It is the eternal southern gothic truth, and it sounds like a rotten spoiler. It tests the stuff of any southern writer. It is a defining symbol of the genre as stated by Jerry Leath Mills of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who started collecting data points on the topic in 1964. Most like to attribute the final part of the quote to William Faulkner, but that is a myth. Here it is, in Jerry’s words:
“My survey of around 30 prominent 20th-century southern authors has led me to conclude … that there is indeed a single, simple, litmus-like test for the quality of southernness in literature, one easily formulated into a question to be asked of any literary text and whose answer may be taken as definitive, delimiting and final. The test is: Is there a dead mule in it?”
Lightningstruck, by Ashley Mace Havird, deftly throws the mule (in this case a horse) on its side and makes it get back up again. And become a symbolic stalker.
Havird’s resulting book is a fine example of one perspective of diverse southern culture. In it, a young girl comes of age in a largely sheltered environment during the Civil Rights era. I read the book as primarily a story of a girl gaining awareness instead of historical fiction focused on a specific era, however, the turbulent time in which it takes place does factor seriously in the development and life of the central character, Etta. Etta makes discoveries that lead to her greater understanding of history, but they are not all discoveries specific to the time of the story itself. Etta is a child-archeologist, literally and figuratively.
I think it is important for readers from outside the region to know that Havird’s story, although important and skillful and beautiful, is not definitive. I have yet to read any in the southern literary canon that could be classified as such. Life in the south is too layered, diverse and complex for rigid taxonomy. There are many, many stories of that era and others that are left to tell, and I hope that Havird’s work will encourage readers to explore the fullness of the genre. Havird is not a writer from the south. She is a southern writer. Two very different things.
The story takes place over a period of about twenty days, with two brief flashbacks, and the first sentence will knock you out of your saddle. Etta’s horse, Troy, is literally lightning struck. He comes back burnt clean and half blind, and I am not ashamed to say I would have shot him in the head while he was down. But this is not my story.
The story takes place over a period of about twenty days, with two brief flashbacks, and the first sentence will knock you out of your saddle.
Troy’s ugliness and ill temper haunt Etta, making her question her thoughts and actions, and she feels like she is under constant observation. She believes the horse knows she has wished him dead (I did for a while). The horse’s persistent ogling and harassment made me think of Flannery O’Conner’s “Greanleaf,” and Etta’s struggle to understand life as it exists reminded me of The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers—two (non definitive) examples of southern literature at its finest.
The reader cannot ignore the horse’s name—Troy—alongside Etta’s desire to dig into the past, and there is a tie to the ancient in the tale. To say that Troy is simply the Trojan horse would be too obvious a statement and too obvious a story device for Havird’s talent. The horse serves as a means of revealing the unknown, although to Etta the truth is often like an ambush. As a reader, I was conflicted about the use of this name. Is he a Trojan horse? The answer might just be that he’s unclassifiable.
The themes of curiosity, fear, social change and guilt permeate this novel, the winner of Mercer University’s 2016 Ferrol Sams Award for Fiction. Ashley Mace Havird spoke with us about “Lightningstruck” and other aspects of her work earlier this month.
Ashley Mace Havird grew up on a tobacco farm in South Carolina. Her debut novel, Lightningstruck (Mercer University Press, 2016), won the 2015 Ferrol Sams Award and was named an Editor’s Choice by the Historical Novel Society. She has published three collections of poems, including The Garden of the Fugitives (Texas Review Press, 2014), which won the 2013 X. J. Kennedy Prize. Her poems and short stories have appeared in many journals including Shenandoah, The Southern Review, and The Virginia Quarterly Review, as well as in anthologies such as The Southern Poetry Anthology, IV: Louisiana, Hard Lines: Rough South Poetry, and the forthcoming Nasty Women Poets, An Unapologetic Anthology of Subversive Verse. She and her husband, the poet David Havird, were writers-in-residence at the Chautauqua Institution in July 2017. Visit Ashley at ashleymacehavird.com.