by Joan Spilman
Lorraine has created a life for herself in Harshbarger Mills, West Virginia, but it hasn’t been easy. Harshbarger Mills is a place where no one forgets or forgives, and though Lorraine has little that needs forgiving, there’s a lot she’d like to forget. Even years after her mother deserted her and her twin brothers, memory keeps bringing up the scene where her mother is dressing before an antique vanity to play the organ for a revival. It’s also moment she knew, with a child’s desperate intuition, that even before the desertion her mother was already gone.
For a while, Lorraine had had an idyllic childhood, with parents who loved her and each other, but then her father was killed in an accident, and her mother, left alone with money but no options, fought off the terrible inertia of the town with alcohol. Then something happened at the revival, something that woke her mother out of that inertia and forced her to run. Lorraine doesn’t know what or why, but she keeps herself and her children as far as she can from the church and the people that sent her mother packing.
By now, she’s grown, and she’s used to being motherless. The absence has become not only tolerable but necessary to her sense of who she is. Then, she gets a letter — not a letter, really, a long, meandering confession from the mother she’d thought gone forever. It explains in excruciating detail why her mother had to go and what happened after. It sounds a little like an apology, but it never is, something Lorraine is too overwhelmed to see. It’s an appeal for understanding, for pity, but it is also an implicit demand: “Let me back into your life. Let me upend everything you have known or felt. Let me trample all the structures you’ve built against the loss I forced you to endure.”
And it works. Lorraine reads it over and over until she’s as much a creature of that narrative as she had once been of her own. Her teenaged daughter, Jenna, fights against this as best she can, but she’s a kid, and so in the end Jenna faces a shadow version of what Lorraine had lived through — her mother’s abdication. Jenna may not be parentless, but she has been deprived of the parent she knew and cannot get her back.
Silver Bottle is told in four, unequal parts ranging back in time: Lorraine’s narrative first, then her mother’s, then her daughter’s. The final selection is narrated by Lorraine’s grandmother, Lizzie, who has been, without the slightest intention of causing harm, the momentum for much of the harm that has come their way. Her narrative ranges back to her own childhood and before, until the reader finally sees that this momentum is like a genetic code, passed from mother to daughter, not through anger but through acts of love, and that there is no escape. Silver Bottle is a journey back to the source.
Hi! If you enjoy Appalachian fiction with a touch of Southern Gothic (think Sue Monk Kidd or Pat Conroy) you’ll enjoy Silver Bottle. I’ll be sharing excerpts throughout the coming week. Hope you pause to give me a read.