Wilmington’s literary community keeps gaining accolades (two National Book Awards nominees in 2015) and attention in the press. With multiple established publishers in the state (Algonquin, John F. Blair) and new smaller presses gaining traction (Eno, Bull City), it is timely to shine a light on discussions around literature, publishing and the importance of communicating a truthful story in our present world.
Welcome to Carpe Librum, encore’s biweekly book column, wherein I will dissect a current title with an old book—because literature does not exist in a vacuum but emerges to participate in a larger, cultural conversation. I will feature many NC writers; however, the hope is to place the discussion in a larger context and therefore examine works around the world.
The Kings and Queens of Roam
By Daniel Wallace
Touchstone, 2013, pgs. 288
Daniel Wallace is best known for “Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions,” which was turned into a film by Tim Burton in 2003, starring Ewan McGregor, Albert Finney and Jessica Lange, before becoming a stage musical in 2013. Not only does Wallace have other books, he lives in Chapel Hill and teaches at UNC. Though I admire “Big Fish,” a Wallace book I find myself going back to repeatedly is “The Kings and Queens of Roam.”
Perhaps it is because Wallace manages to show us how one sibling could steal another sibling’s face without laying a finger on her. Meet Helen and Rachel, two sisters in the strange, cursed town of Roam. It is buried somewhere in America, and somewhere in time. Among the residents of Roam are the two orphaned sisters who rely on each other—but one, Helen, is far from attractive, while the other, Rachel, is incredibly beautiful but blind. She has no idea what she looks like. Her relationship with her sister is one of complete dependence—for everything from food and shelter, to an understanding of the people they meet and how the world they live in functions. Helen has convinced her sister she is incredibly ugly, and everyone in the world lies to her constantly. Every corner is filled with danger, distrust and potential for pain. Without Helen to guide her, Rachel would be utterly lost. But, in the quintessential masterful Wallace way, the author moves Helen and Rachel inexorably to a cliff that metaphorically and literally changes both of their lives and the town of Roam forever.
Helen and Rachel are incredible reflections of the human psyche: Do we listen to the ugly, angry side of ourselves? Or do we wake up and listen to the kind, beautiful side? Perhaps their journey is so captivating because at its heart is our inner selves trying to learn to see our world with clarity and honesty—and our own actions the same. We are all the hero in our own story, but many of us act as anything but heroic in our daily lives. Yet, we rationalize away our choices rather than confront them for what they are. In the tradition of the fairy tale, Wallace really does wonders for creating cautionary tales about us that entertain while teach.
While he tells the story of the two sisters, he intersperses it with the bizarre and horrific founding of the town of Roam. It is a story steeped in deceit and bloodshed, which sets the stage for and continues to influence events that follow.
Growing up in a city that is still grappling with both the events of 1898 and the Wilmington 10, I completely understand the idea that such horror could cast a pall for generations. Such events do impact the world to come in ways that—though intangible and hard to quantify—are palpable to the heirs. Much like the sort of tall-tale voice of “Big Fish,” “The Kings and Queens of Roam” employs the same matter-of-factness about recounting truly mystical and unbelievable events, as well as contemptible ones. Maybe that’s what I like so much: Wallace is just telling us a story; he isn’t trying to convince us of anything, but his belief in the veracity of the world of the story is complete.
Wallace has an absolutely beautiful way with words. There are some singers whose voices are so beautiful I would listen to them melodize the phone book. Wallace is like that with words: He could write a history of pavement that would captivate. He builds the town of Roam from the first lie that led to its creation to the last lie that could ultimately destroy or save them.
At election time a lot of talk gets focused on the ghost towns created by the loss of industry, and attempts to bring back a way of life from before. Though “The Rust Belt” is an easy label, it doesn’t take long driving through the rural South to come across a town that has ceased to have any viable economic activity. Part of what is unspoken in this conversation is the necessity to care for and nurture ourselves and our world. As a storyteller Wallace comes around the side to shine a light on that necessity through the stunning and captivating story of Roam and the two sisters who died on the same day.
In our state’s literary circles, a lot of emphasis is put on writers perceived to have more literary merit. But part of what I love so much about Wallace’s work is the sheer lack of pretention, which lets him tell a more interesting and compelling story. All his work is great (really), but if readers haven’t made it beyond “Big Fish,” pick up “The Kings and Queens of Roam.” You will be so glad you did.