Our small group stood by the gaping six-foot deep hole in the little cemetery on Mama’s property. Thunder rumbled in the distance and black clouds thickened in the west. Grass swayed in the wind, brushing at the older headstones, touching the edge of the forest that seemed to have moved closer over the years. I had lived away from the river for so long, my memory of the ebb and flow wasn’t what it should have been. But then, I had never planned to return either.
If you love mysteries and family secrets and an Appalachian setting, you’ll want to get a copy of Going to the Water: A Nantahala Novel by Southern novelist, Ann Hite. Hite, who isn’t afraid to reveal skeletons from her own ancestor’s closet, recently released her memoir, Roll The Stone Away, which dealt with her family’s history with racism. Going to the Water unfolds in a similar way to how Hite uncovered her family history—by digging through records, letters, photos, newspaper articles, visiting cemeteries—and it’s her research that makes the narrative feel so authentic.
In Going to the Water, Hite turns her attention to one of the most magical places in the South—Nantahala, North Carolina. Hite enjoys lifting the veil and it’s not uncommon for her haints to make appearances. Often, her characters take their presence in stride, interacting with them as if they were alive. And there’s always a thread of magic running throughout her work. Perhaps, part of this is her choice in settings, equally as enchanting as her storytelling.
The Nantahala River and the surrounding mountains are Southern jewels—a rain forest nestled between the Blueridge and Smokey Mountains, and literally one of my favorite places in the south. “Nantahala” means land of the noonday sun in Cherokee. The Nantahala River runs through a steep gorge that blocks sunlight and in some areas sunlight only comes through when the sun is directly above it. The main character, Isla Weehut describes it best: “But I believe deeply that God is here, Randal. Right here in all of this true beauty. If we want to worship him, this is the most exquisite church in the world.” There’s a feeling you get when you enter the Nantahala Forest. There’s something special about this place, an energy you simply have to experience to understand. It’s a shadowy landscape, literally and figuratively, which makes it an ideal setting to tell this story of murder and family secrets mixed in with ghosts and superstition.
When Isla Weehut’s sister, Velvet Leech, is murdered in an act of arson Isla is drawn back into her family’s drama. Seventeen years ago, Isla left Nantahala, North Carolina and her family with zero plans to return. She wanted a different life from the wild ways of her sister. Now she is forced to deal with her sister’s murder, her orphaned nephew, Randal Leech, and a mother, Darlene Leech, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s living in a nursing home. Isla would like nothing better than to bury her sister and return to her “real” life of country club committees, the Junior League, and church in Mountain City, but Nantahala and her “ancestral roots” start calling her back to the river.
Isla initially comes off as bossy, uptight, rude, demanding, judgmental, and a little heartless. Yet there are two sides to Isla. The façade of the stodgy Bible thumping conservative who only cares about making a good appearance is at odds with the river girl who fearlessly traveled the white rapids and learned the ways of her ancestors from her half-Cherokee Indian father. She marries into money, but her wealthy, chicken farmer husband, Scott Weehut, stays drunk most days and has had numerous infidelities. Death has a way of unearthing old memories and family secrets and Going to the Water is packed full of deceptions that threaten the lives of the characters, particularly seventeen-year-old Randal.
Randal was born in the gorge, but like Isla, he remains an outsider. He’s bullied for being gay and he wants out of Nantahala as badly as Isla wishes she never came back. With a mother who suffered from depression, a reputation for going on benders and hanging out with a bad crowd, it’s largely left to Randal’s Grandmother Dar to step in. Grandmother Dar loves the boy, but she’s no shining example for motherhood and struggles with dark spells as well, both shocking and disturbing. And Randal isn’t the camo-wearing, good old boy you sometimes find in small Southern towns. He has a flair for fashion, enjoys cutting hair, cooking, and loves Flannery O’Connor. Randall has an old soul and it’s his love for the river and wisdom beyond his years that begins to etch away at Isla’s heart; she comes to love him against all the odds.
Randal’s influence isn’t the only element disrupting Isla’s world. The natural beauty of Isla’s childhood home of Grassy Bald stirs old passions and Isla begins to write, a pleasure she has denied herself, scared if she begins to express herself, she may go too far:
My words turned me into a painter, a visual artist bound to show every vein in a leaf and each minnow in a stream. Small wild violets, delicate and fragile, became my childhood wishes hidden away for years. A worshiping emotion unlike any I felt in church moved me into contentment. When I finally stopped, I sat in stillness, listening to the songs that continued to whistle around me, braiding together something more tangible than all my years of effort could have delivered to my soul. Why had I stopped writing? But I knew the reasons that lined up in my thoughts. I had to control those places in me that wanted to burst open and tell everything, to scream at the top of my lungs.
I read this paragraph multiple times. Hite captured something difficult to convey here—the mutual love and fear that comes with letting go and expressing one’s art freely and I suspect most artists can relate to this.
Deep-rooted grudges and dark secrets between generations of family living in the gorge threaten the future of both Isla and Randal. Isla must uncover the truth to save Randall, but in doing so she risks exposing deceptions she hoped to bury forever. Murder, kidnapping, suicide, infidelities, mental illness, and even love at the end, for a small mountain town, Hite’s Nantahala has a lot of going on. Though Going to the Water has its twists and turns, it’s ultimately a story about family loyalty and healing by forgiving.
MEET ANN HITE: FoxTale Book Shoppe in Woodstock, GA is hosting a reading and book signing event with Ann Hite on November 13th, 2021 at 2:00 pm. For info, visit: FoxTale/ Going to the Water.
Ann Hite is a wife, mom, grandmother, and book junkie. At age 51, she became a published novelist. Ann’s debut novel, Ghost On Black Mountain, won Georgia Author Of The Year and was a Townsend Prize Finalist in 2012. She is the author of the following novels: The Storycatcher (2013 Simon & Schuster), Where The Souls Go (2015 Mercer University Press), Sleeping above Chaos (2016 Mercer University Press), a novella, Lowcountry Spirit (2013 Pocket Book), and a memoir, Roll The Stone Away (2020 Mercer University Press). Her books have been finalists in IndieFab and Georgia Author of the Year Awards. A chapter from Roll The Stone Away was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her upcoming short story collection, Haints on Black Mountain, will be published by Mercer University Press in fall of 2022. Her novel, Going To The Water, will be published by Firefly Southern Fiction in November 2021. Being a city girl most of her life, Ann now writes each day in her home office that looks out on a decent clutter of trees.
TO LEARN MORE ABOUT ANN HITE, VISIT HER AUTHOR WEBSITE: A SOUTHERN NOVELIST, A STORYTELLER FROM BIRTH