When a novel takes its title from one of Anne Sexton’s best poems, it sets the bar high before readers can even scan the blurbs on the back cover. Luckily, Over the Plain Houses is up to the challenge.
This is the absorbing tale of a preacher’s wife who wants more than what her hardscrabble life gives her, the story of a couple divided by loss, the story of a gifted child limited by circumstance, and the story of a man desperate for certainty in a changing world. The plot is absorbing enough on its own, but as Over the Plain Houses progresses, shadows of the past fall across contemporary events. When I started reading it, for example, armed militants had just been removed after occupying a federal wildlife refuge for over a month, and several headlines about efforts to limit women’s birth control options appeared in the news. It’s easy to feel as if the characters’ problems could be our problems.
Beyond its layered storytelling, the novel is deeply atmospheric. While this is true of most good historical fiction, Over the Plain Houses hasn’t tackled shining Belle Epoque Paris or the sleek sophistication of mid-century New York. It thrusts readers into rural American life during the Great Depression, a setting that helps set this novel apart from the pack. Whether through looming mountains, frigid nights, or dour church services, Franks immerses readers in a world where danger and familiarity thread together through the protagonist’s life.
The book doesn’t stop at broad strokes and moody landscapes, either. The plethora of minute details and careful descriptions of outmoded practices, defunct technologies, and vanished places indicate a great deal of careful research, but this is never at the expense of plot or character. Instead, they’re blended into colorful phraseology or poetic passages that effortlessly serve many purposes–for example, one section describes the steps involved in tobacco farming in the 1930’s, and it advances the plot while offering insight into the protagonist’s thoughts and re-establishing the importance of seasonal rhythms in the characters’ lives. Franks makes her sentences multitask, and she makes it look easy.
Spooky without verging on horror, dreamy without growing fantastic, and steeped in realism without forgetting to be beautiful, Over the Plain Houses is one of the best examples of historical fiction I’ve read lately. People who typically avoid the genre because of its over-reliance on romance and tendency for hyperbole will enjoy how this book resists the typical limitations. Sticklers for period detail will be pleased rather than frustrated, and anyone annoyed by the slew of fictionalized biographies will find this novel wonderfully devoid of any famous writers, movie stars, or politicians. Come for the gripping domestic drama–stay for the dynamite.
Over the Plain Houses by Julia Franks (Hub City Press | 9781938235214 | May 1, 2016)