Reading (and Skyping) in Rappahannock

“Going to Solace” by Amanda McTigue
298 pages, Harper Davis Publishing (2012)

Terminal illness of a loved one, nursing homes, hospice care . . . none of these topics appear to offer a promising focus for an entertaining novel. “Going to Solace” by Amanda McTigue disproves that appearance, providing the reader with not only tears but also laughter and inspiration.

Rappahannock County readers, like those in other counties throughout the nation, will appreciate the novel’s treatment of these universal experiences as each of us copes with imminent loss of loved ones and the resultant grief. In addition, Rappahannock County readers will especially enjoy the familiar attributes of the small-town setting in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Our book club (Sally Cunningham, Toni Egger, Paula Howland, Sharon Luke, Toni Massie, Cheri Woodard and me) read “Going to Solace” on the recommendation of Toni Egger, who reacquainted herself with the author at their 40th high school reunion. We decided to invite the author to join our book discussion through technology on a Thursday evening, and she graciously accepted. So we gathered together in Cheri Woodard’s office (with high-speed internet), connected with Ms. McTigue (“call me Amanda”) via Skype, and asked each other questions about the novel and its connections with our lives. (Skype is a free service that allows two computers to connect with both video and voice.)

The title “Going to Solace” begins the reader’s experience with a play on words. “Solace” is the name of the local hospice care institution, occupying a large old home in a tiny town in Appalachia. As happens in small towns, residents soon shorten the institution’s name to one word, “Solace,” and transferring a family member to the nursing home comes to be known as “going to Solace.”

This opening double-entendre presages other wordplay such as the titles of each short chapter, phrases taken from hymns, prayers, and proverbs: “I Go to Prepare,” “There’s No Place Like Home,” “We Gather Together,” “Abide with Me,” “Freedom’s Just Another” and “He Maketh Me to Lie Down,” for example. Amanda told us that her publisher tried to dissuade her from including these chapter titles, along with the dates and times, that led up to Thanksgiving, but she insisted, and we agreed that they suggested a theme for each of the 50 chapters in the 298-page novel as well as resonance for the setting.

The chapters provide alternating vignettes of three families who are connected with Solace, either by having a family member in the home itself or having a visiting nurse from the home coming to the ill person’s house, and expands those vignettes to include the caretakers and family friends. Our book club members each had our favorite characters; from the endearing Candace Greevey, a developmentally delayed teenaged girl whose mother enters Solace, to the taciturn Walter Early, a husband and grandfather whose wife enters Solace as he strives to support her while caring for the twin granddaughters for whom they are responsible.

Amanda described her writing process to us, beginning with the vignettes almost writing themselves, as if the characters wanted to get themselves on the pages. Much editing followed these initial phases of what sounded like effortless creativity, as Amanda sought to fit the stories together so that the reader could follow them.

The setting of “Going to Solace” appears not only in its description. (Page 164: “With the leaves mostly gone, you could see through the web of branches clear across to the blue ridge of the Blue Ridge like looking at water through a screen.” Ms. McTigue also communicates the setting through the detail of the location (the Rexall, the Pay-Less Pantry, the Bi-Lo) and the phrases (“her people”).

When asked about her decision-making regarding dialect, Amanda acknowledged that she had begun with the style that uses apostrophes and dropped consonants to approximate the accents of the speakers. Coming from a background of script-writing, she arranged for actors to read the text aloud. When they struggled, she moved to simplify the dialect and communicate it through vocabulary and syntax. Readers in Rappahannock County will find it authentic. Our members could visualize a dramatization and/or a movie.

The manipulation of language also appears in the malapropisms of one of the characters: “No room for the lazy.” “We’ll live high on the log.” “Let them eat steak!” “The Lord moves in wisteria’s ways.” This book can make the reader laugh out loud! And, we laughed frequently as we interacted with the charming Amanda McTigue. We felt as if she was in the room with us.

Rappahannock readers may most appreciate the insights about small-town community articulated by the characters’ thoughts and manifested by their actions. Neighbors bring covered dishes of Thanksgiving dinner to the homes of families struggling with ill relatives. Townspeople worry about an unaccompanied girl waiting for a bus. Children call friends of the family “aunt” and “uncle,” and newcomers are noted and discussed. Church is part of everyone’s experience.

Amanda spent summers with her grandmother in the Blue Ridge (she attended school in Washington, D.C.). She sees the reality of Appalachia as stronger than that of California where she now lives. One of her characters says it best: “In Northern California, the cryptic was considered magical, full of meaning precisely because it was devoid of meaning. Maggie lived in a world where emptiness signified potential and potential was all, trumping the disheartening limitations of the real.”

Our book club would have enjoyed “Going to Solace” even without the amplifying pleasure of discussing the novel with its author. (We reluctantly signed off after an hour and a half of constant talk.) The book explores a difficult and omnipresent life experience and shows the reader the joy as well as the grief, and the humor as well as the dread. Rappahannock County readers will respond to the themes and the setting. As for our book group, we plan on adding more authors to our discussions through the 21st-century tool of Skype, right here in Rappahannock County!