A young boy finds himself pulled between his dedication to his small-town family and his fascination with the world beyond.
In this debut historical novel, Joe McDowell lives on a farm in the mountains of North Carolina, frustrated by his family’s worsening financial straits. The bank demands the loan on their property be repaid sooner, and Ted, Joe’s older brother, is drafted to fight the Nazis overseas, shorting them on labor. Then an accident leaves Joe’s Dad hobbled, unable to work efficiently, and Ruthie, Joe’s sister, is obliged to temporarily leave school despite being a stellar pupil. Martha, Joe’s mother, is compelled to take a job working at a local restaurant, and peddles vegetables in town.
When Martha learns that her mother has become gravely ill, she travels to Raleigh with Joe to visit her family, and he is enticed by a different world, one with tantalizingly rich cultural opportunities and the promise of escape from ceaseless poverty. His teenage sister, Katie, has already defected to city life, and while her selfish defiance irks him, he can’t help but also be drawn to an alternate destiny. Martha, too, feels it magnetism when a man from her past offers a reprieve from her family’s endless troubles. Eventually, Joe is forced to decide which realm he will inhabit, one that honors his obligations to his family’s generational business, or one that propels him into the exciting unknown.
In her book, Davidson Keller delicately portrays Joe’s burgeoning inner turmoil, haunted by what he sees as Katie’s betrayal, but also her salvation. The moment Joe finally tells his father he’s thinking of leaving the farm one day is rendered in heartbreakingly poignant language: “I walked along with him, feeling tired now. I had told him, and the relief was like dropping a huge sack of potatoes. I didn’t think I would change my mind, remembering the electric surge I got watching those boys at NC State.” And Martha’s tortured ambivalence is equally affecting, a confusion Joe detects and is terrified by. This is an unusually wise work, both sensitive and powerful.
A moving depiction of a family’s struggle to stay together.
Set during WWII in the North Carolina mountains, this novel chronicles life on the farm during trying times.
As the story opens, Joseph McDowell steals a coin from his mother’s purse, a guilty habit he’s indulged in for three years and one that gives the poor farm boy a glimpse of something more. He explains, “Coins hidden in an old sock rushed hope through my veins.” It is also his 11th birthday, but any happiness in the McDowell household is quickly shadowed by a letter from the Army drafting his oldest brother Ted. With Ted gone, there will be more work around the farm for Joe and his older sisters, Katie and Ruthie, and Joe worries that they will be unable to keep up.
But the troubles have just begun. Katie, 16 and fed up with life on the farm, rebels and the McDowell’s receive an ominous letter from the bank. Then, if the family weren’t troubled enough, a farming accident changes life dramatically.
This well-crafted story takes off from page one and moves steadily to the end, posing challenges to the family at seemingly every turn, but never becoming overdramatic or sappy. It delivers genuine characters, such as Joe’s mother Martha, stoic and strong, but with her own hopes and disappointments and a past she must ultimately confront. Likewise, the description is vivid; the scenes authentic. When the farm accident occurs, Joe is on the scene and reports, “Something smacked my face … Blood spurted … I vomited, gum and all, and thought I was glad I had my old boots on even though they pinched.”
Despite the family’s hard-scrabble existence, the depiction of honest and simple lives of a different era lend it a certain homespun charm. The author delivers a story sure to be enjoyed by a wide range of readers.
The best thing about Anne Davidson Keller’s EMPTY CHAIRS is its very strong sense of place. The book is set in North Carolina in the 1940s, and Keller vividly evokes that time and place without force-feeding the reader a great deal of detail to prove to us that she’s done her homework. (Since she’s from the area, perhaps not much homework was required. But she clearly—from her photo at least—isn’t remotely old enough to remember the period in such detail, so there must’ve been some research involved.) She manages to convey in a few elegant strokes the feeling of the place. Happily, her characterization is just as solid, and she provides for us in Joe McDowell a character who grows and changes and who we can root for. The dialogue is particularly sound, and I’m pleased that Keller doesn’t indulge much in dialect, which, when rendered on the page, can often become extremely irritating after a while. The prose is uniformly strong throughout, as is the book’s physical production and cover illustration. All said, this is a rather impressive debut book, and I’m happy at how easily the whole book goes down. It was uniformly a pleasure to read.