In Down By the River, the sixth Smoky Mountain novel by Lin Stepp, Grace Conley is in East Tennessee to collect her daughter from college and then return to Nashville. But instead, she suddenly decides to buy a bed-and-breakfast in Townsend, Tennessee, and begin a new life.
This impulse decision does not go over well with Grace’s family. Her children have known their mother only as a wife (now widow) and stay-at-home mom who now helps with the grandchildren. “Mom, whatever were you thinking to do something like this?” her son, Ken, demands. “And without asking any of us? What do you know about running a bed-and-breakfast for goodness sakes? You’re not a businesswoman. You’re a mom. You cook and do crafts and go to civic meetings and stuff. You’ve never even worked or anything. And what education have you gotten to even prepare yourself for this?” Even worse, Grace’s son-in-law wants her to move into the retirement community he runs. After all, she’ll be fifty in less than a year.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given this crew at home, Grace knows it’s time for her to do something different. And while visiting Townsend, she might have had a sign from on high nudging her along: Zola, the owner of a local gift shop, “sometimes hears a little word from God for people,” and she advises Grace to buy the inn. Then Vincent, the young preacher of the Creekside Independent Presbyterian Church, tells her there is meant to be a connection between their lives.
Stepp alternates the point of view in Down By the River between Grace and Jack Teague, a Townsend realtor and local ladies’ man. Jack plays the field (with a preference for the young and pretty), but he is also a good father to his twin daughters, and Grace feels an immediate attraction to him. While Grace and Jack try to work out their relationship, more complications arise. When Grace’s younger daughter, Margaret, moves in for the summer, Vincent recognizes the nature of the connection he felt with Grace: her daughter is meant to be his wife. The only problem is that Margaret has career plans of her own—and she’s not exactly minister’s-wife material, either.
Down By the River is an overtly religious novel, one which reinforces a conservative Christian world view, so readers will probably not be surprised by the way things work out for these characters. Nevertheless, the idea that change is always possible, even for a character deep into midlife, is one that will likely resonate long after the story ends, particularly for Appalachian readers. “As a native Tennessean, I’ve always hated the preponderance of books that paint the residents of our mountains as homespun, inbred, dumb as dirt, barefoot and drinkin’ moonshine,” Stepp told USA Today in a recent interview. “I paint stories in today’s time of what the people in this area are really like—people of warmth, caring, strength and high ideals.”
Faye Jones, dean of learning resources at Nashville State Community College, writes the Jolly Librarian blog for the college’s Mayfield Library. She earned her doctorate in nineteenth-century literature at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.