Sunday, Dec 18, 2005
The peril of being a Kentucky outsider
Reviewed By Judith Hatchett
Joseph G. Anthony's Peril, Kentucky offers original and profound twists on the seemingly familiar story of outsiders trying to make sense of and live in Appalachia. In a story at once humorous and dark, Anthony introduces readers to an Eastern Kentucky community that welcomes and excludes according to its own code that outsiders cannot crack.
Linda Eliot, the central character, is an English instructor at Peril Community College. The town of Peril was named for an 1812 naval hero, not for danger -- but as one of Linda's students explains, "You grow into a name." Linda, 26, an upper-middle-class native of Manhattan, has horrified her parents by taking teaching jobs, first in the Bronx and now in Kentucky, which they can identify only through "the Derby, family feuds, and guns."
Although Linda is attracted to the beauty of the mountains, she finds Peril more alien than she would want her parents to know. She and other outsiders have formed a community within the community, consisting of Linda and her lover Jimmy, an attorney and housing advocate for the poor, a Northerner like herself, and Caroline and Sister, a nurse and nun who form "the mountain's own version of the odd couple" and who, after 35 years in Peril, are still considered newcomers.
The novel's first sentence is "I hate this woman!!!" -- a statement from a student evaluation. It's a clear signal that Linda's efforts to inspire her students to be better writers are not well-received.
But Anthony is not just telling a tale of a puzzled outsider. Linda begins to see another view of the community and its history through essays written by one of her students, Hugh Richie, 25, whose narratives lead Linda toward understanding of Appalachian pride and sense of place.
The relationship between Linda and Hugh is an uneasy one, though. Linda is sincerely interested in his story and his ability to tell it, but she ignores the disturbing sexual tension between them.
misunderstandings and hidden resentments ignite on Easter Sunday when
Linda tries to unite the two communities. The result is a violent act
that forces the community -- all of it, native and newcomer -- into an
examination of its fundamental values and convictions.
Judith Hatchett is professor of
English at Midway College.