Carry Me Home by Terri Wiltshire

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Carry Me Home by Terri Wiltshire

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: It's not an adventure story. Political comment is very well buried and not really the point. It's a story of a family, well-crafted, deep-rooted, and worth the read.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 304 Date: May 2009
Publisher: Macmillan New Writing
ISBN: 978-0230714489

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1904. Alabama. A white girl is raped by a black man, a hobo from the last train through town. The townsfolk are up in arms.

The opening to Carry Me Home is so reminiscent of the novel I read immediately before it (Scottsboro) that I worried I might be in for a re-run. I was worried because Scottsboro is perfect, and any imitator is bound to fail. I worried unnecessarily. The starting premise aside, the two books have nothing at all in common.

For a start: the lynch mob that Wiltshire's victim sets free is successful. They catch their runaway black, and hang him in the town square.

The difference is: in this case the girl got pregnant…and that changes everything.

Emma Scott's arrival at home from a high school dance, battered & bruised, with her clothing ripped would have been bad enough for any fourteen-year-old, but they'd have lived it down. Then it's clear there's a baby on the way, so it seems that the best way out for the family is to marry her off to the least eligible bachelor in the neighbourhood.

Tom Stewart is a good man, he was considered prize pickings for a while, but it increasingly became clear he just wasn't the marrying kind. Older by a generation than young Emma, he is aware of his own shortcomings and is grateful to take her on. Her and her baby.

Emma, on the other hand, cannot come to terms with any of it. She has lost her dreams, and has to face up to having a child she resents to the point of hatred and cruelty. Slowly accepting her fate, she begins to make a life with her husband, discovering how to control and manipulate him. The children that follow the misbegotten son are treated better, but it's hard to call any of them loved.

2002. Alabama. Canaan Phillips has finally given up on a violent marriage and returned home. Lander, Alabama, was where she washed up at her grandparents' place as a child when her mother didn't know where else to take her. It was a place she came to know and love and hate in equal measure. Her eccentric Uncle Luke taught her to be aware of the natural world around her, and to love books, and to be herself. Her high school English teacher taught her that there was a world beyond Lander.

She went, and found that the world out there wasn't all it was cracked up to be.

She's not proud to be home. But it's only temporary. Slowly she works her way back into the local community and embarks on a journey of discovery, about herself and her heritage.

Carry Me Home is that rare thing, a book about the Deep South that doesn't rely on race for its drama. It's impossible to avoid the impact of the mores and values in any story that has its roots in that place in the pre-war years of the 20th century, but the values and attitudes that take centre stage in this book aren't those that apply across the white-black divide. There is some of that in a subplot, but the main focus is on the white community and how they relate among themselves.

I use the word 'relate' in the present tense because Wiltshire brings us into the 21st century and it does seem nothing much has changed. 'Small town' isn't a description of place; it's a state of mind. Incidentally, it's a state of mind that crosses national boundaries. A new town in the north of England might seem as far removed as it is possible to be from an ante-bellum settlement of the southern States, but many of the attitudes and personalities rang true with my own experiences.

Alternate chapters of the book follow Luke's story and Canaan's. This is becoming a well-worn formula and sometimes it works better than others. This is one of those times. There are echoes of Luke's life in Canaan's and the contrasts are used well to show what has changed, and what has not: in the society at large, and in the family in particular.

Carry Me Home isn't a magical book. It manages to capture place without being lyrical about it. Place for Wiltshire seems to be most evident in the people that inhabit it. Her descriptions of the hobos on the railroad are particularly vivid, for all its simple telling. This down-to-earthness is part of the book's charm. It captures curiosity via character. Passing individuals are real enough for you to want to hear the end of their story. Most importantly Luke and Canaan are such vulnerable characters, but each with sufficient strength to enlist empathy rather than blind sympathy. You cannot help but care what happens and to hope it works out for them. That's what draws you in and keeps you turning the pages.

It's not an adventure story. Political comment is very well buried and not really the point. It's a story of a family, well-crafted, deep-rooted, and worth the read.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

Further reading suggestion: If you enjoy this, it would be almost compulsory to also read Scottsboro for an insight into how it really was. Although that is also fiction, the background is genuine.

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