Robert Morgan's novel, GAP CREEK, is a masterpiece in poetic prose. His words splash across pages of dialogue and paint his characters in living color. He introduces Julie Harmon immediately through her voice, the dialect of an Appalachian girl at the end of the nineteenth century. Her speech is uneducated, but her words compel readers to listen and learn from her.
Julie reveals her background history in ordinary terms --- talk of life in North Carolina's mountains with little money and few amenities. She speaks with calm detachment of her little brother's suffering and death. Through Julie's actions, Morgan reveals deep and personal insight into the sturdy families that lived on the mountain.
When Hank Richards drives a wagon onto Harmon land, seventeen-year-old Julie's world changes. Following a brief courtship, they marry and leave the high ground for Gap Creek, South Carolina, where Hank finds work in a brickyard. They find lodging with a cantankerous old man who offers them free rent in exchange for Julie's housekeeping services.
The author paints an intimate picture of harsh conditions in their Gap Creek home. Morgan's insight into Julie's mind is an artful portrayal of a girl's innermost feelings. He writes strong female characters with ease, the brushstrokes of a skilled penman. When Julie describes her wedding night, it is with both girlish wonder and mature acceptance.
Misfortunes compound themselves on the newlyweds and test them continually. At times, the author heaps too much tragedy upon them for his readers to accept. But Julie, through heartache, strenuous work and growth into womanhood, demonstrates the gritty spirit of a survivor. She is the spiritual backbone of the family. She pushes ahead when times seem unbearable, through near-starvation, flood, fire, job loss and childbirth.
Morgan addresses moral issues when Mr. Pendergast, their landlord, dies after a house fire. Pendergast had hidden a small coin cache that Julie finds. They fall into abject poverty when Hank loses his job, and Julie must decide whether to use the old man's money for their survival.
Julie's outlook on life is simple, yet profound. After the death of her little brother, she observes, "There was nothing we could do about it, and nothing cared except Papa and me. The world was exactly like it had been and would always be, going on about its business."
Strong, yet capable of giddy emotion, Julie is the character that we admire most. When Hank slips into dark depression, Julie's instinct for survival gives them hope. Plain expression, panoramic descriptions, attention to minute detail and real human emotions are the lamps that light up GAP CREEK. Morgan's chronicle of one year of marriage is a fascinating story of both self and mankind.
Reviewed by Judy Gigstad on January 22, 2011