In Burdy, Karen Spears Zacharias revisits the people of Christian Bend, Tennessee, some years after Mother of Rain first introduced them. That novel took place mostly in the Bend as the Depression gave way to World War II, and it concentrated on the increasingly unbalanced Maizee and her son, Rain, after Maizee’s young husband, Zeb, is given up for dead in the last year of the war.
Burdy uses the Bend—its people and their tragedies—as a home base, but it ranges far afield of East Tennessee. In 1955, Burdy, a dark-skinned Melungeon widow with “the gift” of healing, receives a letter from Zeb, in France. Taking it upon herself to find him, she tells no one in her close-knit community of her plans to visit France. Though she has never been farther from home than Bristol, Tennessee, Burdy books passage on the SS United States. New friends, a new man in her life, and a wholly new environment affect Burdy deeply, though she stays psychically rooted to home and her mission to find Zeb.
This is a richly emotional story, with powerful memories, guilt, and grief. Why did Zeb never come home? Was it irresponsibility, or has he been so deeply damaged or traumatized by the horrors of war that he cannot face his wife, son, and community? How will Burdy find the strength to tell Rain that his father is alive in Bayeux? Burdy keeps her own counsel and secrets for the sake of those at home who wouldn’t understand as fully as she does, thanks to her gift (though in this novel she is less a mysterious healer-seer than an independent, take-charge woman).
Burdy is also a richly detailed story, with lots of painterly description of places. While at home in the Bend, for example, Burdy visits Maizee and Zeb’s former house, near her own, and writes that it “smelled of unused kerosene and an overwhelming loneliness.” Outside, “lightning bugs flickered to a silent tune . . . dance partners with the stars, each one following the movement of the other to a tune only they could hear.” Most of the Burdy narrative is set far from the Bend, in places like the plush ocean liner, Le Havre’s docks, Bayeux and its cathedral, a Normandy military cemetery, and Paris. Zacharias spaces out the main plot with travelogues and luminous descriptions. People too are rendered in full color, and the story is not all Burdy’s: as in Mother of Rain, Zacharias slips into other points of view when necessary to explain what Burdy is confronting in her mission to find closure.
Ralph Bowden, who holds a Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina, has worked as an electrical engineer, history professor, home builder, alternative-energy consultant, and technical writer. A former resident of both Knoxville and Chattanooga, he lives in Cookeville.