Searing Secrets

Review of Familiar Ground By Suzanne Freeman.
The Washington Post Book World, November 23, 1984

It all happened 40 years ago in a Tennessee town. A gun went off. A house caught fire. And, in the rubble, a man lay dead. One woman, now nearly a hundred years old, knows all the secrets about that night -- secrets that involve two brothers, a shiny revolver, an innocent child. And this old woman, frail and fading, knows, too, that at last the time has come to spill those powerful secrets. If this whole story sounds familiar somehow -- well, then Elizabeth Cox has done her job well. Because the point she makes in her first novel is that most new stories we hear, especially the ones about disasters, turn out to be stories we've known all along. They are built right into our bones. And in every new place we visit, there is territory that's already etched on our souls -- strange territory that turns out to be familiar ground. Cox's hero, Jacob Bechner, has had a glimmering of this fact since he was a small boy and traveled on car trips through the South with his family. Every now and then, passing a certain piece of land, a clearing in the trees, Jacob would feel that it was a place he recognized, a place he'd been before. "Not de'ja vu so much, not a trick the mind plays because the place where memory is stored goes faster than what is happening in the present, but a knowledge that is deeper than anything learned so far in life."

Now, at age 60, Jacob has learned a lot more about life, but there are certain things that still elude him. What he most needs to know -- and is terrified to hear -- is the truth about what happened, 40 years ago, on the night of the fire. He has come back home to Sweetwater, Tenn., to meet with the old woman, Callie, and find out her secrets. Because the man who died in that burning house was Jacob Bechner's brother, Drue. And all that Jacob remembers is that he was there at Drue's house when the fire broke out and he was holding a gun and that his brother's mouth was open, "as though he wanted to sing" just before he fell down dead.

Elizabeth Cox seems to know just how a man like Jacob, a man coming home to face the truth, would spend his days. In Sweetwater, Jacob dreams about the past. He flips through the pages of his mother's diary. He plays with his sister Annie's grandchildren, taking them to the circus and camping in an abandoned piano box. He stops in at the diner to see his old friends, Ned, Sophie and Soldier. We can see he's fidgeting and frittering away his time, putting off his visit to Callie. But there is something else going on here, too.

In his mother's diary, Jacob finds references to a dark secret -- a secret too terrible to be written down. At the circus, an elephant goes wild and kills a man. Later, as Jacob and the children look on, the old elephant is burned alive in its cage. The whole incident brings to mind a story Drue once told Jacob about a fire at a live bear show. And, in the night, inside the piano box, the young child, Ty, cries out for his father, much the same way Jacob himself calls out Drue's name in his sleep. Day by day, in Sweetwater, Jacob sees these things and he begins to understand what he only half knew before, that there is a pattern to tragedy that cannot be altered; that the same sad songs are sung and sung again. And what Elizabeth Cox shows us is that it is this understanding, as much as anything, as much as the secrets he learns from Callie, that will allow Jacob to make peace with his life.

There is a nice, spare quality to the language in this book. Cox can use her words like blunt instruments -- at times, they deliver a knockout blow. But this style is a difficult one to sustain throughout the novel. After a while, the characters all sound alike in the steady, sturdy way they talk. They sound homogenized. Listening to Jacob and his family, we'd have a hard time guessing they were from Tennessee. And, we'd have a harder time, still, guessing that this novel is set in 1984. From the evidence we have here, Sweetwater is a town that time forgot -- a town flash-frozen in an age of innocence, where hunting and funerals are still the major social events, where folks don't seem to know that television exists, and where hungry children never ever clamor to be driven to the Burger King.

Elizabeth Cox has been a short-story writer and she may not yet be on familiar ground with the novel. She leads us along a twisting narrative course in this book, and some scenes turn out to be blind alleys. Still, this is not a journey that we regret taking. Because, along the way, Cox lets us peer into a few of those special clearings in the trees. And, like Jacob, we know we've glimpsed magic that we can't quite explain.

© The Washington Post Book World, 1984