By: Bob Whetstone
Reviewed by: Wayne Greenhaw
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Bob Whetstone’s first novel is a page-turner. From the first sentence, “My life took a turn toward Hell that spring day Dock Turley returned my runaway sister to the house on a mule’s back,” to the final quote years later, Grave Dancin’ captures the reader and carries him through Hell and upward.
Whetstone is a natural writer. He’s not a stylist nor a poet, but he knows his people through and through. I was somewhat taken aback when he shifts points of view after fifty pages from the eyes of Dora. Suddenly, on page fifty-two, the chapter begins, “‘My name’s Obie,’ I said to my two sisters I hadn’t seen in seven years.” But very soon, the action is rocking along with the same rhythm we had become accustomed to with Dora.
Whetstone knows his territory. He puts us in the middle of early twentieth century central Alabama textile mill country. The Turleys—Dock and his wife Desser—after his first wife dies, leaving Dock with young ’uns he can’t take care of, are up to their necks in debt. Having a rough time of it is an understatement. First they move in with Desser’s brother Jake who never moves from his place on the sofa, where he can spit out the window without effort. When things in the country get too bad, they move with their growing brood into town, where Dock puts the children to work in the mill.
In the meantime, Dock takes up gambling, loses half the money the children give him to pay bills, and mounts debt after debt. While there are a few awkward scenes in Grave Dancin’ it is basically a sound novel built on the backs and souls of its characters. Obie and his sisters are delineated with a deft touch. When Dora reenters the scene, she has grown considerably, maturing in her role as a wealthy man’s wife and a worthy stepmother to his two sons.
When misfortune happens, it is natural as the seasons. When tragedy strikes, we see and feel the pitiful emotional throes of Desser, who sings her songs that sound like bagpipes blowing in the hills and hollows. Hers is an eerie, spine-tingling loss that wrenches the heart with its outpouring of sadness. However, in the end, the Faulkneresque strength of these country people overpowers the dread. Obie emerges not only as a family leader but as a person who will become a steadfast pillar of the community.
Bob Whetstone tells a mean and beautiful story, so immersed in the land and the heart of his people that it continues to resonate after the last page is closed.
The author of numerous books of fiction and non-fiction, Wayne Greenhaw is the recipient of the 2006 Harper Lee Award for Alabama’s Distinguished Writer of the Year.