We’re reading our way across America...one romance at a time. And, to make it even more fun, we’re doing it in order of incorporation into the United States.
Arkansas: The Marrying Stone by Pamela Morsi
The next stop on our literary tour of the United States is Arkansas, home to the untamed beauty of the Ozark Mountains. The Ozarks form the picturesque backdrop for Pamela Morsi’s 1994 novel Marrying Stone, which combines local legend, a clash of cultures, an unexpected friendship, and a completely expected romance to entirely entertaining effect.
Morsi’s tale begins in 1902, when Harvard-educated ethnomusicologist J. Monroe Farley makes the arduous journey from the Bay State to the backwoods town of Marrying Stone, Arkansas, to trace the origins of certain Scotch-Irish ballads. If you’re thinking that this sounds a lot like the plot of the 2000 film Songcatcher, you’re right! – Except the movie was set in the Appalachians, the researcher was a woman, and a grubbily smoldering Aidan Quinn was involved. But I digress.
Anyway, Roe soon meets the Best family, consisting of patriarch Onery, son “Simple” Jess, and dreamy daughter Meggie, whose head is perpetually in the clouds. Upon clapping eyes upon the strapping young Roe for the first time, Meggie promptly concludes that he is a “handsome prince” who is kicking it fairy-tale style to rescue her from her life of drudgery and privation. (I mean, not only does this family not have a toilet, they don’t even have an outhouse.) Accordingly, she permits him to steal a kiss. Realizing her mistake, she decides that actually she hates him – but a poorly-timed bout of food poisoning, brought on by Meggie’s somewhat questionable cooking, lays Roe low, and he ends up needing to stay with the Bests while he recovers.
The plot thickens! Roe and Meggie wind up having a conversation while sitting atop the Marrying Stone, the landmark for which the town is named. Local lore has it that when a couple jumps from the Marrying Stone, they’re married in everything but name, and wouldn’t you know it? A skunk (which may or may not be imaginary) startles the pair, and they make the leap. Suddenly the whole town thinks they’re married; Meggie thinks Roe is going to fake his own death and leave her as soon as he’s collected enough songs for his research (actually, it’s her idea for him to do exactly that); Simple Jess – who may not be the sharpest tool in the shed, but dang if he doesn’t have a heart as big as all outdoors! – thinks Roe is the best man he’s ever met; and Roe thinks…well, it’s complicated. Will he come to his senses and stay with his mountain bride, or will he break the whole Best family’s collective heart?
One thing that sets this book apart from most others is the friendship that springs up between book-smart Roe and Simple Jess. In general, I tend not to get too excited about books in which the humble, simple country folk teach the big-city slickers what’s really important, but the relationship between Roe and Jess is heartfelt and real. The book is also notable for one of the more clear-eyed views of love and marriage that I’ve ever seen in a romance novel, as presented by longtime Marrying Stone resident Granny Piggott:
“Love, oh, my, it starts out simple and scary with all that heavy breathing and in the bed sharing,” she said. “You a-trembling when he runs his hands acrost your skin, him screaming out your name when he gets in the short rows. That’s the easy part, Meggie. Every day thereafter it gets harder. The more you know him, the more he knows you, the longer you are a part of each other, the stronger the love is and the tougher it is to have it…Your life becomes a part of someone else’s and that can be hard, very hard. But, Meggie, it is so much worth the effort.”
Overall, while I never fully bought into the relationship between Meggie (who is stubborn to a fault and really not a very nice person for much of the book) and Roe (who has something of a foot fetish, if the number of times he muses over Meggie’s beautiful, thin bare feet is any indication), I found plenty to enjoy in Marrying Stone, including unexpected wisdom around the edges of things. It was also a pleasure to find a book that celebrates a truly gorgeous and often overlooked area of the country. I’d recommend this book to anyone who appreciates folk music, country living, and the quiet virtues of a simpler way of life.
Kate Nagy is Editor at Large of Geek Speak Magazine.