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    Hardship, poverty and the complexities of marriage

    Dog pictures are coupled with Southern writing in this slim and evocative volume.

    By MARY JANE PARK

    © St. Petersburg Times, published October 22, 2000


    GAP CREEK: THE STORY OF A MARRIAGE, by Robert Morgan (Scribner Paperback Fiction, $13)

    The South Carolina mountains at the end of the 19th century are the setting for this ambitious novel, told in the first-person voice of Julie Harmon Richards.

    Growing up, Julie has to do what generally is regarded as man's work: chopping, sawing, helping to slaughter hogs. At 17, she marries Hank Richards. As the newlyweds set up housekeeping in the home of a cantankerous widower in Gap Creek, it is evident that married life will bring no relief from numbing toil.

    The business of day-to-day living includes bringing water from the creek, heating it for washing clothes and dishes, building fires to warm the house, chopping wood to feed the fires, sweeping the floors and the yard. Pigs must be killed after the first frost, their meat salted to keep it from spoiling, the lard rendered. Cows must be milked and the cream churned to butter; fruits and vegetables must be gathered, stored and preserved.

    That's back-breaking work on a good day. Sleet breaks trees in two. Rains swell the creek and push red mud into the house. When Julie's labor begins earlier than expected, she delivers her daughter alone.

    Gap Creek is a story of hardship and poverty, but it is not only that. Morgan writes convincingly in a woman's voice, and his scenes are told in extraordinary clarity. As vividly as he describes work, pain, desperation and terror, he offers appreciations of changing seasons in the mountains and the complicated emotions that go along with marriage, family and community. This is a breathtaking work.

    * * *

    MRS. HOLLINGSWORTH'S MEN,by Padgett Powell (Houghton Mifflin Co., $20)

    As she sits down to write her grocery list, the narrator of Padgett Powell's new novel begins to imagine things. She thinks of the life she has and envisions scenarios she wants. Nathan Bedford Forrest, who was a Confederate general, springs to mind along with other characters, real and imagined. As Mrs. Hollingsworth's creative powers juice up, a story emerges that is vivid, sometimes vulgar and surprisingly tender. Loopy as it is, Mrs. Hollingsworth's Men shows why Gainesville resident Padgett Powell is regarded as one of the nation's premier writers.

    * * *

    THE SOUTHERN HAUNTING OF TRUMAN CAPOTE, by Marie Rudisill with James C. Simmons. (Cumberland House, $14.95.)

    Hudson resident Marie Rudisill was a teenager when her nephew Truman Capote came to Monroeville, Ala., as a baby to live with her and an assortment of other relatives in the house of a cousin, Jenny Faulk.

    In this new book, Rudisill links Capote's childhood experiences to four of his early works, including A Christmas Memory and The Grass Harp. Rudisill herself is an accomplished storyteller. Her affection for her famous nephew is obvious, but she minces no words in describing his shortcomings.

    Capote devotees will reap insights into his writing, but even those who know nothing of him will find Rudisill's book fascinating.

    * * *

    SOUTHERN DOGS AND THEIR PEOPLE,by P.S. Davis and Roberta Gamble (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, $14.95)

    This collection of black-and-white photographs, coupled with quotes from Southern writers, is the perfect gift for any person who loves or has ever loved a dog. Photographer P.S. Davis and editor Roberta Gamble, who grew up in St. Petersburg, have assembled a slim volume that is pleasantly evocative.

    -- Mary Jane Park is a Times assistant newsfeatures editor.

    Festival authors

    Robert Morgan and Padgett Powell will be among the authors featured at the Times Festival of Reading Nov. 11-12 on the campus of Eckerd College. Powell, a professor in the Graduate Program of Creative Writing at the University of Florida, will speak on Saturday at 1 p.m. in Roberts Music Center 101. Morgan, whose Oprah-anointed novel Gap Creek was the winner of the 2000 Southern Book Critics Circle award for fiction, will speak Sunday, Nov. 12 at 11 a.m. at the same location.

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