At turns poetic and gritty, Robert Morgan's Gap Creek is a stunning follow-up to his critically acclaimed novel, The Truest Pleasure. Widely regarded as the poet laureate of Appalachia, Morgan captures the spirit of this wilderness territory he knows so well.
As the New York Times Book Review said, "Morgan is among the relatively few American writers who write about work knowledgeably, and as if it really matters... You begin to feel, as you sometimes do when reading Cormac McCarthy's or Harry Crew's early novels, that the author has been typing with blood on his hands and a good deal of it has rubbed off onto your shirtsleeves... His stripped-down and almost primitive sentences burn with the raw, lonesome pathos of Hank Williams' best songs."
A must for fans of Cold Mountain, Gap Creek is an Appalachian story. It is also the story of a marriage — the story of a couple's first year. Julie and Hank can't keep their eyes off each other when they move to Gap Creek, just across the South Carolina line from their homes near Flat Rock, North Carolina. In Gap Creek they must forge a relationship while being tested by every imaginable act of God.
In the end it takes a flood é an apocalyptic, hell-bent water that nearly kills them both é to right their world and help them discover the survivors and the lovers within.
A native of the North Carolina mountains, Robert Morgan was born in Hendersonville, and raised on land settled by his Welsh ancestors. He currently lives in Freeville, NY and teaches at Cornell University.
Since 1969, Morgan has published four books of fiction, including The Hinterlands (1994) and The Truest Pleasure (1995) named a Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year and a New York Times Notable. He has published nine volumes of poetry and has published poems in such magazines as The Atlantic Monthly, The New Republic, Poetry, The Southern Review, The Yale Review, The Carolina Quarterly and The New England Review.
Additional awards and honors include four NEA Fellowships, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Fellowship, the North Carolina Award for Literature, the James G. Hanes Poetry Award from the Fellowship of Southern Writers, the Jacaranda Review Fiction Prize, and inclusion in New Stories From The South and Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards.
Because I was born in October I was kept back from school for a year. There was no Kindergarten in those days, so my mother taught me to read at home. Every morning we sat by the fireplace and read from the Dick and Jane primer. Neither of my parents had much formal education, but they read to my sister Evangeline and me every night. I sat on one of my dad's knees and she sat on the other and we listened to him read storybooks she brought from school, as well as Mother Goose, and stories from the Bible.
My parents were very devout, and they required us to read from our Testaments every day. My first reading on my own was probably Farmer Boy and the Little House on the Prairie books. But I didn't really fall in love with books until the Henderson County Bookmobile began coming to Green River Baptist Church the first Monday afternoon of every month around 1957 or 58. The bookmobile was an old utility truck fitted out with shelves. I checked out Jack London's Klondike stories and James Oliver Curwood's Royal Canadian Mounted Police stories, and raced through them in the dim light of my bedroom on rainy days, and after the milking and other work was done.
From London and Curwood I moved on to Dickens and read Oliver Twist and David Copperfield. I saw Tolstoy's War and Peace advertised in the Sears and Roebuck catalog as "the greatest novel ever written." When I spotted the huge volume in the bookmobile at the age of fourteen I checked it out. Never had I been so possessed by a book before. For weeks I lived in Imperial Moscow and on the Napoleonic battlefields. Tolstoy showed me a richness and depth of characterization, and a range of experience I'd never dreamed of before. Soon after that a Friend's brother who had gone off to college sent him a copy of Crime and Punishment and I read that with equal fascination. They were spiritual books, and epic stories.
My first writing was done in the sixth grade for a teacher named Mr. Ward. One day the rest of the class was visiting the Biltmore House near Asheville. The cost was three dollars, which I did not have. Rather than let me sit idle in the classroom all day, Mr. Ward told me to write a story. Knowing I liked the Jack London stories so much, he suggested I write about a man lost in the Canadian Rockies, describing how he found his way back to civilization. I worked on the story all day, and got so involved with the plot and character I was surprised when the rest of the class returned at the end of the day.
Over the years since I've had so many favorite authors it would be hard to list them all. But in recent years I've especially enjoyed reading the work of contemporaries, especially Southern and Appalachian writers such as Fred Chappell, Cormac McCarthy, Lee Smith, Doris Betts. And I especially admire authors who write honestly about rural life, such as Thomas Hardy, and those who write about Native American life such as Louise Erdrich and Jim Welch. A story that has meant a lot to me over the years is Alice Walker's Everyday Use.
But I also love reading biography and history, especially regional history. I always recommend to young writers that they read history. You only learn to write by writing, as you learn to play tennis by playing, but reading widely and intensely helps also.
© 2000 Robert Morgan
It rained all day, never a lashing, harsh rain, but a steady rain that filled every bucket and tub and sinkhole. The yard looked like a garden growing necks and blossoms of splash. The road looked like a creek, and the creek was running wild and red and wide as a river. Floodwater appears angry because it's dirty and goes where you don't expect to see water. All the ice on the mountain had melted far up as I could see. "The barn is leaking," Hank said when he come in from milking.
"No wonder," I said.
And when I started to make supper, lighting a fire in the stove and grinding up some of the chestnuts by gathered by Hank and Carolyn to make chestnut bread, I heard a plop in the corner of the kitchen. I took the lamp and looked and seen a puddle on the floor. I raised the lamp and seen a nipple of water stretching from a wet spot on the ceiling. Wasn't nothing to do but put a dishpan under the drip and mop up the mess on the floor. Before I got the chestnut bread mixed and in the oven, I heard another drip and got a bucket and put under that. And while I was getting the bread and grits and applesauce and sidemeat on the table, I seen the wet streaks coming down the wall behind the stove. It was leaking around the flue. It looked like the whole house was going to melt.
"Not supposed to come a flood on Christmas," Hank said when we set down to eat. "Nobody ever heard of a flood on Christmas."
"That's because we've always lived on mountaintops before," I said. And even as I said it I thought how narrow the Gap Creek valley was and how steep the ridges on both sides. We was below all the water that was falling on the mountains. All the rain on the mountains had to gather down into the slender valley.
"It just means we never had to worry about floods because we lived on the ridge," I said.
I don't reckon Hank had thought about floods in Gap Creek until then. We had moved there in early fall when it was dry. The little creek had behaved itself, staying in the bed of rocks that run like rough cobblestones between the fields and woods, twisty as a playful kitten. I could see by the look on his face how he thought for the first time of the narrowness of the valley and how close the house was to the creek.
"We are a good ways back from the creek," I said.
"Not far enough," Hank said.
I had hoped we would be feeling some Christmas cheer, but instead a wet, gray gloom had descended over us.
"If the creek rises we could climb up the mountain tomorrow and visit Mama and my sisters," I said.
"If the creek rises we won't be able to get out of the house without a boat," Hank said. He said it like he was talking about the end of the world. He said it like Ma Richards would have said it, like there was no hope anywhere.
"This house has been here a long time," I said. "It must have seen a lot of floods and not washed away yet."
But Hank didn't answer. He buried his face between his hands.
"Do you think we might ought to go on up the mountain tonight?" I said.
"We can't leave the horse and cow here," Hank said.
"We can take the horse," I said. "And we can leave the cow if we have to."
"I don't think anything but a fish could travel in this rain," Hank said.
When I went out to the back porch to get water to wash the dishes, it was raining hard as ever. In the dark you couldn't see nothing but lamplight shining on falling drops. It was like the air was sheets and curtains of falling water. Rain was coming down in ropes and clots and tattered rags of water. It felt like the sky was falling and the weight of the rain was pushing everything down to the ground, down the hill, down the valley.
After I finished the dishes and went to set in the living room, we listened to the rain drumming on the roof. The rain was harder and faster now. It sounded like an army marching over our heads, and it sounded like millstones rubbing each other. I heard a drip and seen water splash right on the hearth. It was leaking around the chimney. Hank got the ash bucket to put under the drip. "This house is going to fall apart like cardboard," he said.
"It is not," I said, trying to sound like the rain was a little thing. But looking out from the back porch into the steady rain had unnerved me too. In the dark it was like some force was coming out of the sky to drown us in the mud and flood. Whoever thought of an evil force coming from the sky? But it was like the air was threatening to smother us and crush us.
To work against the gloom I got up and lit the candle on top of the Christmas tree. The tree stood in the corner pointing up toward where all the rain was coming from. I thought of a description I had heard of the host of fallen angels being throwed out of heaven. The air was full of black angels falling in the dark, thick as snowflakes. Crowflakes, I thought. But the lighted candle pointed upward.
"We ought to sing some Christmas carols," I said. I thought if we sung it would make us feel better. Hank always loved to sing. It would make me feel better to hear his fine baritone voice.
"I can't remember any Christmas carols," Hank said.
"I don't believe that," I said. "You know all the Christmas carols." I started humming "Silent Night" and then begun singing it. But Hank didn't join in. I sung the first verse and stopped.
"We should have an organ," I said.
"We couldn't even afford a mouth harp," Hank said.
"I wish you had kept your banjo," I said.
"Ma made me give it up when I got saved," Hank said.
"You'll have to get another one," I said.
Hank looked toward the front door and fear come on his face.
"What is it?" I said.
He pointed to the door and I seen a tongue of black water reaching over the threshold. It was the shape of a bib spreading on the floor.
"It's just water from the porch," I said.
"That is the creek coming into the house," Hank said.
"Put something under the door," I said. I run to get an old blanket from the bedroom and stuffed it along the bottom of the door, the way you would stop a draft. Water soaked through the blanket quick.
"Won't do no good," Hank said.
"What will?" I said. We couldn't open the door, for that would only let in more rain. Rain must be blowing right across the porch, I thought. But all I heard was steady rain on the roof.
"Nothing," Hank said. I looked at him, and listened. And then I heard the lips sound, the kissing sound and sucking that rising water makes when it touches a building or rock wall.
"You mean that's creek water?" I said. Gap Creek had rose out of its banks and crossed the road. In the dark it had reached into the yard and licked against the porch, then swirled up onto the boards of the porch and was now pouring under the door. Hank looked so worried I felt sorry for him. I tried to think of something to stop the water from coming into the house. I grabbed a lamp and run to look at the back door, for I thought it was lower than the front. But I had only took one step into the kitchen when my foot hit something thick. There was splash and I seen water already standing on the kitchen floor.
I lowered the lamp to look at the water and seen pieces of kindling floating around under the table. And there was cans and bottles floating, and a cardboard box with some pinecones. Even as I looked I could see the water rising, washing in little tides across my feet. I turned to run back to the living room where Hank stood by the fireplace, leaning against the mantel.
"There's water already in the kitchen," I said.
"It'll put out the fire in a minute," he hollered.
Sure enough, water seeping under the front door had spread across the living room to the hearth. When it rose another inch it would be in the fireplace and the fire would go out in smoke and steam. I tried to think of some way to protect the fire, to build a wall around the hearth. There wasn't no way.
© 2000 Robert Morgan
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- Gap Creek is, among other things, a story about two people facing the turn of the century and the onrushing modern world. Julie and Hank sometimes seem confused and intimidated by the changes happening to them and to their community. How does the modern world look through their eyes? As you begin the 21st century, do you share any of the uncertainty they experience as they began the 20th? How do they overcome that uncertainty?
- According to The New York Times, "Morgan is among the relatively few American writers who write about work knowledgeably, and as if it really matters." People say Julie works "Hard as a man." At the beginning of the novel, is she happy to be doing all that hard work? How does her relationship with work change over the course of the novel? After reading the slaughtering scene, will you ever look at a hog the same way again?
- What does Hank think it means to be a man? How does this explain his behavior with Julie? Why does he come undone when the creek floods? Even if you are appalled by his behavior then, can you understand it?
- Julie is often visited by visions and portents. Do you believe she is actually seeing these things or are there other explanations? Is a world of portents, signs, and visions frightening to Julie, or does it give her a weird sort of strength? What does she learn from the vision that comes to her when she's sick? Why does she ask the man in her vision, "What kind of dream am I dreaming?"
- What does it mean to Julie that, after she witnesses the death of her little brother, she sees that "the moon was shining above the trees and the woods was peaceful"?
- Can you tell that Robert Morgan is a poet? Is there anything different about the way he uses language, compared with other novelists? How does he represent Julie's way of speaking? Hank's? What kind of place is Gap Creek? What is the mood of that place, those hills and valleys? How does Morgan use descriptive language to build that mood?
- Julie and Hank fall victim to con artists more than once, each in their own separate way. What is it about Julie that makes her vulnerable? What about Hank? How does Morgan use these grifters to advance his themes, particularly this theme about the modern world?
- What does Ma Richards represent to Julie? Why does she aggravate Julie? What motivates Ma Richards é jealousy or love?
- Faith is important to Julie and Hank, and yet for a long time they never go to church. Why? How are they changed by faith? Describe the different ways that Hank and Julie experience God.
- Consider this, from Homer's The Odyssey: "...For nothing is greater or better than this, when a man and wife dwell in a home in one accord, a great grief to their foes and a joy to their friends; but they know it best themselves." Do Julie and Hank ever achieve this state of grace in their marriage? When, and how?
- Will Julie and Hank survive?
"Morgan is among the relatively few American writers who write about work knowledgeably, and as if it really matters"
— The New York Times Book Review "An ideal example of a regional tale: free of "local color," respectful of his people, entirely free of condescension, Morgan offers a gliding, unhurried story of sufferings and hope that is simple and tagged, but never seems alien. This couple'' relentless misfortunes are given no more drama than they need, and all the compassion they deserve."
— Kirkus Reviews Review "Morgan is a writer with perfect emotional pitch, knowing how to keep the sorrow and job of his characters on a human scale."
— The Ithaca Times Review "Haunting, lyrical prose sustains the book and redeems its material, which seems to flow from page to page like sorrowful mountain music." — American Way Review "Praise to Morgan for his literary accomplishment. What a wonderful gift book it would make."
— State, Columbia, SC Review "The ordinary folk of Appalachia are Morgan's subjects, and here he offers another compassionate tale of poor people enduring brutal working lives and harsh deprivations with stoic dignity."
— Publisher's Weekly Review "In the novel's final pages, Morgan's sentences begin to cut to the bone.I wanted to cry uncle and go bury this novel in my backyard, someplace where it wouldn't slip into my dreams. I couldn't take it anymore, and I mean that as a compliment."
— The New York Times