Tall Houses in Winter – Doris Betts

(No copy of the cover for this one – so a picture of the author will have to do.)
I have a small affection for North Carolina authors – especially when their stories are set in my backyard. There’s something about reading a work of fiction and fully understanding the small town dynamics, the connections between people, and the mutual love of place that heightens the literary sensation. As a bookslut, I’m all about heightened sensations.

When I was in undergrad, I often heard talk of Doris Betts. Going to UNC and being involved in the creative writing program made it impossible to not know the woman’s name and influence. I picked up The Sharp Teeth of Love (1997) one day when the Bulls Head was having a sale in the pit. (I loved those sales -tables and tables of books, discounted to the point of thievery. I missed many a class due to those sales.) I fell head over heels in love with the novel, mainly because of the role UNC’s campus played. There was something special about sitting on a bench by the Old Well reading about Luna’s feelings of leaving the campus and the Old Well behind.

“They drove the loaded van on one last ceremonial sweep through the green and blooming Carolina campus, up the hill behind Kenan Stadium between gaudy azaleas, past the functional ugly new library and the handsome old one, then slowly by the Old Well-university trademark-surrounded now by pink crab apples. The scene filled up her passenger window to its edges like a colored slide, and then clicked out. Luna, who had sketched several views of this scene for U.N.C. stationery, said, “Did you know they built the Old Well to look like the Temple of Love in the Garden of Versailles?”
“Nope,” said Steven. But he was in a good mood and yanked her toward him to demonstrate. “Good-bye South Building,” he said with false gaiety as he braked lightly for every stop sign along Cameron Avenue. “Good-bye Memorial Hall and Peabody and Swain.” Across the flourishes of his too-white hand he gave Luna a speculative look to see if she was still indulging in advance homesickness.
“Good-bye Franklin Street,” he said more softly.”

It was an excellent opening that hooked this Carolina girl.

I recently acquired through library sales Betts’s first novel, Tall Houses in Winter (1957). While UNC does not factor into the novel, the setting of Stoneville instantly captivated me. What captivated me most, however, was the character of Ryan Godwin – a Stoneville native who made good and escaped to the North. An academic, Ryan teaches at an all girls college in Massachusetts. He returns home, the prodigal, because he’s dying of cancer – a secret he keeps to himself. The opening of the novel reminds me of how I feel sometimes about Gates County:
“He had always said the only he would ever come back to Stoneville would be in a pine box, one of the plain rough-hewn frontiers kind, so that people seeing it unloaded at the train station might just once, just briefly, wonder if there were other more vigorous lives being lived in other places than this one.”

The story itself is simple in plot. Ryan is the youngest of three – Asa is his spinster older sister – she’s in love with the reverend, but she’s spent so much of her life molding herself into being the business-minded son their father wanted and hiding sentiment, that she is simply an angry old lady. Avery, the slightly dim-witted brother spoke nearly entirely in clichés, played the organ at church, and managed to marry Jessica, the only love of Ryan’s life. Asa was pleased with the marriage – her life is controlled by the acceptance of others and the appearance of the Godwin family is of the upmost importance to her. Ryan and Jessica begin an affair that is mostly done through letter writing and brief moments of passion when he comes home for the holidays. The only one in the beautiful Godwin house who is aware is Lady Malveena, the black house keeper who pretty much raised Ryan. She’s very Mammy-like in nature and she’s the only one who understands what exactly is happening in that house.

A son is born, Fen, and not knowing if Fen is his eats away at Ryan. Jessica angrily tells him that Fen is not his. She will not leave Avery; she will not put that stain on the family name or the boy. She says he may biologically belong to Ryan, but Avery is the child’s father. Ryan is enraged. This woman loves him, may have carried his child, but she is too concerned with the thoughts of those in Stoneville, with what Asa and Avery would say, to act on her love and ensure a happiness. Avery and Jessica are killed in a car accident when Fen is two and the boy is left with Asa. Ryan runs from them all, which is fine with Asa who realizes what had been going on in her house and thinks it a skeleton best left to collect dust in the closet. The prospect of death, a decade later, brings him home.

Mixing the past with the present, Betts details a heartbreaking story of life and love in a small town. There are no easy answers, no truly happy endings. It’s life realized – a true peek behind those picket fences of the respectable. One of the themes that is carried throughout the novel is the homecoming – the reasons we leave, the reasons we have to come back. Thomas Wolfe would be proud.

Doris Betts is a very fine example of a North Carolina author we should be ever so proud to embrace. Born in 1932, this former UNC creative writing professor has been lauded for many more years than I’ve been alive. Her list of awards and fellowships is extensive, but one should not base the quality of her work on these alone – I suggest picking up a book by Betts and allowing yourself to fall face first into small town North Carolina.

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