In a literary world full of “5 under 35 lists” and authors publishing first novels in their 20s, Leah Weiss is something of an anomaly. Her debut novel, If The Creek Don’t Rise was written after her retirement from a 24 year career as the executive assistant to the headmaster at Virginia Episcopal School. In it she introduces us to the harsh and difficult life in a small town in Appalachia in the 1970s. This can be a dangerous place, a world of violence and cruelty, especially for women. Weiss presents this community through a profuse range of voices, voices with their own dialect, particular to these mountain ranges.
The chapters in Weiss’ book, each narrated by a different individual, read like a collection of connected stories, offering a unique and varied glimpse of Baines Creek, a remote haven in an unspecified state. As a newcomer to Baines Creek, teacher Kate Shaw, one of Weiss’ strongest characters, describes it as “barely a crossroad, a dot on a map. It’s remote, embraced by natural beauty, and riddled with hardships,” with “poverty the likes of which I’ve never imagined except in the books of Dickens and Brontë sisters.”
The cast of players in this secluded town represents all facets of personality and morality, and an internal view of even the most vile characters unveils some vulnerability. We are able to see why Prudence Perkins, the reverend’s spiteful, spinster sister, is so mean spirited, and to learn from where intense cruelty is born in the heart of an abusive bully, Roy Tupkin.
If there is a main character in If The Creek Don’t Rise, she is Sadie Blue, the wife of Roy. Her voice provides bookends, she starts the first and last chapters with the same sentence, within which she demonstrates one woman’s path to a better place in a town that so often resists change. Ultimately this is Sadie Blue’s story, provided to us by a chorus of voices from those who know her, but we get to experience so many other memorable folks from Baines Creek along the way.