Swallowing the Dirt: Laird Hunt’s Neverhome
“I was strong and he was not, so it was me went to war to defend the Republic…We talked on it for months before I went. I think both of us knew from the start where the conversation was wending but we talked on it, took it every angle, sewed at it until the stitch stayed shut…I was to go and he was to stay…We were about the same size but he was made out of wool and I was made out of wire.”
Sometime during the Civil War, Constance Thompson leaves her husband Bartholomew at their family farm in order to fight for the North. She’s dressed as a man and will maintain this disguise throughout the war and most of the book. She becomes Ash Thompson, seasoned soldier and trusted sniper, sharp-edged and raw enough to repel any suspicions of her fellow soldiers.
It’s a world in which someone has to be strong and that role falls upon Ash. Aware that her identity is a thing that must be hidden, she takes on the qualities of the men around her in order to be valued. She ‘passes.’ She passes with others until she begins to pass to herself. Later in the book, she’s called upon to pretend to be a woman and by that point it is a pretense. She’s become Ash and can only find Constance in memory.
With that necessity for strength comes much loss. Laird Hunt allows Ash to tell her story in her own laconic way. Through unnamed battles in unnamed states and stolen moments of stillness, she recounts her travels, writing a letter home to Bartholomew when she has the chance. It’s a world of blood, boredom, hunger, and dirt.
The battles here are hand to hand, in the mud and brambles. There’s nothing surgical or noble about them. They’re gutwrenching exercises requiring Ash to kill teenagers, old men, whoever falls before her in the line of battle, and to kill them close and dirty.
What happens when we stray so far from home that we know we can never go back yet the memory retains its pull?
What happens when we stray so far from ourselves that we feel there’s nothing to come back to? When the fading image and a deep longing of self and home is all we have left?
We often deal with loss by pretending we’ve lost nothing. We ‘stay strong.’ Survivors of horrific catastrophes may recount their ordeals in a calm and objective manner. Perhaps they simply can’t afford to re-live them or perhaps they realize the impossibility of conveying the horror and the living with that horror after.
Sometimes the horror of the past is made more manifest, not by a slurry of words, but by simple confession: I can’t smell magnolia without wanting to throw up, I can’t hear certain words without crying. In this way we come to see the deep scar tissue left behind by the past.
One of the secrets of Neverhome lies in Ash’s voice. It’s in the ways she tells us things; in the things she doesn’t tell us and the ways she doesn’t tell us. Hunt has crafted a character who speaks to us directly and is absolutely compelling while remaining mysterious. Many of Ash’s conflicts and decisions we never see. She is ‘being strong’. What we do see are the effects, both in her and the world around her.
Ash tells us what has happened to her, the things she’s done but there’s always the sense something may be left out, not because she doesn’t wish to confess but because she doesn’t quite know it herself. One of the beauties of the novel is in the way we come to understand things about her she cannot quite confront. Neverhome gets under the skin of her life to the blood and bone, to the things she struggles to hold and the things she can’t accept as lost.
Slowly revealing itself with the inexorable power of a murder ballad, Neverhome allows us intimacy with a woman who has passed for so long she’s not sure she has a self left and it provides us a window into a pysche shattered by killing.
In a touching scene which Ash recounts almost without comment, she receives a letter from Bartholomew. Wanting to remind her of their life together, he has sent her feathers and keepsakes in the past. This time, it’s a thimbleful of dirt from their farm. Trembling as she reads the letter, she swallows the dirt, but that dirt rides hard in her stomach ever after as who she was and where she came from slowly fades.
“There is shelter and then there is the idea of shelter. Shore up under the second all you want. You still get wet.” !
STEVE MITCHELL’S short story collection, The Naming of Ghosts, is published by Press 53. He has a deep belief in the primacy of doubt and an abiding conviction that great wisdom informs very bad movies. He’s co-owner of Scuppernong Books in Greensboro, NC.