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Constance Alexander: Stories of dislocation and connection from a ‘Drowned Town’ in western KY

No matter where the characters’ journeys begin in Jayne Moore Waldrop’s Drowned Town, all routes – land and water — lead to western Kentucky.

The novel in stories begins with “Dry Ground,” introducing a recurring character named Cam a few days before her second wedding. As she revisits the site of her house on the Cumberland River in old Eddyville, she reflects on how its former prominence is relegated to a historic marker that fails to acknowledge the people who once thrived there and gave up their homes to make way for a dam.

“They had been told their sacrifice was for the public good. They were never told how much they would miss it or for how long,” the story goes.
In the first chapter, other characters mingle with Cam in memories and dreams. She recalls being seven and ready for second grade, excited about her family’s move to high ground in a new community named Sycamore. She will have her own room in the new house and go to a brand-new school with shiny floors and full-color textbooks.

When a neighbor boy, Neville Burgess, persuades her to sneak a visit to her old house before it is flooded, she does not recognize the landscape. The house where she took music lessons stands empty and forlorn. Cam finds a faded photo of a dead boy. The inscription on the back says, “Brother, April 17, 1938.” She keeps it but never shows it to anyone else, even her sister Becky, as if she needed proof that the piano teacher and her people ever existed.

Over time, the “drowned town” often came to Cam at night. “In her dreams she walked intact sidewalks, recalling each house and family and tree.”

With each story, readers become acquainted with the old and the new through characters whose perceptions of past and present are colored by their connections to that place. In “View from Within,” Lester Elliott views the demolition of the old town and the rise of the new lake from his cell in the penitentiary.

A real estate appraiser, Elmer Newby, shows up in “For What It’s Worth,” a story about how sales took off after the dam was built and the Kennedy administration proposed Land Between the Lakes. The national recreation area was designed to transform the wilderness by drowning towns and removing signs of past habitation to make way for hiking, boating, camping, and other outdoor adventures of the traveling public.
“Weekend Visitor” features Margaret Starks, a bridesmaid in Cam’s second wedding. She has avoided wedding activities since the death of her husband and invested all her time and energy into her job in a prestigious Louisville law firm. The only positive she sees in her trip to western Kentucky for the nuptials is being with Cam’s family at their lake house, where she spent many pleasant times when the two women were undergrads at a college that sounds a lot like Centre.

Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and President of INTEXCommunications in Murray. She can be reached at constancealexander@twc.com. Or visit www.constancealexander.com.

Story by story, more characters add layers of complexity to the issues surrounding the sacrifices of displaced families and communities to bring flood control, hydroelectric power, and economic development opportunities to the region. Familiar names and places – Gilbertsville, Mayfield, Murray State University, Livingston County, and Piggly Wiggly — surface frequently, adding jolts of reality to fictional events.

Drowned Town is love story that connects people and place, but it is also an account of losses that are never reconciled. Cam’s mother is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Margaret’s law firm is acquired by a Nashville outfit and her new boss will be a guy with bad hair plugs and a penchant for getting out of sexual harassment claims.

One of the most compelling is “Across the Creek,” a tale of a friendship between two nine-year-olds, Emmie and Sonya Kay. Sonya Kay’s father was the warden at the state prison, a man who wore a gun on his belt and a permanent scowl on his face. When the girl’s mother disappears, the flimsy and unconfirmed explanation is that she ran away with another man, but when Sonya Kay no longer shows up at school, Emmie worries about the fate of her friend.

Writer Jayne Moore Waldrop, a Paducah native with generations of family rooted firmly in Appalachia, uses compassion and empathy to create the universe of Drowned Town. With the deft hand of a water colorist, she explores the notion of home, drawing insights from her family’s experience of leaving Pike County to relocate to western Kentucky before she was born.

“Home meant the mountains to them,” she says, “but the home they kept in their hearts no longer existed.”

Published by Fireside Industries, an imprint of the University Press of Kentucky, “Drowned Town” will be on sale in October. It is Waldrop’s first novel, but she is also author of two chapbooks of poetry, “Retracing My Steps” and “Pandemic Lent: A Season in Poems,” both from Finishing Line Press. Her work has also appeared in various journals and anthologies.

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One Comment

  1. Barbara B. WIlbur says:

    WOW!! Can’t wait to obtain a copy!!!

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