THE RISING PLACE
Wild Rose Press (2020)
Reviewed by Megan Weiss for Reader Views (09/2020)
David Armstrong’s “The Rising Place” begins with a young lawyer stumbling upon a box of old love letters left behind by Emily Hodge, a recently deceased client and friend. The letters were written during the 1940s, most during World War II and some written in 1949. Emily Hodge was always a mystery to the lawyer, as though he found her to be loving and intelligent, the 75-year-old woman never married and seemed to have been ostracized by the rest of the town. The box of letters might reveal why Emily Hodge was left to live her life alone, shunned by those who used to love her, but was it right to read them? The lawyer takes a chance and is rewarded wonderfully.
The introductory chapter of “The Rising Place” was written with lovely details and an almost storyteller-like air. Readers learn how the young lawyer came to be acquainted with Emily Hodge, and therefore our first images and understandings of her are through his eyes and point of view. This is an interesting tactic, because frames her in the reader’s mind before they are actually introduced to her own voice.
The rest of “The Rising Place” is told through Emily’s letters to Harry Devening, a young soldier who Emily fell in love with before he went off to war. Their final night of young love led to an unexpected consequence, however, which left Emily to deal with the aftermath alone. We learn that Emily’s lover had an African American grandmother. In the Deep South of the 1940s, it didn’t matter whether you had one percent of African blood in your DNA or one hundred percent: any African American ancestry meant that you would be classified as a Negro.
Harry was able to escape most of the backlash after disclosing his heritage to his boss by joining the war effort, but Emily’s reputation, and that of her family, is forever tainted because of her dalliance with the young man, made worse by the fact of an unplanned pregnancy. So starts Emily’s story as told by her letters.
Emily writes letter after letter to Harry, despite not getting much in response in return. She’s entirely faithful to Harry and is thrilled at the prospect of his return so that they and their child can be a proper family someday. During her ostracization after her pregnancy and the truth of her lover’s race is revealed, Emily becomes close friends with Wilma, a young Negro girl about the same age as she is.
Wilma is a fantastic secondary character. I liked how she really, truly cared for Emily, but also wasn’t afraid to call her out when she was being naive, especially regarding that state of racial tensions in their town. Emily could be a tough narrator to connect to at times because her ingrained attitudes towards the Negro community could sometimes paint her in an unfavorable light. Through Wilma, however, readers are really able to see how different each girl’s world was, and how change could only start if both white and Negro community members started working together toward the same goal: unity and acceptance.
The author of “The Rising Place” presents a clear message toward the evils of racism, and the dangers it posed to those who chose to fight it. I do wish that the subplot of the two murders and the town meeting, set up by the Reverend and Wilma, during the 1949 letters were given a little more weight, because I thought that was really the shining point of the novel. Of course, it was important to see how Emily transition from a naive teenage girl to a more street smart young woman, by including both the 1941-42 and 1949 letters, but the balance felt a little off and it took a while for me to really understand what the author wanted their main message to be.
“The Rising Place” is recommended for readers who enjoy historical fiction that also conveys important social messages. These readers can expect to be treated to a quick, but important read which really resonates in today’s sociopolitical climate. As I was reading, it was painfully evident that there can be obvious parallels drawn between the events of the Jim Crow south and the racial tensions of the present day. When people are divided over important social and moral issues, it’s important to stand up for what’s right and for those whose voices are being silenced. When people are united, then they can finally see that love really is colorblind, and it’s not the color of a person’s skin that measures their worth, but what’s inside their hearts.