Love Isn’t the Only Long Road: Bonnie Proudfoot’s Debut Novel Brings Rural West Virginia to Life by Damian Dressick

Love Isn’t the Only Long Road: Bonnie Proudfoot’s Debut Novel Brings Rural West Virginia to Life 
by Damian Dressick

Goshen Road
by Bonnie Proudfoot
Swallow Press/An Imprint of Ohio University Press
Athens, OH 2020

One of the biggest challenges in writing about Bonnie Proudfoot's debut novel, Goshen Road, lies in discerning just what kind of book it is. Is it a novel of place? Is it working class fiction? Is it a generational saga? Is it a novel in stories? The answer seems to be a pretty clear all of the above.

Through fourteen interlinked narratives spanning nearly twenty-five years, Proudfoot brings us a series of deeply empathetic portraits of a family living in and around the town of Fairchance, (Half-way between ‘good chance’ and ‘no chance at all’” – as one character puts it) West Virginia. Commencing with the story of 17-year old Luther “Lux” Crainfield’s courting of Dessie Price after he loses an eye cutting timber for A-1 Lumber in 1967, Proudfoot shows us both the outer and rich inner lives of the kind of people who rarely take centerstage in an American fiction—unless they are knee deep in some brand of in extremis or another. Proudfoot’s considerable skill at character development is further revealed in relating Dessie’s younger sister Billie’s gesturing toward rebellion as high school nears its end. Featuring one of the few characters from outside the circumscribed world of Fairchance, Billie’s brief affair with handsome carnival roustabout and motorcyclist Jackson Childs takes her both to places she always knew she’d end up and to places she never imagined she would be—including a stint in the town’s jail.

The novel’s narrative and emotional center details Lux and Dessie’s attempts to make a go of it on a piece of mountaintop land reachable only by way of the titular Goshen Road. The industry and stubbornness with which they dive into trying to make a life for themselves and their growing family at the top of Barker Mountain is equaled only by the forces—both natural and human—that conspire to make this plan utterly unworkable.

Goshen Road is commendable on so many levels. As a deep dive into the lives and struggles of working people, the novel feels singularly capable—in a way that so many of the last four years’ worth of newspaper and magazine articles were not—of explaining our troubled nation to itself. Largely because the book is built as a series of stories, it forces us to move through time in a “jump cut” sort of way. The powerful affect Proudfoot achieves with this technique throws the impact of large-scale socio-economic changes on her characters into stark relief.

Chapter by chapter, we see the Cranfields confronted with fresh sets of challenges for which they have limited preparation. The devil’s bargain with extraction industries, for example, may put food on the table and give Dessie’s father Bertram a toehold in the middle class, but at the same time it costs Lux his eye and saddles the characters with increasingly limited options—having largely dropped out of school to start earning money in the timber industry—as work (and paychecks) becomes less steady and bodies start to break down.

In some ways Goshen Road has a feel akin to Bobbie Ann Mason’s short stories in her collections Love Life and Shiloh, but while Mason often elects to show us moments of transition, Proudfoot’s novel-in-stories structure gives readers a deeper understanding of her characters’ psychological evolution. This enables Proudfoot’s readers to consequently feel more of a profound connection to her characters and the vicissitudes of their fortunes. While the double-whammy of changing cultural mores in concert with seismic economic shifts—not to mention personal tragedy—puts Proudfoot’s characters on their heels, it is a testament to the depth of her characterization that their reactions feel both completely inevitable and utterly surprising. If you’ve lived any part of your life in northern Appalachia, it’s likely her characters will be as familiar to you as the landscape of this eroded plateau.

Finally, whatever kind of book Proudfoot’s debut novel is exactly, it’s one that ought to attract—and certainly deserves—a wide readership.

Damian Dressick is the author of the novel 40 Patchtown and the story collection Fables of the Deconstruction (forthcoming CLASH BOOKS 2021). His stories and essays have appeared in more than fifty literary journals and anthologies, including W.W. Norton’s New Micro, Cutbank, New Orleans Review, Post Road, Smokelong Quarterly, and New World Writing. Winner of the Jesse Stuart Prize and Harriette Arnow Award, Damian co-hosts WANA Live, a (largely) virtual reading series that brings some of the best in Appalachian writing to the world. He teaches at Clarion University.