Hendersonville-based novelist spins her version of Southern Gothic
Small towns occupy a unique place in American literature, perhaps because so many American cities, no matter how large, feel like only a few steps (and maybe a couple of centuries) away from a crossroads in the wilderness. They serve as setting for allegory, as reflection of regional or national values, as living metaphor, and occasionally as a kind of character.
The version of Hendersonville, circa 1982, portrayed in Songbirds & Stray Dogs — the thrilling debut novel by acclaimed short-story writer Meagan Lucas — feels as alive as its human characters. Hers is a town half shadowed by secrets, sorrows, and small-time Appalachian crime syndicates, but it’s also home to humor, a little romance, and some unforgettable characters. It’s also a place where a person at the limits of desperation can find acceptance and forge a new life for herself.
Or such is the case for Jolene Brodie, an unhappy young woman, abandoned as a child by an drug-addicted mother and raised by a judgmental aunt in Lowcountry South Carolina, in the shadow of her mother’s sins. Circumstances find Jolene cast out, homeless and destitute, far away from home in the North Carolina mountains. There resides Chuck Hannon, a man seeking escape from his own demons, and perhaps a bit of redemption by providing a better life for his young nephew, Cash. His tale serves as a parallel to Jolene’s—both have had their lives defined by addiction, not necessarily on their terms. When their stories intersect, Songbirds & Stray Dogs truly takes hold and becomes a story about the hope of closure, forgiveness, and the promise of a new life built outside the wreckage of the old.
A native of Northern Ontario, Lucas sowed the seeds of a new life for herself when she and her husband visited Western North Carolina on their honeymoon. “The natural beauty and the culture of Asheville were so appealing, but Hendersonville specifically was a haven — small enough to know your neighbors, but vibrant and full of opportunity,” she says. The place immediately felt like home. “We threw our dog and cat in a moving van and headed south. We’ve lived here now for 10 years. I do miss things about the North — wild blueberries, butter tarts, and the Great Lakes — but not the snow.”
It’s a grittier version of Hendersonville than many might recognize, one that operates on the outer edges of Appalachian Noir. The book is inhabited by dangerous men, unscrupulous two-bit criminals, and a book-length search for both a missing woman and a mysterious MacGuffin that requires a little informal, down-home detective work by Chuck and Jolene. That Lucas’ Appalachia runs to the dark side is no surprise, given her list of influences that includes Flannery O’Connor, Dorothy Allison, Ron Rash, and David Joy.
“My favorite authors are all Southern or Appalachian,” she says. “And all of my work has been set here. I feel like this area is beautiful cocktail of cultures and stories. I’m a bit of a sponge. Most of my ideas come from watching, listening, eavesdropping, and observing people. Songbirds & Stray Dogs was born out of an argument I overhead in a coffeeshop, that became a ‘what if?’ until the story arrived on the page.”
Lucas writes with an elegant immediacy, evoking a kind of “shotgun and chow-chow” regional poetry without falling to prey to geographical cliché. Songbirds & Stray Dogs is a tale of second chances, of finding a community to take you and treat you as one of their own. That’s a side of small-town life that too often goes unremarked upon in popular culture. Big cities may provide outsiders the anonymity to lose their past and start over again. But small towns just as often have a big heart beating barely beneath the surface.
Despite its vintage setting, Songbirds & Stray Dogs has a bit to say about the right now, certainly in its honest portrayals of rural communities wracked by drug abuse, but also in its argument for acceptance and tolerance, and its quiet celebration of those people in any community who will do what is necessary to care for a person in need.
The launch for Songbirds & Stray Dogs happens Wednesday, Aug. 28, 7pm, at the Malaprop’s Pop Up in The Center for Art and Inspiration (125 South Main St., Hendersonville). Meagan Lucas will be reading, discussing inspiration and process, answering questions, and signing books. For more information, see the event page “Meagan Lucas launches Songbirds and Stray Dogs” on Facebook, malaprops.com, or call 828-697-8547.