Thursday, February 26, 2015

Techniques in Appalachian Fiction: Dialect in Bloodroot by Amy Greene

In this series, I'm going to take a look at how dialect is rendered (or not rendered) in a handful of Appalachian novels. Today, I'm looking at Bloodroot by Amy Greene (2010). If you want to look at the other posts on this topic, click here for the whole series on Techniques in Appalachian Fiction.

This novel has a really interesting structure that's tied to point of view. Part one of the novel includes
very short chapters that oscillates between first person narration by Byrdie Lamb and Doug Cotter. Other characters come into the story after Part One, but I'm just going to look at the opening chapters for this post. I was going to look at it up to page 20, but I think there's enough there in the first two chapters (just 4 pages).

The opening lines of the first chapter set the characterization of Byrdie, who is Myra's grandmother. "Myra looks like her mama, but prettier because of her daddy mixed in. She got just the right amount of both." The phrase she got lets the reader know she doesn't have a strong formal education, but the first line lets us know that she's thoughtful. In her eyes, the dad makes Myra look prettier, which is different than what I would expect. I think this sets up Myra as a character who is thoughtful and looks at things differently than most people, which implies she is smart although her grammar isn't perfect.

Honestly, when I read the first 2-page chapter through initially, I was a little put off by the persistent problems with grammar:
  • "I didn't see nothing wrong" (3)
  • "I couldn't hear nothing else" (4)
  • "Then I seen there was things" (4)
  • "I should have knowed right then" (4)
The bad grammar threw me out of the story (maybe because I was looking for it specifically). But what drew me in was the colorful language that seems authentic to me: "that snake coiled up inside his heart" (3) and "I got tougher than a pine knot" (3).

In this opening chapter, Amy Greene does use the word reckon in the opening chapter. A professor once told me I shouldn't use reckon because it's derogatory and promotes a stereotype, but I think it's realistic - not for all characters, but maybe for one or two. For my dad, a simple, "I reckon" can mean any number of things depending on the situation and the look on his face and whether he looks you in the eye or stands up to leave as he says it. It can mean he's thoughtful - or he thinks you are wrong but doesn't really care to push it - or that you made him really upset and the conversation is over. I can't omit the words I reckon from my fiction - it's a fabulous phrase.

The sentence structure in Byrdie's section also conveys her education level (at this point I'm not sure of the year or time period for the novel). The sentences tend to be short, simple sentences. There's an occasional compound sentence with the comma missing. The language is simple. On the first page, the most complex word is "outcome."

However, by the end of this very short chapter, Byrdie tells about a dream she has that seems prophetic. "Then there was a crack and my foot went through the boards of that old bridge. It started coming apart, jagged pieces dropping and rushing away, until I was hanging on by a scrap of rotten wood, my feet dangling over the water."  The description of the dream is lovely and eloquent and makes me as a reader believe she is smart and perceptive. I can't wait to hear how she will describe the events that happen in the rest of the story.

In the second chapter, written in first person from Doug's point of view, there is no trace of any Appalachian or southern dialect. Every sentence is written with perfect grammar, and the sentences are more complex. In this brief chapter, Doug goes out to the barn to feed a horse that's in distress. He says his parents and brothers are in the house sleeping, so I have the impression he's a teenager or a young man.

The juxtaposition of Byrdie's narration with Doug's gives me the impression that huge generational differences will be presented in the story and that the syntax used in Byrdie's narration was strategic. I think it was used with the intent to expose the generational differences between these two characters, who tell the story only for the first 100 pages.

Without giving away the plot, both of these characters are connected to the supernatural. Byrdie has a prophetic dream, and her attitude toward it is that this force can't be controlled. Doug, on the other hand, decides to take action to try to calm the horse that's gone wild because Myra Lamb, Byrdie's granddaughter, is missing.

Have any of you used techniques similar to the ones Amy Greene uses in these opening chapters? Is any of this useful?

Work Cited:
Greene, Amy. Bloodroot. New York: Vintage Books, 2010. 3-6. Print.


  1. I had a writing instructor tell our class once that we shouldn't use dialect because it would throw the reader out of the story like you described by being distracting. But I think if it's understandable like the examples you gave, it add color and depth to the character, showing something about them rather than telling.
    My dad used to say 'I reckon' also. And he was a really smart man who grew up in the mountains.

    1. I think dialect done the way Mark Twain did in Huckleberry Finn is hard on the reader - it's definitely hard on me as a reader. I don't remember my grandparents having bad grammar necessarily. I do remember I when I was maybe ten years old when I realized the word "suppose" wasn't really "spose."

  2. It sounds interesting. I think that if the dialect is understandable, then it could be a good way of drawing the reader closer to the character.

    1. I was expecting much more rendering of dialect in dialogue - not so much so far.

  3. Those quotes that you shared would throw me off too. But I don't think it's necessarily bad grammar, but how the characters talk. Some people talk with bad grammar.

  4. It's interesting to me that there's actually a genre called Appalachian Fiction, as opposed to just regional fiction. Also, I can tell I"d like this book. Even the samples you used drew me right in.