In Blood Clay, Valerie Nieman, a writing professor in Greensboro, tells the story of Tracey Gaines, who relocates to fictional Saul County, North Carolina, after a painful divorce. Despite her desire for a new life, Gaines discovers that it’s not easy to assimilate in a small town, where generations of shared history bind people together. She manages to find companionship with a fellow teacher and with the feral cats that prowl the land around the dilapidated farmhouse.
Then Gaines witnesses a tragic event, for which she incurs some blame. The resulting ostracism not only compounds her loneliness, but also forces her to confront her own character flaws. As she works through the trauma, Gaines strives to create a sense of belonging — both in the community and within her own soul.
But fitting in remains a challenge, even for longtime residents of Saul County. Regardless of all the history citizens share, the community is changing: tobacco business wanes, young people move on, developers snap up farmland. Insiders aren’t in after all, and personal histories can and do foster estrangement. “It’s hard to come to someplace new and not fit in, I know that, but it maybe is worse to come back to where you’re from and not fit in there anymore,” a new friend tells Gaines.
Nieman, whose lyrical writing edges on poetry, tells this story with insight and compassion. She doesn’t idealize the South: troubled race relations, provincialism, and phony politeness all play a part. But the novel also captures what makes the town humane, large-minded, and forgiving. The message is optimistic: Although life inevitably causes pain, we can still find a home.
Press 53. 2011, 200 pages, paperback, $17.95.