A New South: Diane Simmons on Valerie Nieman’s Blood Clay

Blood Clay, Valerie Nieman, Press 53

In her new novel, Blood Clay, set rural North, Carolina, Valerie Nieman is interested in the tangled social lines of the new South, the struggle of newcomers to belong, and of natives to keep their balance in changing times. Beneath the fascination with change runs a deep love for the changeless, the way the deep roots of a place can hold and comfort, despite the complications of both past and present.

Nieman’s heroine, Tracy Gaines, has left a failed marriage and bad weather up north, and journeyed down to the red dirt tobacco country of Saul County, North Carolina. Here she falls in love with a “slouchy” old farm house, “whiter in the moonlight than in the day, half hidden by the cedars that reached the second story porch.” The house, she believes, will, with a lot of hard work, allow her to earn belonging: “Resurrected board by board, the scraping and painting. . .would settle her in that place, make her a part of its history.” Her efforts at the house are overseen by a pack of feral cats; they will take her food but won’t come close. They—like Tracy herself—are not entirely sure she’ll make it.

While the house has all the charm of a Southern romance, Tracy’s job is another story, a tough haul, usually thankless, sometimes dangerous, in an “alternative” school for teenagers who are “behaviorally impaired,” “emotionally damaged,” or simply learning disabled with no place else to be sent. Also teaching at the school is Dave, an old-family, native of the place, who tried to leave Saul County for the big city of Baltimore. After a brutal encounter there, he has returned, a cripple in more ways than one: “I’m afraid I’ve turned into a racist,” he says, “as well as a coward.” Though born and raised here, he is, and in some ways is as much an outsider as Tracy.

She has also gotten acquainted with Artis, the divorced father of one of her troubled students, and a tobacco farmer whose land is adjacent to hers. But her neighbor’s wide smile is misleading. When Tracy invites him over to drink a glass of tea and inspect her work on the old house, his smile fades. “Oh honey. Let’s just stay neighbors,” he says before turning and walking off to his truck. “You got too much cat in you for a hound like me.”

Still new to the challenges of the house, the job, and local society, Tracy, driving alone on a dark country road, is witness to a terrible accident involving a child. In the days afterward, rumors and charges swirl. Some claim that the new teacher from up North caused the horrible accident. Some say she has sought to cast blame unfairly on Artis. At the very least, others say, she had not acted honorably, but stood by in shameful cowardice; a true person of the place would have taken action to save the child. This last view is one that Tracy is not sure but what she shares herself. The accident and its aftermath embroil her in a police inquest, and bring her head-to-head with both Artis and the child’s mother. Tracy is still “new,” but the accident tugs her painfully but deeply into the life of the hamlet.

Though the story is tautly suspenseful, it has its beauties too, especially in the close, sensual exploration of the old house and the woods surrounding it. In a “midden” pile that she finds in the wood, for example, Tracey excavates evidence of the past, an old belt buckle, a little stoneware bowl from the 1930s, an ancient jar of cobalt blue. As she digs in the heavy red clay, she is rewarded by the scent of the deep and on-going life of the place, the “yeasty smell of the opened ground,” as good as “bread baking in the kitchen.”


Diane Simmons’ short fiction collection, Little America, winner of the 2010 Ohio State University prize for fiction, will be published by the Ohio State University Press in June. Her short story, “Yukon River,” was a runner-up for the 2010 Missouri Review Editor’s Prize. Other short fiction has appeared in numerous journals such as Beloit Fiction Review, Blood Orange Review, and Northwest Review.