Matthew Neill Null’s assured debut novel is a lyrical yet gritty tribute to the strength of his own ancestors and the essential tragedy of their lives. With Honey from the Lion, Null, a celebrated short-story writer, joins the ranks of Appalachian novelists like Ron Rash, Robert Morgan, and Amy Greene, who find their inspiration in the mountains, where a rugged environment chisels hard people.
According to an author’s note, Null began planning this novel about the early-twentieth-century timber industry when he was just nineteen. His aim, he writes, is “to probe ambiguity and change” in his home state of West Virginia, which has been raped of its resources time and again. Despite that plundered wealth, the state “is, even now, an internal colony, providing fuel to the country in which it uneasily resides.” In Honey from the Lion Null plumbs this ambiguity in a taunt story of love and betrayal set in a timber boom town seething with resentments that will ultimately help to spawn the American labor movement.
When old Neill Greathouse finds his young wife, Sarah, entwined with his own son, he throws the boy off their mountain farm. Severed from the land that should have been his inheritance, Coleman “Cur” Greathouse is set adrift in a time of desperate poverty and social upheaval. He washes up in Helena, a West Virginia logging town named after one of the absentee timber barons. The boom town swarms with desperate country folk forced off the land, crazy preachers, immigrant laborers, whores, peddlers and drunks.
Cur signs on with Cheat River Paper & Pulp as a lumberman and sets to logging the virgin forests of West Virginia. The rough timber wolves live for payday and a trip to Helena, but a few of them whisper about organizing and revolution. Inevitably, Cur is drawn into the nascent union movement, but he is a bit different from his mates—softer, more observant. When he throws a well-aimed rock and to his surprise kills a great blue heron, the other loggers marvel, celebrating his luck, loving him for it. But “Cur felt a hot needle of shame,” Null writes. “He wasn’t a violent man—an odd thing considering what he and his partners were planning on doing in the world. This evening he was being sent to purchase weaponry and other tools of revolution.”
In tense, lyrical prose, Null dips into the thoughts and actions of his characters. Zala “Sally” Cove, a Slovenian secretary, has a key to the timber company’s offices. Leo Caspani, an Italian dynamite setter, has gunpowder and secrets. Luke Seldomridge, a visionary preacher, agonizes over his faith with Lis Grayab, a Syrian peddler, as Cur’s friends McBride and Neversummer are sucked inexorably into the ripples widening from the nebulous plan blow up the timber company’s operations and assassinate its owners.
Every paragraph, every sentence, displays Null’s skill, shifting from near-poetry to staccato prose that builds tension:
Grayab traveled more than most. He saw dying trout that wheeled in the shallows like rags. “Ain’t it a shame?” the fishermen said when he tried to sell them hooks. When he touched the water at their insistence, he found it alarmingly warm for May. The gravel redds of trout, like small snuffed volcanoes, pooled with silt. Miles of oaks cut off from Kennison Mountain in one swoop. That winter, he found dozens of fawns dead in the woods, bony as greyhounds, so slight he could lift the rib cages and rattle them like gourds.
Pulling the strings are three wealthy New Yorkers, who as young Union soldiers fetched up together on top of a West Virginia mountain during the chaotic Mountain Campaign. They looked out over the vast sea of trees and recognized them as an untapped fortune in timber. Only one of them, Shelby Randolph, regularly comes to Helena to check on their investment, and there he feels the vibration of the coming revolt. “They had done it to themselves, Randolph thought miserably.”
Honey from the Lion is a passionate tribute to a landscape sacrificed in the American lust for conquest of the wilderness, and to the lives that were lost or ruined along the way. It also marks the arrival of a novelist with both artistic daring and the ability to tell a great story.
Lyda Phillips is a veteran journalist who grew up in Memphis and has earned degrees from Northwestern, Columbia, and Vanderbilt universities. The author of two young-adult novels, she worked for United Press International before returning to Nashville.