I’ve been finding time, or making time, to read more often, and my best friend gifted me with three books by Robert Gipe, set in a coal-mining mountain region somewhere in eastern Kentucky. By a crow’s flight, it’s likely not that far from where I live in western North Carolina. The first novel is Trampoline, narrated by fifteen-year-old Jewell, who describes herself as a “freak, soft and four-eyed, with black fingernail polish, a dead daddy, a drunk momma, a crackhead brother, outlaw uncles, and divorced grandparents who made trouble for normal people every time they come off the ridge” (p. 70). As I read, I kept noticing how the setting and characters felt both familiar and unknowable to me. His portrait of individuals ravaged by poverty and addiction is neither unforgiving nor forgiving. I came away with so much sympathy for people locked into roles in which they become a danger to others, themselves, and the land they love.
Reading this book makes me wonder if it is ever possible to portray the truth of any person’s life, especially one in a position of such vulnerability or powerlessness. But the glimpses of what could be true within this portrait makes me wonder about the lives of people I have sat beside in waiting rooms or passed in the grocery store, the many glimpses of people living in these mountains that I do not know, that I try to but sometimes cannot really see.
I especially savored Gipe’s many metaphors and similes. The narrator/protagonist describes the board members at a state hearing “like prizes at a carnival game, eyes wide and blank, stuffed pink monkeys, green hippopotamuses piled too close together” (p. 12). Eyes often get an extra dose of language, such as, “‘How old are you, Dawn?’ The room went quiet when Decent asked. Her eyes were two humming outboard motors pushing a boat across summer waters. I water-skied behind her outboard motor eyes, rope tight pulling me across a rough glass like under a paste-gray sky” (p. 99). Black and white sketches further add to the impact of this illustrated novel.
My favorite moment captures the feel of this book. Dawn jumps off a small cliff to “practice kill” herself, only to land on a drunken aunt. The family that pushes her to despair is also there to break her fall.
To be clear, it is a moment both sad and funny, and I had to pace myself reading this novel because I could never predict when the story would make me laugh or cry.