Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Neena Gathering: A Review

Valerie Nieman's Neena Gathering is a post apocalyptic novel set in a somewhat near future West Virginia after chemical/biological weapons of mass destruction have destroyed the main cities of North America in a bloody civil war between the already fractured pieces of the United States. [pause for breath] Originally published in 1988 by Pageant Books, this novel had been brought back by Permuted Press with a new cover.

New Cover

Original Cover. Note, Neena looks more like the gal in the first, but the tone of the story is closer to the second.

Valerie Nieman (alternate)(she was Valerie Nieman Colander on first printing) (1955-) Born in Jamestown, New York, she moved to West Virginia to get a Bachelor of Science degree in Journalism (1978). She is an award winning poet,  and novelist.  Her other novels seem to focus on rural working folks lives and difficulties. At the time this was written, she was homesteading in West Virginia in a home she and her husband had built, and working as a reporter at a small daily paper.  She went back to school in her 40s to get a Masters of Fine Arts degree from Queens University in Charlotte, NC. She now lives in Greensboro, NC and is an associate professor teaching creative writing at North Carolina A&T University, and is the poetry editor of Prime Number Magazine.  This was her first novel, and the only apocalyptic one.

Neena, our heroine, and the main narrator of our story, is an orphaned teenager who, 8 years prior, had been sent by her mother to live with her Aunt in the Hills of West Virginia.    Where in West Virginia?  The nonexistent Middleton is noted as the nearest town.  Well the Tinker who brought her out of Maryland was leaving from Hagerstown, MD, and the Cumberland Gap (following Interstate 68) will take you to the area of Fairmont, West Virginia (present population ~18,000), which along with zip code 26554, gets referred to as the Middleton District.  Fairfax is also somewhat near Pittsburgh, PA which is referenced as being somewhat proximate.  It's not a lock, but seems reasonable to me.
Neena lives with a strict no-nonsense Aunt, who obviously cares for her, but lacks a sense of humor or play.  The Aunt is noted as being a bit of a homesteader-style survivalist, and makes her living by trading the various herbs, and plant materials that are available to those who know how to find and use them.
The story begins with the surprise arrival of the  aunts younger brother's: that is Neena's Uncle. The Uncle is very different, unlike the Aunt, who only cares about non-fiction, facts, and work, the Uncle loves poetry, classic literature, and does have a sense for enjoyment.  He also brings more mixed blessings.  While he is adds a strong back to their small household, he uses it to grow corn to be made into moonshine. The moonshine actually makes sense, because without water transport, alcohol is the easiest way to ship grain products without spoilage in this new low tech society. Thus our Whiskey Rebellion has a little more serious implications than bunch of backwoods folks arguing over moonshine.
The problem with the Uncle, and the moonshine, is that he likes to drink a little too much. In addition, he quickly becomes possessive, in a creepy sort of way, of the budding red head that is Neena.  He also has a rather violent, unforgiving nature, with a bit of a flash temper: traights not improved by alcohol.  Neena, with previously no experience open affection or enjoyment is both tempted, and nervous of his advances.
The final main character is a trader who lives a few hills over.  He is calm, capable, educated, and strong. But he was caught in one of the chemical attacks, and his outward appearance is a bit monstrous.  He is bitterly disliked by the intolerant Uncle, and the two quickly become antagonists.
The story would now be called a YA (young adult) coming of age story. I don't think 'YA' was the marketing vehicle it is today, so it is written in a more adult, literary style than most of today's fare.  The author has an obvious love for nature, and the wild abundance available to the knowledgable forager.
There are a number of sub-themes that run throughout the story, but the author doesn't tell you what they are, she simply tells her story and lets you draw your own conclusions.  There is the obvious distinction between the, possibly less effective, herbal remedies and the lost wonders of modern medicine.  But while the herbs may not be as potent, they also are not part of the chemical/biological industry that weaponized the medical process.  A medical technology, that helps to eradicate a large percentage of the North American population, is of course a mixed blessing. 
There are a lot of dangers in this world. Cholera, the red death, is back.  There are crazed (understandably) apocalyptic religious folks, and marauders.  But the author, I think, is much more realistic than the more combat orientated apocalyptic authors.  As an example, what do you do when marauders are around?  You hide near your property, leaving just enough of the little you have behind so that they will take it and go in piece.  If they get destructive, and their numbers are not too large, than you might intervene.  I think the authors work as a newspaper reporter gives are better sense of what types of craziness, and kindness, people are capable.  The character interactions, both with the major players, and minor ones, always have a certain "realness" to them.
Well did I like it?  Obviously from what I have written, I did.  It has a little bit of the eras nuclear war "death of the cities" feel to it.  The Archdruid, is always mystified about where the current scenario for everyone running out of the cities into the countryside comes from, and thinks there is no historical basis for it.  Well the basis is the World War 3 -nuclear war apocalyptic novels that started in the 1940s, and this book fits in well with that theme.  As an aside, he is correct that flights from cities in a disaster are unusual, but they did come during certain pandemics/plagues where the obvious locus of the disease was the city and its population.  Poe's Masque of the Red Death is all about such an attempt at escape.  Oddly enough though, in reading Braudel's Capitalism and Material Life 1400-1800, he notes that the Italian city states had problems during the frequent famines of the folks from the countryside piling into the cities, as only they were wealthy enough to have a large grain reserve on hand.  So while the cause of disaster doesn't fit in with the current fashionable crop of zombies, pandemics, and EMP-bursts, and as such does feel a little "off", it is none-the-less perfectly serviceable to get the job done.
We now come to our two descriptive (not qualitative) ratings: 1 to 7 with 4 the mid-point and 7 high. Realism does not include the cause of the collapse or apocalypse, but is otherwise an assessment of how close to today's world is the setting. Could you imagine your friends, or families living through the situation. Readability is not literary merits, but literally how quick and painless of a read.
Realism is pretty straight forward.  Other than the slightly futuristic nature of the events, the United States had already broken up into warring factions before the bombing started, it is very much concerned with life in the here and now.  As a homesteader, the author knows how much time is involved in getting things done, and the labor involved in running a small homestead.  It is a 6.
Readability is straightforward.  It has a calm and collected pacing, so while you are concerned as to what Neena will do, and how things will turn out, it isn't a page turner.  It is literary enough that some basic knowledge of a few very well known classics is slightly helpful.  But isn't critical.  As I noted there are a number of sub-themes, but the author does not beat you over the head with mysto-symbolism that is impossible to untangle. You can choose to think through the implications as you wish.  It is a literary 6.

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