smoky as if there were a fire just beneath the scattered pine needles and last year’s leaves underfoot” (180). The foreboding weather precedes a warning to Moline from Titus’s wife; she wants Moline to leave and take the trouble she’s stirring up with her.
Agee’s use of colloquialisms, gives Moline a distinct voice, representing the Ozark region in its glory and gloom. Early in the first chapter, one of the essential themes surfaces in the line, “Dreams hunkered down, refusing to be driven out” (3). Initially, Moline is critical of others and clearly indicates her stay is temporary. She mocks them, increasing the tension between herself and the people of Resurrection. She is clearly trying to avoid returning to some conflict from her past. But it is inevitable. She characterizes her attraction to Dayrell, “like going underwater, the sinking inside, all the resistance going away, the weight overhead insistent as a hand pushing me down” (231). In a town this small, she cannot avoid him, the man she once loved. Or his horrible brother, McCall. This antagonist has no redeeming qualities, according to Moline. She looks at him with “the numb panic of the frog when it sees inside the dark of the snake’s open jaws” (185). But he is as complex as the other characters, manipulating his brother and charming the women of Resurrection out of their land, money, and dreams. He is a predator and Agee develops him with grace.
In spite of strong opposition from her own cousin, Pearl, Moline eventually tries to establish new dreams in Resurrection. With the help of several formidable female characters, including Great Aunt Walker and the sometimes weak, Lukey, Moline faces the abusive men and capitalist intrusion with resilience and determination. Agee has a cast of complex people who are damaged by their families’ past but determined to change the community into what they think is best for everyone.
Agee also uses detailed descriptions of furniture, buildings, and the natural surroundings to parallel the torment each character experiences. Moline helps her Aunt Walker and Uncle Able at their hotel, one that “even the special viciousness of raiders and occupying armies could not put an end to, that even the dying-out Rains family would not allow to expire, a hotel that housed not only the racial history of this town, but also the story of everyone and everything in its museum. If there was anything permanent at all, it was the Rains hotel” (212). This parallelism is effective at contrasting the weary tone Agee creates to portray the people and the land triumphant.
There are religious undertones scattered throughout the story as well; it is to be expected in the South. One character is a preacher and several are clearly God-fearing, Bible-beating, devout believers. In sharp contrast, Moline is skeptical and denies any belief. “Praying hadn’t worked before …God and I hadn’t been on speaking terms since I left Resurrection. No reason to think He was even listening anymore. It just seemed like one of the things you try when you hear the sounds of the well being capped above you” (169). Until she decides that she wants to hang on to her tumultuous relationship and remain attached to the dysfunctional community she is determined to protect.
Most prominently, this is a haunting novel, where a present-day mystery in the town is clearly connected to Moline’s dark past, the reason why she scurried out of Resurrection at sixteen and never looked back. With this added layer of conflict, Agee established the need for me to keep reading, turning each page looking for answers and hoping for resolution. It is not a fairy tale ending, but there is satisfaction in what she leaves unresolved.