A Smoky Mountain clan protects its way of life one song at a time

Posted by | November 8, 2011

The following review of Alex Bledsoe’s new novel, ‘The Hum and the Shiver,’ was written by Tina LoTufo for Chapter16.org, ‘a community of Tennessee writers, readers and passersby.’

In The Hum and the Shiver, the Reverend Craig Chess is a young minister with a problem: his first church assignment—the Triple Springs Methodist Church—is located in Cloud County near Needsville, in the Tennessee Smoky Mountains.

The Hum and the Shiver, by Alex Bledsoe, ISBN 978-0-7653-2744-4, Tor, 352 pages, $15.99

Needsville (population 300) is the home of the Tufa, a mysterious clan instinctively suspicious of outsiders and especially of preachers: “Dark haired and dark skinned, yet not white, black, or Native American (although often content to be mistaken for any of the above if it meant they’d be left alone), the Tufa kept their secrets so close that, to Craig’s knowledge, no one even knew how they’d turned up deep in Appalachia. Yet when the first official Europeans had reached this valley three centuries earlier, the Tufa were already here, living quietly in the hills and minding their own business.”

Most of Craig’s attempts to break the ice with the Tufa fall flat, at least until twenty-year-old Private Bronwyn Hyatt returns to Needsville in a Black Hawk helicopter. The injured Bronwyn receives a hero’s welcome upon her return from duty in Iraq, where she was kidnapped and then rescued à la Jessica Lynch. But Bronwyn was a legend in her home town long before she ran off to join the Army. A pureblood Tufa, she was known for her lack of tact, sobriety, discretion, and desire to keep her clothes on.

When Bronwyn and the Reverend meet, each is surprised by the sudden and intense chemistry between them, despite their differences: “She was almost ten years younger, from a completely different background, and entirely uninterested in the things that defined his life,” Bledsoe writes. “No doubt there was some young soldier out there just waiting for leave to come visit her, probably another Tufa or at least someone familiar with their ways and approved of by her family. If he didn’t get himself under control, Craig might be fated for a backwoods beating by a bunch of angry Tufa cousins in the near future.”

Although similarly affected by their meeting, Bronwyn is more concerned with healing her shattered body—and new omens that seem to portend her mother’s death: an owl seen during the day, a sparrow pecking at the window, and cows heard after midnight, among others, but most disturbingly, a “haint,” or ghost, intent on delivering its message from the grave to Bronwyn alone.

Alex Bledsoe

Alex Bledsoe

That’s because Bronwyn, besides being a military hero, is also a First Daughter of a First Daughter—a distinction that places upon her a heavy burden of responsibility within the Tufa hierarchy. If her mother, Chloe, is truly fated to die, Bronwyn must learn her mother’s song in order to perpetuate their family’s thread in the complex musical tapestry that surrounds and protects the Tufa’s ancient way of life. As another First Daughter tells Bronwyn, “A First Daughter who loses her mother’s song diminishes all of us. If we don’t know the melodies hummed in the night wind, then all that’s left is the shiver of the grave.” Unfortunately, the horrors Bronwyn endured during her two years of military service seem to have disrupted—at least temporarily—her innate connection to the music of the Tufa.

Superstitions and musical abilities aren’t all that set the Tufa apart. What really goes on at their nightly barn dances? How do they heal so quickly? Why are they so hard to find when they don’t want to be found? And what is eating Rockhouse Hicks, the disagreeable old-timer with six fingers on each hand who sits scowling at the world every day from a rocking chair in front of the post office? Don Swayback would like to know. He’s a reporter at the local newspaper and—through his great-grandmother Bengenaria—part Tufa. But having been raised outside the clan, he is as much a stranger to their ways as Craig. When his editor tells him to land an interview with Bronwyn Hyatt or lose his job, Don begins a dangerous journey of self-discovery that will change his life.

Like a crumb trail through a deep, dark forest, skillfully sprinkled clues keep the reader enthralled as Alex Bledsoe spins an eerie tale both romantic and harsh, about the strength of family ties and the power of music, as well as the coarseness and brutality of evil men. Balanced on the thin edge between dreams and reality, The Hum and the Shiver captures the subtle magic of childhood’s landscape, the pull of desire against destiny, and the way life can turn in an instant, suddenly revealing that pivotal moment no one ever sees coming. Ultimately, Bledsoe—a Nutbush, Tennessee native—has written a story about the magic of home: “As she crossed the threshold, Chloe hummed a melody older than the mountain they stood on. Like all the Tufa tunes, it was part prayer, part story, and part statement of intent. It signaled to the universe that Bronwyn was once again home, under the protection of the night wind.”

For more local book coverage, please visit Chapter16.org, an online publication of Humanities Tennessee.

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