Thursday, October 22, 2015

Lum by Libby Ware

I recently listened as a few women lamented about some recent historical fiction titles they believed contained contrived plots and indistinguishable characters. That is certainly not the case with Lum. This debut novel set in the isolated mountains of Virginia during the Great Depression has an intricate plot and an absolutely original main character. Called “Lum” because her brothers couldn’t pronounce Columbia, the title character is shuttled among her relatives. When the novel opens, Lum and her carpetbag are dumped at a cousin’s where she’s relegated to live outside on a porch in a miniscule room with a narrow bed and a wisteria vine that’s broken through a windowpane. Lum cooks, cleans, takes care of babies and the elderly, and is treated like an unwanted servant. In her valise, she carries postcards and newspaper clippings of “freaks,” carnival folks including bearded ladies, a dog-faced girl, and Siamese Twins.

When Lum was eight she was diagnosed with an intersex condition and told she’d never marry. As a child, boys pulled up her clothing and reported that she had a “wiener, small like a baby,” that she was like a boy. Lum found consolation in the cards she bought from Smiley, an African-American junk and moonshine dealer, who’d first shown her a card of a snake woman when she was in high school. That card told her that “she wasn’t the only one who wasn’t normal. Born funny.” Only Smiley knew that she still collected the cards. Between her cards, her love of the babies she’s attended, and her outstanding skills as a cook, Lum gets by.

Lum’s life begins to change when she gets a job caring for a cantankerous banker who’s ill. Their mutual love of reading leads to friendship and Lum finds an ally who appreciates her cooking and her intellect. 

At the same time, the federal highway commission starts scouting for land including Lum’s family farm where they plan to build the Blue Ridge Parkway. Lum’s brothers and others in the community don’t want to sell. Confrontations turn violent. At the same time, the new highway brings visitors to town and Lum may finally have a way to support herself without reliance on her family.

Summing it Up: Lum is a captivating novel about outsiders, race, a little-known part of our history, and the power of self-acceptance and resilience. Libby Ware writes with a charismatic Southern voice that will appeal to readers of Ron Rash, Lee Smith, and Wiley Cash. I read Lum from start to finish in one day and relished its fresh characters and take on history.  Grab the paperback original or download the novel on your e-reader, select it for your book club, and get ready for a rip-roaring discussion.

Rating: 4 stars   
Category: Fiction, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Grits, Pigeon Pie, Book Club
Publication date: October 20, 2015
What Others are Saying:
Lum is an engaging portrait of a village in the Virginia Blue Ridge during the Great Depression. Lum’s courageous journey to selfhood is profound and moving, and a metaphor for the process of self-acceptance necessary for anyone who doesn’t fit into traditional social norms.”
—Lisa Alther, author of Kinfolks

“Libby Ware has written with a rich new southern voice and captured the dying art of storytelling in her debut novel.”
—Ann Hite, author of the award-winning Ghost on Black Mountain