Sunday, July 6, 2014

Kim Church's 'Byrd'

My reading list suddenly took an unexpectedly local turn a few weeks ago.

A friend of mine, Lexington native Kim Church, was appearing in a Greensboro bookstore to give a reading from her debut novel "Byrd." My wife and I missed her Saturday afternoon reading at the library in Lexington a month earlier because of a nap that lasted longer than it should have. Hey, at our age, naps give no warning until it's way too late.

Kim Church
But we didn't want to miss out, so when Kim's wide-ranging book tour came to Greensboro, we posted little reminders about it around the house. And this time we made it.

Let me explain something first. While I love to read, I'm mostly a history and sports guy. I do enjoy spellbinding fiction — "To Kill a Mockingbird" comes quickly to mind, not to mention a little Stephen King or G.R.R. Martin now and then — but new fiction better be pretty darn riveting to capture my sometimes driftwood attention span.

And I had my doubts. I wasn't sure how a coming-of-age novel, written by a woman about a small-town North Carolina girl, was going to resonate with a guy who grew up reading Sports Illustrated while taking side trips to Gettysburg.

I should have known better. I've known Kim since the late 1970s, when I first came to Lexington to write for The Dispatch and she was friends with the paper's then-photographer Gareth Wetherill. Both of them more or less took me in when I was young and new to the area, and for which I am forever grateful.

But you could see something smoldering in Kim even then. She went on to become a successful Raleigh-based lawyer, but written words were her burning avocation. She's crafted poetry that has appeared in such publications as Painted Bride Quarterly, Shenandoah and Mississippi Review.

Somehow, "Byrd" took hold inside her, resulting in a project whose seeds were sown for the creation of her primary character, Addie Lockwood, as long ago as 1998.

Kim artfully paints pictures with her words. Witness this on page 8 as she deliciously describes Addie's friend Shelia:

"In fourth grade she sits next to Shelia DeLapp and watches her practice her cursive: the slow, fat letters; the way Shelia bites her tongue when she writes; the way her hands sweat and make the notebook paper bubble up. At the end of every word, Shelia lifts her pencil off the page and rolls it around in her fingers to redistribute her weight on the lead.

"Shelia spells her name with the L before the I, prettier than the way most people spell it, even though she pronounces it the same. She-la."

Nuance. Detail. And some by-golly I-never-thought-of-that insight. These are some of the tools that writers use to bring their truth to storytelling. Some have it. Some don't. Kim does. Clearly.

Here's another example as she writes about Addie's middle-age relationship with William, a muralist:

"At forty-one, Addie is taking soy vitamins for hot flashes. She rinses her hair with henna to color the gray.

"William is forty-three and wears gel inserts in his shoes.

"Neither of them thinks of love the way they used to, as something to be fallen into, like a bed or a pit. It isn't big and deep and abstract. Love is particulate. It's fine. It accumulates like dust."

Holy cow. That's me speaking now, a different kind of writer making my own insight here. Holy cow is the best I can do because my own words escape me. See me nodding my head in awe. Some passages in this book read almost like poetry anyway. Holy cow.

Positive reviews seem to be following "Byrd" around, including those from New York Times bestselling authors Ron Rash and Jill McCorkle, as well as others like Patricia Henley, Debra Monroe and Angela Davis-Gardner.

"Byrd" may not be a story for everybody. Addie has a child outside of marriage and puts it up for adoption. But then Addie writes letters to the child she'll never meet. It's the letters that sometimes give compelling counterpoints and punctuation to the storyline. It's a novel of choices made and not made.

I'm not sure where "Byrd" puts Kim in the realm of Lexington authors, but I'm guessing she's going to be a hard act to follow in any event.

That's my insight.

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