Hope Valley by John Manuel
Regional novels published by small presses face great difficulty gaining traction in the massive world of publishing. Tens of thousands of books are published each year, most of them by major publishers who have the money and resources to push their authors to the forefront of the public’s consciousness. Given their profit motives, they have little reason to take a chance on new or unknown writers. The big presses get their books into stores; small presses must rely on local book readings or word of mouth in order to gain notice.
Fortunately, small presses such as Red Lodge Press exist. Hope Valley, John Manuel’s debut novel, available on various Internet sites, is a fine example of the gold available in these regional-focused printings. It is a story of personal and community transformation, about a dying town on the cusp of becoming “North Carolina’s Hippest City,” according to Vogue in its April 2017 issue.
Manuel’s characters are pulled, with varying degrees of willingness, from the comfort of their traditional views and societal norms. They must learn to listen to one another and come to grips with the necessity of forgiveness. Manuel blends humor and tragedy in bringing his characters to life as they cope with the most basic issues in society. Written before the “Sturm und Drang” of 2017, it is a prescient revelation of the problems we now face and, ultimately, presents an important part of the solution.
Hurley Cates is retired from a local cigarette factory in a decaying downtown. He and his shy wife Opal live on a small farm on the outskirts of town. “His hometown of Durham was being invaded by gays and lesbians and, like slugs crossing the patio, they needed to be stamped out.” Racist, fundamental Christians (especially Hurley), they are bolstered by the rantings of their preacher who takes them to an LGBTQ march to protest the arrival of this “bad” element in their community. He sees his friend Tom throw an egg and hit a woman in the head. When she turns around, Hurley thinks he sees his daughter Patsy.
A few months later their son moves out of the house Hurley built for him; the house is soon bought by two women who move in. Renata and Danny represent a new world. Renata works in the Research Triangle Park. Danny, who teaches religion at Duke, was the woman hit by the egg. When they tell Hurley and Opal they are a couple, “The color drained from Opal’s face… Hurley held onto his smile….” As Hurley interacts with them, he begins to view them differently, and Opal begins to soften when a child of mixed race is born. Tragedy strikes and the gains are sundered, and it seems that all is lost.
The central questions are clear: Can ingrained bigotry be changed? What is the difference between mob mentality versus face-to-face interaction? Manuel captures the voices and attitudes of the people who inhabit this fine debut novel. It lays bare the forgiving humanity that often underlies the most vociferous antagonists—if they can be isolated from the crowd. As Hurley says, “There’s a lot you don’t count on in life. Sometimes you’ve got to adjust.” He finds similarities where there seem to be none, even in such simple tasks as mowing the yard or creating a garden.
A freelance writer, John Manuel has written two nonfiction books, The Natural Traveler Along North Carolina’s Coast and The Canoeist: A Memoir. His short stories have appeared in the Savannah Anthology and he has written many articles for Environmental Health Perspectives and Wildlife in North Carolina. Full disclosure: I have played tennis against Manuel many times. We win some; we lose some.