I recently read a book review of a new first novel in Washington Post that concluded the author had dabbled in many things, but did not fully succeed with any of them. One line by the reviewer struck me: “One hardly wants to fault a writer for ambition at a time when too many novels are beautifully wrought artifacts that leave no impression.”
The last way I would want anyone to describe my novel would be a “beautifully wrought artifact that leaves no impression.” I would rather it be called an artless but immediate story that leaves a strong impression long after the last page is turned. If there’s any one novel I can name that had the same effect on me it would be “Oral History”, a deeply haunting, inter-generational tale woven by Appalachian author Lee Smith.
I tipped my hat to Lee Smith by naming one of my characters deep in my story after one of hers, perhaps a descendant: Ardelene Younger, the girl with strange eyes – named for Lee Smith’s Granny Younger. They both are healers born and raised in the mountains of Appalachia, who probably could exist in few other places.
But the story is not Ardie’s, nor is it even Valerie’s so much as it is Ray’s, who is the narrator. And it’s not inter-generational, but occurs almost wholly in the span of a few weeks (although the story took years to write). Here I’ll try to describe the arc of the story. I should warn you there are a couple of minor spoilers here. But the novel itself will take you on a roller coaster of emotion and discovery none of this can touch.
This is a story of many parts. The Redemption of Valerie Tolliver is an unlikely love story, a small-town drama, a tale of flawed fathers and their legacies, a road trip gone bad, a spiritual awakening and much more. Set in the year 2000, its namesake is a young woman who has run away from a troubled past in eastern Kentucky. The story opens at the northern end of coal country somewhere between Scranton, Pennsylvania and the Pocono Mountains, in an idyllic town named Gladburg.
The narrator is Ray Brauner, an architect builder who recently moved to Gladburg to begin putting his life together after a divorce. Idealistic and driven, he pursues his work with a focus that leaves little room for other people or their problems. Ray recognizes in Valerie a beautiful and gifted person, but she’s also prickly and eccentric. A vegetarian with a penchant for quoting scripture and the unsettling ability to read people’s thoughts, often without understanding their intentions, she seems to excel at nothing but ping pong. And she hates that.
As the story opens Valerie has become the butt of jokes in the town where Ray’s star is on the rise. But owing to a brief affair between them Ray feels an obligation to remain friends with her. When Val is fired from her job and then becomes partly responsible for an accident on Ray’s job site that nearly electrocutes him it seems like the last straw. But this is only the beginning of Ray’s journey toward understanding, with Valerie as his companion. Abrupt, abrasive and awkward, Val is a highly unlikely mentor, yet gradually she becomes the closest thing to a spiritual guide the self-absorbed Ray has ever known.
Valerie’s premonition that a mutual friend is in danger proves true. Rollin King’s father has skipped town to escape a gambling debt, leaving Rollin to handle the family business as well as the debt collectors. Matters are complicated by the business being King’s Tavern, a prestigious renovation project that figures highly in Ray’s portfolio of recent work. The night violent enforcers come to King’s Tavern to collect the old man’s debt, all but one present are put to shame. In a moment of sickening fear for everyone else, Val is the only person brave enough to stand up to the thugs, a heroic performance that marks her for reprisal.
Under a cloud of depression Ray turns to his work for solace, but his electrical burn becomes dangerously infected and he is hospitalized. Thus begins a series of escalating catastrophes that eventually includes another close friend being beaten nearly to death in a parking lot. With Val’s life under threat Ray, just out of the hospital and by no means fully recovered, agrees to tow her sole possession – an old Airstream trailer – back to Kentucky.
The trip to Kentucky is filled with growing stress as Valerie’s ability to read Ray’s thoughts becomes nearly unbearable for them both. By the time her trailer is in place on the mountainside where her uncle Duane lives it has become a full-blown disaster. Suddenly Ray is the outsider at the mercy of strangers, forced to confront the circumstances that have made Val into the person she is. Ray’s fate grows darker still when his deadly bacterial infection returns. With no way out, issues of pride and accountability rear their heads as all his assumptions about reality are shaken to the core. What happens next is so unimaginable Ray will never be the same.
By the end of the novel the double meaning of the title becomes apparent, as Valerie becomes an unexpected avenue of redemption for those around her. But she is not alone in moving Ray toward a state of grace. Valerie’s uncle Duane, a disfigured Vietnam war hero and reclusive mountain man, is a mythical figure who won’t easily be forgotten. Other notable characters include Valerie’s damaged parents who cling desperately to a tattered, fragile dignity and a rich lawyer preoccupied with finding his own immortality in the stars (and maybe a few other secrets as well). But when all is done it’s a changed Ray who is left to contemplate his role in the lives of people around him.
By turns harrowing, moving and funny, but above all deeply human, this is a story that makes a case for transcendence and gratitude amid the troubles that intrude into ordinary lives.
The Redemption of Valerie Tolliver is now available as an Ebook.
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