Call for Music Critics and Essayists: If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by our quality readership.
Call for Music Critics and Essayists: If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by our quality readership.

Plant Life by Pamela Duncan

Let us not look back in anger or forward in fear, but around in awareness.
— James Thurber

Pamela Duncan says that there’s nothing more fascinating or revealing than listening to a group of women sitting around talking about their lives—talking about love and sex, marriage and divorce, parents and children, sickness and death, and occasionally even about work. That just begins to describe the broad range of subjects they might cover in one afternoon sitting on someone’s front porch or over a break from their jobs in the local mill.

These same topics fill the pages of her critically acclaimed first novel, Moon Women (Delacorte, 2001) and reappear in this, her second book, Plant Life, in which Duncan brings to life the people of a small mill town in rural North Carolina. With an ear attuned to the cadences of language and ebb and flow of small talk, with its intimacy, gossip, game-playing, and unsolicited advice, she creates a compelling story of the lives of ordinary people, and does so with compassion, familiarity, and honesty. There is a sense of urgency in this novel, for it explores a world of tightly knit families and small mills, many of which supply the life-blood of these communities, a world that is rapidly vanishing from the American landscape.

Like her central character Laurel Granger, 41-year-old Pamela Duncan grew up in the rural, small-town communities of western North Carolina (in the towns of Black Mountain, Swananoa, and Shelby) amidst the extended families and textile mills that make up the setting for Plant Life. Her father died in a car accident when Duncan was 10, but her mother and stepfather worked in the local mills and furnished her with the stories of theirs and their co-workers’ lives in the textile mill that sparked her own writing. When her stepfather was laid off from his job in the mid-’90s, Duncan soon got her first and harshest lesson in the economic realities of the late 20th century in America — companies are closing down production facilities in the States and moving them overseas to China or right across the border into Mexico (many believe a direct consequence of the United States’ participation in the NAFTA agreement). In North Carolina, workers in the textile industry have taken the brunt of the layoffs and have, as a consequence, suffered the most economically.

In Plant Life, the specter of a plant closing looms over the Revel Textile Mill in Russell, North Carolina, the hometown to which Laurel Granger has returned after 15 years away in the glitz of an almost other-worldly Las Vegas, Nevada. She’s dragging with her the baggage of a lifetime, a tinge of the once-pronounced southern accent she’s tried so hard to get rid of it, and the remnants of her now-disintegrated marriage. Through Laurel’s reentry into her former life, Duncan explores some of the critical issues that drove her to write this book in the first place, a central one being the debunking of the “If-you-work-hard-and-show-up-every-day-you’ll-have-your-job” myth. In the economic climate of the 21st century, that’s just not the case anymore, and it is the rural communities in small-town America that exemplify this stark reality.

Some of the other significant cultural themes that surface in this novel are ones that American writers and social critics have been wrestling with for at least the past 20 or 30 years: the disintegration of the family, the rising divorce rate, the seeming loss of traditional values, the human need for companionship, and reconciling the past with present realities. In the hands of a less skilled writer, a novel that examines these themes would quickly descend to the level of a Harlequin romance. In Duncan’s hands, however, each receives the sensitive treatment it deserves — without condescension and without sentimentality.

The contemporary American cultural landscape has seen a proliferation of memoirs about one family dysfunction after another — confessional television shows with hosts like Dr. Phil, Oprah, Jerry Springer, and Montel, and an explosion of “reality shows”, each more titillating than the one that came before it, all of them trying to satisfy our country’s thirst for tragedy and redemptive healing. It is refreshing, finally, to read a novel that explores some of today’s social realities and does so convincingly in the language of homespun wisdom. As one character tells us early on in the novel, “Sometimes it’s better to stay ignorant and not know what all else is out there in the world, what all you might like but won’t never get to know for yourself.” Sure, she’s proposing that ignorance really can mitigate the pain, but in the context of the world in which she has lived and died (hers is a voice from the past), sometimes that’s not such a bad thing.

In Plant Life, Duncan pays homage to the kind of small town she used to live in and still misses, but to which she knows she can never really return. Through the lives of her characters and the conversations they have, she reinforces the strength and resiliency of the human spirit, and offers up a sober antidote to the pervasive shrillness of “reality television”.