Review of White In The Moon

Published in The Transylvania Times

Roberts, a long-time teacher of English in the military and at Brevard College in North Carolina, grew up in what he calls “the depression-era farm environment in southwest Georgia, as distant from urban existence and urban culture as can be imagined.”  However, the distinctive culture of Alamance County, Georgia—the setting of White in the Moon, a powerful novel which explores the metaphor philosophy of origins—is fully imagined in Roberts’ first novel, so much so that the county is arguably a character of its own.  It is the forces of the cultural myth of the deep South that propel us into the world into which Roberts takes his readers.

Tom Johnson, Roberts’ protagonist, an unwitting but not unwilling journalist, takes a trip to Alamance County on the trail of a story at Niche-a-way plantation.  There, the owner, Sue Ellen Stewart, has deeded her property over to her loved ones, Abner and Rachel Jackson, and Abner’s mother, Annie Mae.  There is a kink, however, setting up one of the conflicts in the work—racism in the South in the 1960’s. Sue Ellen is white.  Abner, Rachel, and Annie Mae are African American.  The deeding over of property to those who were servants and descendants of slaves does not sit well in Alamance County.

As Tom hears the story of the boycott against the renegade band of progressives at Niche-a-way, as well as other tales of the history of Alamance County, the darks of Mossy Pond and Old Ben (the massive alligator that venerates the swamp, stirring up legend) and debates all matter of philosophy, from mayhem to metaphor, with the fiery and beautiful Rachel, Tom comes not only to understand the plights of those he came to interview, but to genuinely like them as people.  An “accident,” while transporting Abner’s crop of cucumbers to a neighboring town to avoid the boycott, forces Tom to stay bedridden for a time and recuperate at Niche-a-way.

Through the tales he hears, Tom begins to understand Sue Ellen’s husband, her murdered son, Jim, Old Ben—the man as well as the alligator, Flora Eubanks and her husband, Billy, the mysterious Eli Jackson, and their connections to others in the history of Niche-a-way, and what murderous machinations stand behind the events, past and present, which eventually draw Tom further into the darker regions of the mythology of the South, as well as to his own baser and darker instincts, leading to a riveting conclusion, brimming with awaited revelations.

Roberts’ ability to reveal to the reader a compelling narrative, carry three quarters of the book in dialogue that rings true of his characters, probe philosophy, and still have time to develop the darker history of all the major players and most of the minor ones in the book is truly his gift—to the reader’s pleasure.

He also plays with form by making unique choices throughout the novel.  In addition to a journal entry and a letter, both divulging the secrets of Flora Musgrave Eubanks (the femme fatale, if there is one in this work), Roberts elects to switch up his narrative prose for poetry in a “play within a novel,” coining the tradition of Hamlet. The Hagsipian Fable’s Prologue comes midway through the novel and in twenty pages creates gods and Lilipupils (the allusion to Swift is not to be missed here), and the fable’s Epilogue ends the book in five pages of splendid verse.

These forays into form seem warranted in light of Roberts’ first book of poetry, Daguerreotypes of People, Place, and Time, “a compilation of selected poems written over a span of fifty years or more, [varying] in form and meter and [consisting] of lyrics, place-poems, dramatic monologues, and philosophical musings,” as one editorial review on terms it. The editorial comment continues,  “[The poems] represent one expression of the metaphorical impulse—a force seen by this writer as the promulgator of everything existing on the planet and in our known universe. Metaphor, in other words, is an expression of . . . survival drive, itself a metaphor.”

“Your textbook definition is a bunch of crap,” Rachel said.  “Metaphors are the way we see the world.  They eat similes for breakfast.’”  So begins the argument about metaphor, a driving force in the philosophy behind all of Roberts’ work, poetry and prose alike.  Here, through the use of skillfully-wrought dialogue, Roberts maintains tension in his narrative, employing the already well-developed and familiar voices of his characters, to lead his readers to connect metaphor, survival instinct, desire, shadow, and a penumbra of viewpoints in how to see the world—an ultimate concern in his work.

Roberts’ own view of the world in the novel is rich in his prose.  In addition to excellent dialogue which drives his narrative, he has dozens of adroit and lyrical passages which enlighten and satisfy: “Green time is slow time, but then it is the time, and the fiery father finger reaches down and beckons it.  Up, up out on the golden stairs of sun; up, up flying now on wings of hot gulf winds, identity intact, knowing that the extremes of southern hot are the same as northern cold.  And now Toccoa Mountains calls; and there the brook begins; now the brook, misnomered rain, drops into the heart and basin of the valley” is the picture of a river which Tom Johnson observes near the end of White in the Moon.

The title itself, White in the Moon, first and foremost comes from the A.E. Housman poem, “White in the moon the long road lies . . .,” about a journey away from love or love’s object. The poem repeats the haunting lyric: “White in the moon the long road lies / that leads me from my love.” This journey is a theme that resounds through Roberts’ work in relation to people and place, lovers and landscapes.

Although the literary allusion is successful, like a good title, White in the Moon works on several levels, dealing with racial issues in the book (the white in the moon is culturally all there is in that time and place setting—no other colors) as well as the lure of the moon’s mythology, especially the eerie glow it casts across the swampland of Mossy Pond and Alamance County.  Even the cover, painted by Preston James Roberts, hints with its twin moons at appearance vs. reality, serenity and shock, that all may not be as it seems.

Astute, shocking, sexy, and sharp are only a few descriptors that are conjured in the journey that is White in the Moon.  It is one work not to be missed, and one “Darling,” as Faulkner might say, “not to be killed.”  Instead, White in the Moon should be launched into—read for its richness, examined for its enlightenment, and above all, enjoyed for its entertainment.

~Jubal Tiner, PhD,  Assistant Professor of English, Brevard College