BookBrowse Reviews If the Creek Don't Rise by Leah Weiss

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If the Creek Don't Rise

by Leah Weiss

If the Creek Don't Rise by Leah Weiss X
If the Creek Don't Rise by Leah Weiss
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    Aug 2017, 320 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Sarah Tomp

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If the Creek Don't Rise is a bold debut about a dusty, desperate town finding the inner strength it needs to outrun its demons.

A chorus of voices tells this contemporary story from the mountain town of Baines Creek, North Carolina. Sadie Blue, a young pregnant teen, opens the novel in the midst of a beating by her moonshiner husband, Roy Tupkin. From the opening lines, life looks grim for Sadie, and, as it turns out, for many of Baines Creek's inhabitants.

As we hear from various members of this rough and gritty town, we see Sadie's situation through different perspectives. Her grandmother, Gladys, is a hard and gruff woman, due to a rough marriage and life much like the one Sadie seems destined for. Sadie's aunt Marris has a brighter perspective, though she too has experienced losses of her own. The town preacher, Eli Perkins, has seen Sadie's predicament too many times to be shocked, but he has his hopes set on the new schoolteacher, Kate Shaw, making a difference. Facing a daunting challenge, Kate is surprised to discover she feels at home here, despite the uncertain reception she receives from a community not used to outsiders.

Kate serves as a catalyst in Sadie's life. First, she begins teaching her to read and then asks for Sadie's help in the humble classroom. In a later chapter, Kate is there to help the medicine woman Birdie Rocas care for the teen after a particularly injurious beating from Roy. That experience spurs Sadie into action. Bolstered by her dead father's spirit and the song lyrics of Loretta Lynn, she is determined to change her fate.

Sadie's troubled relationship with Roy serves as the plotline, but it's the varying characters, each with his or her own needs and desires, that bring this small town to life. Their care and concern for Sadie speaks to her appeal, and the warmth of this town despite the hardships faced on a daily basis.The youngest, and most charming narrator is Tattler Swan, the medicine woman's assistant and fellow ginseng hunter. In addition to Sadie's kind-hearted supporters, we also see the darker underbelly of this place when we hear from the preacher's bitter and small-minded sister, Prudence, as well as the evil Roy and his moonshiner partner, Billy.

For readers of Appalachian literature, the characters here will be familiar, perhaps even stereotypical. Although there is authenticity; in my mind, their representations are of limited scope. As someone who has lived in Appalachia, I would have liked to see some of these common stereotypes to surprise me in some small way instead of simply filling their expected roles in the community.

Athough the message seems to be that the outsider, teacher Kate, incited change within this town, that idea was dropped toward the end, when the novel narrates Roy and Billy's story. They are not influenced by the new teacher—or even by the changes occurring within their community. In these chapters, even though Sadie is hinted at in the background, her story is not woven in as fully as I would have liked, which is surprising especially seeing as Sadie is the focal point at the novel's beginning.

Appalachian life is foreign even to most Americans. In many ways, it's easy to think the people of these mountains don't have much in common with the rest of the country. I worry that the novel's conclusion might leave readers' prejudices and stereotypes intact, rather than creating an appreciation and respect for a different pace of life while seeing commonalities in our humanity. That being said, the novel's clear and evocative prose ultimately creates a portrait of a town both beautiful and harsh. If the Creek Don't Rise transports readers to a specific time and place, where they can spend time with a variety of characters.

Reviewed by Sarah Tomp

This review was originally published in September 2017, and has been updated for the August 2017 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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