REVIEW: Hillwilla by Melanie Forde
Beatrice Desmond, 55, lives on a remote farm nestled in a deep hollow in southern West Virginia. Her troubled past–an alcoholic father, growing up borderline poor, a suicidal husband–along with her loyalty to a deceased friend, drove her to this lonely existence. She soldiers on, accompanied by her wry sense of humor, a faithful setter named Ralph, and an inherited herd of six llamas, one of whom hurls a wad of chewed-up hay in her face on New Year’s Day, a most unwelcome omen.
A native of Boston and a graduate of an Ivy League college, Beatrice is a fish out of water in fictional Seneca County. She has constant difficulty dealing with the locals, many of whom she finds interesting but unfathomable. And although she maintains contact with certain friends and family–lively and irreverent Evie, sturdy brother Bart–they remain distant geographically and sometimes emotionally. As a result, and too often, Beatrice retreats into her work as a translator and editor, or into the bottle of Jack Daniel’s she maintains nearby. Fate finally intervenes, requiring Beatrice to befriend and shelter Clara, an abused teenager, and accept the job of ghostwriting the memoir of her dashing but enigmatic neighbor, Tanner Fordyce. Gradually, Beatrice finds the harsh Appalachian winter of her life easing and signs of a hopeful spring appearing. Her resolute independence and crusty reserve soften, her carefully constructed barriers fall, and her guarded and self-protective nature moderates, as she explores the renewed pleasures of emotional involvement.
At times sad, at times hilarious, and always quirky, Hillwilla is a life-affirming read. It celebrates the glories of nature, the resilience of the human spirit, the healing power derived from genuine connections with others, and the potential for reinventing ourselves–at any age.
Come, explore the unforgettable world of Hillwilla.
Trigger warnings – Terms and descriptions are used which can be seen as marginalizing. Clara is not abused physically but the threat was there. The abuse one character endured as a child is recalled enough to get an idea of it but it is not detailed. There are times when Beatrice drinks a bit much bourbon and she’s dealt with two suicides in her life.
Dear Ms. Forde,
When I read the excerpt for “Hillwilla,” I was intrigued. I was also a bit amused by the opening scene of Beatrice getting a shot of llama spit to the face. After I read “Last Chance Llama Ranch,” I read up a bit on llamas, llama spit and llama humming so I was ready to dive into another book with the (sometimes but not usually) ornery creatures. I didn’t realize I’d also be getting some PsOV from two dogs (though not, unfortunately, any llamas). The title? – that’s a gift and I loved it.
I also wanted to read about a woman who is 55 and living on her own. A woman who likes her time alone, has made her own way, and who isn’t always sweet and cuddly. A woman who sometimes worries about being overwhelmed by house repairs and responsibilities. Yes, some of these might perhaps apply to me as well. Years ago I watched a PBS (Public Broadcasting Service) program about differing accents and ways of speaking across the US. The documentarians cheerfully announced at the start that by the end of the program, they could almost guarantee that everyone across the country would be insulted in some way by how someone else viewed or thought of them and the way they spoke. I think that this same idea applies here. Not all of these people are kind. They are not always thoughtful, they can do things that insult, and annoy others. But I had a blast in “Seneca County” West by-God Virginia. These characters read as real.
Ethnic insults and descriptions are traded – both kindly by long term friends towards each other and unkindly by jealous, spiteful sneerers towards others. Native Bostonian Beatrice bemoans how she still feels like an outsider in West Virginia yet at the same time acknowledges the thoughts she’s had about the natives and let’s be honest, we’ve all heard the jokes about Eastern Kentuckians and West Virginians. The chip on the shoulder of those who know outsiders are looking down on them is discussed and Beatrice remembers the one she had as a less well off Bostonian of Irish heritage who took the initial dismissal of her intelligence by Wellesley College as a spur to prove herself.
She discovers she has a lot in common with the reclusive, rich, self made and reinvented author whom a friend has asked Beatrice to work with on an autobiography. At first Beatrice is annoyed at being saddled with a thirteen year old relation of a local handyman but soon she and Clara begin to develop a friendship – tense at times but slowly budding into something as Beatrice sees something of herself in the young girl and realizes just what Clara is fleeing. Clara’s character is especially well done and I felt I was seeing life from her sometimes hurt and bewildered point of view. Then there is a fantastic scene in which Clara takes down a condescending person who is obviously disparaging her and I cheered as Clara did it.
There are many characters but I felt that all of them had a place in the story though those places weren’t always nice. It took me a little while to get everything and everyone straight and there were initially times when I wasn’t sure about the book after a particularly prickly person got introduced but after a few chapters, I was totally involved and needed to know what would happen next. That was also a delight as there were times I had no idea what was coming next. The book is one that rewards perseverance. The story is more or less complete though since I know there are two more books, I’m sure that there will be more ups and downs for everyone. I’m looking forward to finding out. B