It’s not height, but stature that counts in this novel. Lydia McQueen, born in 1846, is indeed “long-limbed,” but it is her character, that commands admiration. Lydia grows up in a large Western North Carolina family, marries a man who fights for the Union in the Civil War, raises six children on a hard-scrabble farm, and works tirelessly to get her town a school. She is a mountain of a woman.
The Tall Woman was published in 1962 and is still in print (but not in Kindle). I bought it in Asheville and with that picturesque locale fresh in my mind, devoured it in a few days. Why hadn’t I heard of Wilma Dykeman before? Her writing kept me entranced. The themes resonate today: land use (planting tobacco made fast profits, but depleted the soil), class distinctions (mountain-top vs valley), public vs private education, even women’s voices in politics. I recommend this book to every book groupie I know. One of the five-star reviews on Amazon included this comment:
Hard to find a wholesome modern book anymore. If you like old fashioned values and appreciate life in the 1870’s with all its down-to-earthiness you should read this.
But it’s not a stodgy wholesomeness. Lydia embraces life with passion. She sings, she dances. Her virtues are obvious: she pays attention to and cares for others, she works until the job is done, she withholds judgment, while striving for justice. Yet she knows when to put her own needs ahead of others. This description of Devil’s Brow above her farm reveals Lydia’s challenges and her resourcefulness:
During the years she had lived up here, Lydia had found in this rocky crag a deep source of comfort and inspiration. Its effect other was something she could not explain and therefore she had kept it secret to herself. Sometimes on winter days when the noise of the narrow cabin, congested with so many people, their laughter and crying, their walking and running and shuffling, their constant need of her, seemed to close in with stifling pressure, she would slip out and climb to this precipice. There, standing with its hard firmness beneath her feet, her head and face bared to the wind that swept up from the deep valley below and broke in torrents against this ledge, she regained an inner quiet, a stillness she could not name or identify. It was as essential to her existence, however–had been even when she was still a child–as water or food itself. And as the wind struck her like a wave, taking her breath for the moment, beating and breaking against her, drowning her in an ocean of air, she was revived.
I can well imagine book group members contemplating their own stresses and their own Devil’s Brows and sharing how they maintain equilibrium in their lives. Lydia’s qualities transcend a small town in the hills of Western North Carolina. She could be a model for us all.