Book Review: Entangled Thorns by Melinda Clayton

In my review of Melinda Clayton’s book Appalachian Justice, I compared her writing to the great Flannery O’Connor.  If Flannery were alive today, she’d no doubt be reading Clayton’s latest book called Entangled Thorns and singing its praises.

In it, Clayton returns to Cedar Hollow again (think Faulkner’s fictional Yoknapatawpha County). Though the Platte clan from her previous books pay a visit, Clayton paints a portrait of a different family’s woes, that of the Pritchett family–a gun toting, moonshine making, crass bunch (white trash and proud) led by their heavy-handed and abusive patriarch, Junior.

The story focuses on his two daughters, Beth and Naomi, who escaped the clutches both their father and the mountain town had on them by catching a train to Memphis shortly after their brother Luke died. And they never looked back. Naomi became a famous writer. Beth married and had children of her own, but still suffers from the demons of the bottle thanks to her family upbringing which required the children to be taste-testers of the ‘shine until they turned 13.

When a hometown friend named Kay, also the owner of the only diner within fifty miles, writes to the two sisters to inform them their mother is dying and its time to make amends, the siblings plan a hesitant trip back to Cedar Hollow. Here, Beth and her own daughter, Marissa, face their own hardships, thirty year old family secrets are revealed, and the two sisters seek forgiveness with their aging mother.

Entangled Thorns is a gossipy grapevine of voices so true to small town backwoods and church pew chatter, but Clayton captures her characters’ voices perfectly.  The entire book is told in the first person point-of-view as chapters alternate between the voices of Beth, Naomi, their mother Geraldine, friend Kay, and Marissa.

It has the essence and Southern drawl of Cleo Threadgood sharing stories with Evelyn Couch in Fannie Flagg’s Whistle Stop Cafe.  We see the womanly bonds experienced amongst “steel magnolias” in the beauty shop of Truvy Jones.  And we bask in the strong settings that were built from mountain sunsets, frog gigging, creek fishing, ‘shine tasting, and cave dwelling that will have you reminiscing of a man named Mark Twain and the places he took his good ole boys Sawyer and Finn.

Most importantly, this is a book about family heritage – the strains from it we accept because they are in our blood and cannot be changed, the ghosts we ignore but who won’t go away, and the past we wish not to repeat when we start a family of our own. As the title suggests, we sometimes become so entangled in the lives of our parents – whether that be an abusive father or a passive mother – and we try so hard to forget where we came from, that instead we forget who we are.  And that’s the beauty of a book like this, or any of Mrs. Clayton’s books for that matter.  It reminds us who we are.

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