Book Title and Author: The Road to Bittersweet by Donna Everhart
Publication date and Publisher: December 26, 2017 by Kensington Books
Genre: Historical Fiction, Southern Fiction, Coming of Age
Pages: 352 pages
Buy on Amazon.com
Date Read: December 21, 2017 (e-ARC)
Set in the Carolinas in the 1940s, The Road to Bittersweet is a beautifully written, evocative account of a young woman reckoning not just with the unforgiving landscape, but with the rocky emotional terrain that leads from innocence to wisdom.
For fourteen-year-old Wallis Ann Stamper and her family, life in the Appalachian Mountains is simple and satisfying, though not for the tenderhearted. While her older sister, Laci—a mute, musically gifted savant—is constantly watched over and protected, Wallis Ann is as practical and sturdy as her name. When the Tuckasegee River bursts its banks, forcing them to flee in the middle of the night, those qualities save her life. But though her family is eventually reunited, the tragedy opens Wallis Ann’s eyes to a world beyond the creek that’s borne their name for generations. Carrying what’s left of their possessions, the Stampers begin another perilous journey from their ruined home to the hill country of South Carolina…
I can honestly say that The Road to Bittersweet is one of my favorite books of 2017, which I did not expect when I picked up this poignant, gem of a book. Donna Everhart is another new to me author this year but after reading The Road to Bittersweet, which is her 2nd book, I’ve already bought her first novel, The Education of Dixie Dupree as a Christmas gift for myself and am very excited to read more of her books.
Even though I was drawn to read The Road to Bittersweet because it’s historical fiction, I was mainly drawn to the book because it is southern historical fiction set in the very heart of my southern roots since even though I live right outside of Raleigh, North Carolina now, the hometown of the author, I grew up in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in East Tennessee.
But even more so, right in the heart of the North Carolina Appalachian Mountains, not too far from where the Stamper family call their home at Stampers Creek by the Tuckasegee River near Cashiers, North Carolina, is where my granddaddy was born and his family and kin have lived for well over two centuries, so I’ve always been captivated by the stories, art, songs, history, and the dialect of that region for most of my life. When I saw the gorgeous cover of the innocent girl holding a bunch of mountain wildflowers, sitting on the rough, wooden porch, her bare feet amongst the grass and dirt, such an idyllic contrast that speaks so perfectly of what I know of the way my granddaddy grew up, I felt compelled to read this book.
Oh, did I make the perfect choice in choosing this book..or did it choose me?! The story reminded me of home. And family. Reading the book was so comforting and exactly like closing my eyes and hearing beloved, yet long-lost voices speaking in the Appalachia cadence, imagining the taste of the familiar food the Stamper’s cooked in the book (that I’ve not tasted in several decades): beans, collards, and cornpone, but most of all, the characters of the Stamper family: 14-year-old Wallis Ann, 16-year-old Laci-a mute, musical savant, 3-year-old Seph, and their parents vividly reminded me of the hope, faith, and love that is so characteristic of the “mountain people” that I proudly can call my family, especially when facing the direst of circumstances. I don’t think a book has stirred me quite like this in a while since it hit me straight in the heart and soul in the most bittersweet yet loveliest of ways.
Everhart has written a book that is lyrical and reminiscent of Appalachian life in the 1940s. It’s highly engaging even though it is a slow read, but it is a read that must be savored with every page and although it is a slow read it never once gets boring. Everhart has written so vividly that the mountains come to life with the color of the fall leaves, you can feel the cold, aching bitterness of the winter freeze and snow, see the sun reflecting on the lake, and hear the sound of the birds chirping merrily in the background. Her prose is beautiful and haunting.
I’ve said in other reviews that I’m a reader who loves brilliant characterizations, the connections an author is able to weave from one character to another, and the way each character adds to the storyline most of all when reading a book. Yes, I love an excellent plot, but I want my characters to be ALIVE. I want them to talk to me, to make me feel everything they are feeling, to speak to me on more than a surface level. Indeed, Everhart has done this with her characters in a way that amazed me, especially since the story is told through the 1st person POV of young Wallis Ann, a girl who I thoroughly loved for her strength of character, courage, hope and even her insecurities.
Through Wallis Ann’s eyes, you feel her families hope, love, unity, strength of characters even when their struggles seem to go from just breaking their backs to survive to almost unbearable tragedy, they still hold on to their love for one another, endure, and never give up on their family. And, it is through Wallis Ann’s eyes that you feel connected to her sister, Laci, a beautiful girl so at odds from her sister who has been mute since birth, but hears the siren call of beautiful music and can play every single instrument she picks up….an “idiot savant” one doctor calls her. I admit I wept when Everhart wrote of Laci becoming lost in the magic of her music, of listening to Bach for the first time and playing every single note perfectly on her fiddle. Pure enchantment. I honestly think all the characters were so rich and vivid that I knew them well. The Stampers, Clayton, Joe, and his children are going to be impossible to forget.
This really is a coming of age story albeit not one you expect when you first begin to read it. And as the story goes on, you feel Wallis Ann mature and change. In truth, you are with her as she loses some of her innocence after making choices that set off a domino effect of events with dreadful consequences that will test her family’s faith to the limit. It’s a highly emotional read, very bleak at times, and there were several times that I sat and cried while reading the book. But the story is extremely realistic-there really was a flood that devastated that area of NC in 1940, and the characters are portrayed as highly believable, down to earth people.
This is just a beautiful book. I have to agree with my friend Annie@The Misstery when she wrote in her review of The Road to Bittersweet that the “novel truly felt like a journey.” It definitely was a journey for both the Stamper family who endured so much, and I think a journey for the reader as well who accompanies them along the way. I highly recommend this book for lovers of historical fiction and even readers who might be looking for a different kind of coming of age story with a lot of heart and soul.
**Thank you Edelweiss, Kensington Books, and Donna Everhart for an ARC copy to read in exchange for my fair and honest review.**