Okay maybe a lil' skeert.
I hope that Cathy over at MotH won't mind if I step into her territory a bit and review something other than a “social history” book. Heck Cat, may even want to give this one a read and a review herself.
While touring around the Net scrounging for bits of Appalachian interest I came upon author, Scott Nicholson's official website, The Haunted Computer. Scott is a North Carolinian of the Appalachian variety who specializes in the Horror genre but is not limited to writing just horror novels. Scott is also a journalist and essayist, having studied at both Appalachian State and UNC-Chapel Hill.
Nicholson's latest novel, The Home is the fourth in his horror series and like the other works is set in the Appalachian region. Even those of us who number Appalachia among the most wonderful regions on earth, have to admit that the hills can be down right creepy. Not like that is a bad thing, and for Nicholson it is a natural choice.
The story of The Home revolves around the pitiful life of twelve-year-old Freeman a troubled ward of the state. The story begins with Freeman , who had been used as a human lab rat by his father, entering Wendover a home for disturbed and unwanted youth. The Mengelian experiments of his father, besides leaving Freeman emotionally scarred have also left Freeman with acute ESP powers. A character with ESP opens up some very interesting possibilities for narrative and plot.
Unfortunately for Freeman and the other children at Wendover, “Dad” is not the only psychotherapist interested in “revolutionary” treatments and the experimentation necessary to “perfect” such treatments. Freeman, a Clint Eastwood obsessed pre-teen is thrust into the role of the unhappy champion of the weak, with the help of the pretty but bulimic, Vicky and Starlene Rogers the pure spirited counselor. Freeman soon learns that the treatments are not only affecting the current residents but the inmates from Wendover's past as a state mental hospital.
In The Home, Nicholson has brought together two of the saddest institutions in our society: children's homes and mental hospitals. I can remember visiting my uncle as boy when he was the head administrator of a children's home. Unlike the fictional Wendover, it was bright and modern, but shine and gloss could not overcome the bittersweet feeling one got from visiting with these children. On the one hand I has happy and proud that my near messianic uncle and the staff where there to love and care for the children, but I couldn't shake the pity I felt for the horrible situations that had brought them to the facility. Later when this same uncle was a psychologist working at mental health centers and a state hospital, he described with great sadness his tour through an abandoned section of the hospital that still had iron shackles bolted to its walls. Innocent are the children and the fools so that a reader (with any empathy at all) can be easily moved in such settings.
Nicholson also takes some risks but does not overstep the boundaries. Partly for the reasons mentioned above, I am very critical of authors or film makers who use children as a cheap trick in order to easily pluck the heart strings of the audience. Any hack can get a reader's attention by harming or killing a child. One also has to be careful of putting children in adult situations. One reason that this is not such a problem in The Home is the special abilities that Freeman and many of the other children exhibit. This makes Freeman and Vicky seem less like ordinary children. Undoubtedly, their harsh lives up until the time of the story also can account for their very adult behavior. The plot elements of the story likewise, allows Nicholson to deal with the matter of their romantic involvement in an unusual but traditional manner. Shakespeare would approve.
I am also very pleased with the development of Starlene Rogers, the adult in the story who acts as the main protagonist support. Starlene is a solid representation of a lower-middle-class, educated Appalachian. Starlene exhibits the best qualities of the modern Hillbilly. Nicholson takes pains to ensure that the reader knows that Starlene is an intelligent person endowed with common sense. In one exchange in chapter twenty, the “not so mad scientist” Kracowski states that Starlene is not a fool like the administrator, Bondurant. Starlene's traditional Christian Appalachian beliefs are held in counter weight to Bondurant's views which seem to be more representative of the newer less “Christian” Christianity. Her faith in God is absolute but her understanding not so rigid or narrow that new information can threaten that faith. Indeed she is working at the home, because she is a Christian.
Some may argue that the setting is not very Appalachian and with just a few name changes could be set in most any rural area in America. They would be be exactly right and that is one of the things I like about this novel. We should be able to get to a point where novels or movies can be set in Appalachia without having to wallow in the Appalachian-ness. Appalachia should be able to host stories like any other region or city. I can only hope that Nicholson is paving the way for a sitcom based in West Virginia that doesn't necessarily have anything to do with moonshine or coal mining.
Give Nicholson a try. The quality of the writing is as good or better than many of the most popular writers and he is certainly creative. In The Home you get horror, spy-thriller, science fiction and teen romance all in the same package.