The prettiest girl in Fish Springs, a town later drowned under the surface of Watauga Lake in eastern Tennessee, finds herself in the center of a relationship with two best friends and soon-to-be Civil War veterans.
Co-authored by Michael Manuel and Larry Timbs Jr., “Fish Springs: Beneath the Surface” is a searing tale examining themes from jealousy and revenge to social impropriety and compassion, along with racial injustice and uncommon racial harmony.
Set during the mid to late 1800s, “Fish Springs” is a tale containing both immediacy and universality as the authors tell a love story about Mary Clemmons, Alfred White and John Williams that speaks to multiple generations. Growing up, the boys are best friends and Alfred saves John from a near drowning in the river. The prudish Aunt Caroline, who raised the orphaned Mary, practices helicopter parenting. But she is not so successful because Mary sneaks out late one night to meet a boy, and this meeting will complicate life for many of the characters in the novel.
Both Alfred and John fight in the brutal War Between the States, and when Alfred returns, Aunt Caroline encourages Mary to marry him. But Alfred has a war-related injury that taunts him, and Mary’s libidinal urges far exceed those of her husband. Alfred agonizes about the injury; Mary wants children; and John, whose character has become increasingly corrosive, has never stopped flirting with her.
Manuel and Timbs write honestly and sometimes humorously, easily gliding into back-stories about their mountain characters in a style reminiscent of Pat Conroy through his coastal characters and scenes. The “discreet jug sipping by a few holy worshipers” will surely bring a chuckle to the reader.
But perhaps the oddest side story is that of the fur trapper Rufus who is such a scoundrel he is buried “with the canker worms alongside the coloreds in the Colored Cemetery.” Two women, each holding a baby in her arms, stand crying over his graveside. Although they live 10 miles apart, neither woman knows the other. But when one begins crying and “carrying on so, saying the hard-working fur trapper was the father of her child, the other claims the same thang (sic), that he’d daddyed her young’un.” In these and other scenes, the reader will be amazed at how well the authors mimic the rhythms and cadence of the characters’ speech patterns to capture the witticisms of this little mountain town.
The authors craft an almost parallel love story between freed slave Isaiah and the attractive Prissy, who suffers the unwanted advances of her owner. Throughout the novel, an all-knowing narrator lets the reader witness the thinking of his primary characters and a few minor characters through stream-of-consciousness. Here “Fish Springs” becomes dialect-heavy in parts. But not to worry, the dialect is fast paced and advances the plot so effectively that one would think he is watching the drama unfold in a mini-series.
Manuel and Timbs tell an engaging story through fresh, crisp prose written in tightly constructed sentences. Perhaps Timbs, a former journalist, has used his skills to inform his fiction. Probably one of the best-written sentences in the novel appears here: “ Constructed of hand-hewn chestnut logs, dovetail notched and chinked with clay, the cabin had withstood many a ferocious killer storm. Even when a tornado, a rarity in this part of mountainous Tennessee, struck Fish Springs, the log cabin had stood as a lonely sentinel of shelter and as a lasting testament to what man could build if he really set his mind to it.”
Romantics will love this tale, but so, too, will Civil War historians. Author Timbs is a former reporter, editor and professor who taught at Winthrop University for 27 years. Edited by Judy Geary, a lover of history and adjunct professor at Appalachian State University, the novel just may satisfy those on both sides of the argument.
“Fish Springs: Beneath the Surface” is available at amazon.com and in bookstores.
Bessie M. Meeks of Lake Wylie is a retired York County English teacher.