‘Drowned Town’: A Book That Examines The Wide Panorama Of Perspectives On Damming In Kentucky

“Drowned Town” by Jayne Moore Waldrop (Fireside Industries; 272 pgs., $24.95)

“I guess we don’t realize what we have until it’s gone”, says one prominent character. That could be the keynote for Waldrop’s novelistic collection of linked stories about the consequences of damming and recreational development at the Kentucky-Tennessee border in the middle of the last century. 

A few pages later, though, another character says, “I reckon everyone chooses how they see the world…” when considering how lives have been changed by the “Between the Rivers” rural region becoming Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area.

Grievous senses of unjust loss on one hand. Perspectives that set aside blame on the other. The author’s approach to share the widest panorama on the situation is through numerous viewpoints through multiple timeframes. Over a half-dozen characters are viewed closely, each taking one or more turns as the focus of story-chapters. At some points two or four or more share scenes or entire arcs, with the relationships overlapping in roles as neighbors, blood kin and chosen family. 

The power of this book follows from a commitment to look at loss, and perseverance, and to see each as having more than appearing in a single uniform color, and of taking up more than one direction in time. Nostalgia is often on the surface: “David sat on the screened porch for a long time, watching the moon’s reflection shine across the water and listening to the night sounds in the woods. Spring peepers and cicadas reminded him of nights spent there as a child, sleeping in seersucker pajamas and hearing his dad’s snore through the open windows.” But there’s so much more underneath. Changes have befallen—or given opportunity to—individuals, families and communities whose former lives are swept up and away. 

The fact that the few relict structures above the lakes include a clifftop prison and a hidden sylvan church is ready-made for ironic exploitation. The author holds back on this, giving more attention to the changing lives that play out in what might seem to be gradual ripples in the decades after the federally mandated seismic shifts. But there’s enough room for sly vignettes that recount, for example, how one unrazed basketball court now in the middle of a bay can become the locals’ favorite fishing spot—but can also wreck a tourist’s boat if it drafts too deep. 

A few chapters have segments that steer one character (a high-powered Louisville attorney) through lifestyle changes that seem a bit forced on the page. But she’s the semi-outsider, and her professional and romantic choices serve as a very effective gateway for readers to gain a wider appreciation for the breadth of the narrative. Eventually she will be just one of several having to face up to a case of Alzheimer’s in their midst. 

The stricken figure is a mother—more than peripheral, but not so central that her tragic decline might overwhelm readers’ attention. Her daughter, whose own memories go back to the demolition of neighborhoods and reinternments of family cemeteries, speaks both about the loved one taken ill and about many living with what’s left of communities washed away —saying she’s looking for “something recognizable like a spark of warmth of curiosity or recognition. Instead she saw a countenance interwoven with worry, disconnect, sometimes alarm. The new normal.”

Overall this author has done a sensational job of sharing how all the experiences and the compromises — the erosive, corrosive, progressive, tender, and joyful forces — achieve a shaky and impermanent balance that its participants might consider their “new normal.”

Jayne Moore Waldrop will be in conversation with Silas House at Carmichael’s Bookstore (2720 Frankfort Ave.) Friday, Feb. 25 at 7 p.m. Details at carmichaelsbookstore.com.

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