For a novel to immerse the reader in a specific place and time, so that the reader feels the blast of a furnace, smells the earth, and hears the cicadas is an accomplishment. When the author populates that place with characters rich in detail and life, the achievement deepens, and for that book to speak of human truths, and yet be superbly readable, moves it and its author to the level of classic. The Marrowbone Marble Company by Glenn Taylor is such a novel.
With the black and red ink and stark diving bird on the cover, I had anticipated a dense and intense novel, full of humanity’s darkness, impenetrable symbolism, and lyrical but complex writing. The Marrowbone Marble Company is something different. Like the place of its naming, the novel is something special, a breeding ground for truths that welcomes all comers.
Set in rural West Virginia between 1941 and 1969, The Marrowbone Marble Company trains a microscope lens on American society as it endures the shifts from WWII through McCarthyism and into the Civil Rights era. Taylor focuses his lens on one man, and the world he creates in the fictional Marrowbone Cut in the West Virginia hills.
In 1941, Loyal Ledford is a young man working for the Mann Glass Company. He takes tentative steps into a relationship with Rachel Ball, the plant nurse and granddaughter of the plant owner. “She was three years Ledford’s senior. She’d grown up easy in a big house on Wiltshire Hill. He’d grown up hard in a little one next to the scrapyard on Thirteenth Street West.” Ledford, who has cared for himself since becoming the only survivor when his father “killed his wife and oldest son when he fell asleep drunk at the wheel of his Model A Pickup” shows signs even at nineteen of dreams beyond the furnaces. While courting Rachel and working the swing shift, he has enrolled as a history major in a college where “those who surrounded him were not of his kind. They were the variety of young people who, when they got smart-lipped in high school, Ledford had punched in the mouth.”
The young Ledford keeps his own mouth shut most of the time, but when his future father-in-law’s bombast interrupts FDR’s radio address following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Loyal walks out and joins the Marines. In the Marines, Ledford meets “a hard Mac from Chicago named Erminio Bacigalupo. Erm, they called him. Nobody could tell whether Ledford and Erm liked or hated each other. In truth, neither could the young men themselves.” Ledford returns home from the Pacific with a lifelong and conflicted friendship with Erm and with more than a few of his own demons.
Settling down with Rachel to raise their daughter, Ledford at first vanquishes the nightmares with another monster, the alcoholism that killed his parents and brother, but a minister points him toward a mentor, a WWI veteran turned minister turned professor and philosopher. Don Staples introduces Ledford to writers and philosophers and the seed of the early Civil Rights movement.
Ledford’s own character resonates with a sort of pragmatic idealism that rejects intolerance or unfairness out of hand. Taylor also incorporates into his characters a slightly mystic belief in dreams and symbols that somehow adds to rather than detracts from the novel’s realism. The bulk of the novel takes place in a settlement formed at the Marrowbone Cut on land owned by Ledford’s cousins, Wimpy and Dimple Bonecutter.
Outside the Bonecutter brothers pointed to the land around them, the rising inclines on either side. The hollow, snaking north, fairly wide and cut by a stream, its endpoint the big camelback ridge… “This here,” Dimple said, swinging his hand at the earth below their feet, “all this here we call Marrowbone Cut.” Their grandmother had once told them why. She said that the soil was rich like marrow, and that the Lord had dug deep here, just for them to settle on.
Their mother said different. Everybody thought she was crazy. “This here Cut in the hills,” she used to tell them, “it ain’t from no God, and it ain’t for you. It’s for polecats and slugs, and it’ll swallow ever one of us that stays.”
“A dream visited Ledford that night…” In the dream, voices tell Ledford one message. “Make marbles.” From that dream, the Marrowbone Marble Company is borne. In a segregated South, Ledford hires Mack Wells, an African-American WWII vet also employed by Mann Glass, and the two embark with their families to the Marrowbone Cut. Over the next two decades, the Marrowbone Cut is home to dream and nightmare as the Ledfords, Wellses, and Don Staples gather a community around the marble company.
“In the Marrowbone, we find ourselves in struggles between our aspirations and occasional ascent into the heavens and the dark things that crawl within—our fears, prejudices, and violence. As the residence of the Cut set out traps for slugs and pepper to repel the cats, keeping the wilderness temporarily at bay, we set traps in our lives to contain the baser parts of ourselves.”
The one fault of the well-written literary novel is often that the exploration into the depths of the human condition produces a novel that is so intense as to be uncomfortable to read. Taylor, while never flinching from ugliness or tragedy, writes with a gentle touch, guiding the reader with compassion. The Marrowbone Marble Company is that perfect literary synthesis – a novel of depth and truth that touches at the core of what it means to be human, and yet possessed of a compelling and readable plot.
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