Through the government’s power of eminent domain, entire towns were taken. People lost homes and farms that had been in their families for generations. Old-growth forests were leveled. The sight of a mountain-sized stack of downed trees had caused Elmer to grieve for days, but that was the way of progress, even if it hurt to look. When the dam was finished, Lake Barkley would fill and flood the land, forever altering the place. There would be no going back.Jayne Waldrop Moore
As a teenager I moved near Allatoona Lake in Georgia, a lake that was one of many lakes that destroyed towns in North Georgia, a town perhaps like the one Jayne Moore Waldrop wrote about in Drowned Town. It wasn’t until much later in life I understood the costs living near a beautiful lake had on those who came before me. Back then, my knowledge of underwater towns was largely based on James Dickey’s Deliverance—the movie—not the novel.
If you’re unfamiliar with the New Deal programs that swept the country during the Depression and the impact those programs had on Americans, Drowned Town is an excellent foray into a lost history. Comprised of interlinked short stories from varying perspectives— characters who lost family farms, homes, businesses, as well as characters who gained employment and grew up enjoying the beauty of Land Between the Lakes—Drowned Town simultaneously celebrates the natural beauty of lower Western Kentucky while honoring and grieving all drowned towns.
In the opening story, “Dry Ground.” Waldrop reimagines the now submerged town of Eddyville, Kentucky from Camilla Wetherford’s point-of-view. Cam, who was a child when her town was flooded, returns home to get fitted for her mother’s wedding dress. Her return stirs up memories of her family’s relocation to the new town of Sycamore when a young Cam discovers the plans for her family’s new home: “She analyzed the cover photo, which showed a family of four, dressed up like they had been to church or a funeral, except they looked too happy to have come from the graveyard…The full-color family walked toward a fine example of a ranch-style home…Cam knew her own family didn’t look like those people or dress like them, even on Easter Sunday. Their clothes weren’t as fancy and their car was old, but they were getting a new house.” Even a young child like Cam can see through American commercialism. The image of this picture-perfect family trading in generations of memories to be on higher ground, struck me as rather Warholian–a celebration of 1960’s consumerism culture. The trade-off for construction jobs and rural hydroelectric power was loss of land and tradition. Southerners, even today, are portrayed as backwards, and so it’s easy to imagine Washington selling what was considered to be a better way of life and believing Eddyville should be grateful.
Later, Cam and her friend, Neville Burgess, explore the evacuated old town though ironically, they could get in trouble for trespassing on land that was once theirs. At the vacated home of Miss LaClede’s, Cam’s now deceased piano teacher, Cam discovers a photograph of Miss LaClede’s brother in his casket. Miss LaClede was the last of her family; she didn’t want to leave her home and died before anyone had the chance to remove her. Cam keeps the photo, a macabre souvenir: “The dead boy was Cam’s only connection to her [Miss LaClede], the surviving proof that Miss LaClede and her people ever existed.” The contrast between these two images, the perfect American family and last link to the LaClede family, sets the tone for themes Waldrop later delves into in Drowned Town: loss, death, grief, new beginnings, family, memories, and preservation.
Drowned Town is about what the title suggests, but it’s also about people and their lives in this complicated setting. Subplots and character development occur within the body of the composite novel, sometimes called a short story cycle, but the overall feeling is that the subplots and character growth is integral to the central themes and ideas Waldrop explores here as a whole. Waldrop should be commended on her craft. Her stories are straightforward and accessible as standalone stories, but together create a portrait of a lost community.
And though these stories may be read on their own, if read chronologically there are two main characters, Margaret Starks and the aforementioned Camilla Wetherford, with Margaret standing out as the primary protagonist. The structure is cleverly constructed, and I cannot imagine that a traditional novel format would have worked as well as the one Waldrop chose. In addition, Waldrop needed to address two sides of the coin–those in favor of the dam and lake projects, and those opposed to the projects. This format allows Waldrop to move back and forth between the characters childhood memories to the present time as adults while being able to make larger narrative leaps through time. The structure allows the author to explore other characters perhaps not as central to the main plot but who affect the tone, subplots, and provide another look into setting and theme. An example of this is Waldrop’s story “Drift” where secondary characters are the main characters. Or, in “Thanksgiving,” the reader can dip into Neville’s headspace. It’s very enjoyable to get the male perspective here as Neville is dating Margaret at this point in the narrative. Neville is also a hometown boy, a history professor, and lectures about the impact the projects had on the town. Some readers may find this jarring or want to cling onto one character and then find themselves reading about a secondary character, but for the story to be told properly, this structure feels right. The remaining ambiguity of whether the projects were warranted or if people were robbed is always going to exist, and so being able to look inward from all sides is as good as it gets.
As for the main character, Margaret Starks, the only child of Harvard-trained physicians, she grew up amongst the bluebloods of moneyed Louisville with a family mantra of “nothing but the best.” Although she comes from a privileged background, in college she becomes best friends with Cam. Cam is down-to-earth and every bit a lake person in faded jeans and Western Kentucky accent. Margaret discovers sister in Cam and a genuine family in Rose and Lowell Wetherford, who treat her like a daughter. Of course, the Starks don’t approve of Cam. They also don’t approve of Margaret’s future husband, Robert McKinley, who grew up poor in Appalachia. After tragedy hits and Margaret loses Robert, the one person other than the Wetherfords who kept her grounded, she slips into grief and loneliness. She also falls back into her snobbish ways. Margaret buries her authentic self in a successful law practice she’s liking less and less and in a false idea of fulfillment—designer labels, personal trainers, and spa days; all are hollow substitutes for companionship and family. Initially, Margaret comes across as uptight and pretentious, but she’s a very relatable female character who feels she must maintain a level of perfection that’s exhausting.
Margaret’s character is ideal for addressing the division. As an attorney Margaret should be able to objectively view different opinions. It’s not always so easy. In “Weekend Visitor,” Margaret is torn between her loyalty to the Wetherfords and her own fond memories of Land Between the Lakes: “For years Margaret would listen to their stories, but she never understood the depth of their bitterness. She viewed the area with the eyes of a weekend visitor who arrived long after the dams were built, the towns were flooded, and the last resident moved out to make way for LBL…as a tourist she didn’t see beyond the scenery.” Also, Margaret wasn’t around for the initial demolition and enjoyed LBL as a young woman where she created her own positive memories. She’s caught in the middle, but as her character grows, she doesn’t stay there long.
Waldrop constantly flips the coin so that around the time the reader fully sides with the disgruntled landowners, another story offers an opposing idea. “For What it’s Worth” is written from the perspective of a land appraiser, Elmer Newby, who stays gainfully employed facilitating property transfers during this time. He’s the go-between between the townspeople and TVA. At first, he views the projects as progress; the projects brought jobs and electricity as well as a recreational area that would stimulate the economy. Later, Elmer admits he didn’t understand the scope of the projects and how destructive they ended up being: “Elmer’s view of the property shifted, and he began to see the land through its owner’s eyes, not as a collection of objective facts and figures…The generational labor that had built the place made his numbers feel thin, his own new house cheap by comparison.” The physical and environmental destruction these projects had on the land as well as emotional impact the demolition and relocation had on the people is unfathomable.
Another compelling perspective can be found in the story “View from Within.” Lester Elliot is serving life in the Kentucky State Penitentiary and from his cell he observes the Wetherford’s farm: “This was the time of day that he loved, and his favorite view in a foreign place that had become his world. For twenty years Lester had watched the house as the setting sun cast its warm light over the landscape. It was a fine old home, surrounded by pastures, fields of crops, and acres of forest beyond.” Later, Lester has a front seat ticket to the demolition of the farm, a place that offered him a beacon of hope; it was close as he’d ever get to a real home: “The water inched closer to the house. Its back wing and its double porches were gone, and he spotted a pile of rubble dumped on what had been its gravel drive. Giant trees were uprooted and on the ground. The barns were down, too. The house, his oasis, was surrounded by bulldozers and tractors.” Today, the news blasts images of towns destroyed by war or by natural disasters caused by climate change and viewers watch from a distance, much like Lester. The farm became a constant for Lester, the one good thing in his daily life. Waldrop subtly crafts symbols into her narrative, like the limestone prison standing above the town. The prison represents the government or the powers that stand safe from a distance and make decisions with far reaching consequences, regardless of the harm those decisions have. Lester, who was convicted of a crime he didn’t commit, is stuck in a system, a literal fortress, without a voice. He is similar to those early protesters of the dam and lake projects, whose voices were ignored as well.
It’s interesting what survives the flooding. In addition to the castle-like penitentiary, the small chapel of St. Stephen’s survives, but barely. It’s up to the former residents to restore the chapel and the town comes out in droves to preserve their past. The chapel acts as another wonderful working symbol for Waldrop. Cam and Owen get married in this chapel and the circle of life turns again. The chapel is a holdout from the past, something former LBL residents work hard to preserve; it represents the merging of the past with the present and heals old wounds. It’s the perfect place to gather to fight the latest project—the redevelopment of land into condominiums and resorts. At this point, Margaret is fully connected to LBL, not just because she’s now a resident and has remodeled one of the surviving Victorians, but because she has found a true home, what she’s been seeking all along. The town is her family; she won’t go down without a fight.
It’s not so easy to erase a town and even today when the water level is low, the foundations emerge in old Eddyville. Some memories can be erased, though. Waldrop’s story, “Signs,” is a brave, heart wrenching piece about Rose Wetherford who is starting to feel the effects of Alzheimer’s. This story is the perfect vehicle to express the fear one must experience when he/she comes to realize something isn’t right and Waldrop uses Alzheimer’s as metaphor for the town of Eddyville. In “Mint Springs,” Cam drives her mother out to where her mother’s farm would have been had it not been destroyed. Rose is in a constant state of confusion and this setting brings her peace. There’s a final message of hope in the hymn Rose sings of her lost town: “O they tell me of a home where my friends have gone, they tell me of that land far away.” Rose’s memories are blurred, out of order, misrepresented, misunderstood, and are becoming harder and harder to hold onto; she’s much like the lost town of Eddyville. It’s melancholy, yet Alzheimer’s proves a fitting analogy for what happened to Eddyville.
Drowned Town was long overdue, and hopefully the people from these lost towns and lakeside communities, whether in Kentucky or somewhere else, are proud of Waldrop’s fictional depiction of their landscape. Waldrop wrote about a very specific topic with a very specific setting which can be risky. One can imagine the people who lived in this area during the time of these projects, now reading Waldrop’s stories, have something else to add. That’s part of the point of this collection, however, to bring those voices to the forefront and stimulate new conversations around preservation and history. Drowned Town is written with activism in mind, and Waldrop has provided an immeasurable amount of dialogue for future conversations about submerged towns and this area of Kentucky. And though Waldrop’s book is a wonderful tribute to underwater towns, this book pays homage to anyone who has lost their sense of home and it looking to recover it.
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MORE ABOUT AUTHOR: Jayne Moore Waldrop is a Kentucky writer and attorney. She is the author of Retracing My Steps, a finalist in the New Women’s Voices Chapbook Series, and Pandemic Lent: A Season in Poems, both published by Finishing Line Press. Her linked story collection, Drowned Town, was published in 2021 by University Press of Kentucky through its Fireside Industries imprint, a partnership with Hindman Settlement School. Waldrop earned undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Kentucky, and her MFA in Creative Writing (fiction) in 2014 from Murray State University’s low residency program. She is a former book columnist for the Louisville Courier-Journal and literary arts liaison at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning. She was a writer-in-residence at Rivendell Writers Colony and has attended the Appalachian Writer’s Workshop at Hindman Settlement School, Bread Loaf Environmental Writers Workshop, and the Kentucky Women Writers Conference. Waldrop was appointed by the governor to serve two terms on the Kentucky Arts Council and she’s an Art Meets Activism grant recipient from the Kentucky Foundation for Women.
To learn more about the author, Jayne Moore Waldrop, and for author events, visit her author website: JAYNE MOORE WALDROP | AUTHOR