Marked by the Land

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In The Coal Tattoo, Silas House’s third novel, House conjures up a setting that breathes and hums with life. Kentucky coal country in the 1960s is more a character than a mere backdrop for his story. Easter and Anneth, the sisters at the heart of the novel, are as bound to the mountains, creeks, and fields of Black Banks, where they were born and raised, as they are to each other. A prequel to House’s earlier novel Clay’s Quilt, The Coal Tattoo offers a glimpse into the deep relationship between people and land.

House casts the orphaned sisters as opposites in every way. Anneth is as free-spirited as Easter is devout and straightlaced. At 16, Anneth compulsively sneaks out at night to flirt and drink at honky-tonks, dancing to the latest songs by Elvis, Patsy Cline, and Sam Cooke. "I don’t intend to be like you," she tells Easter after being dragged home one night. "I’m not going to set in that house with you on a Saturday night. Not going to lay down early so I can get up and go to church. I want to live, Easter. Why don’t you?"

In answer, Easter seems to live even more quietly and prudently, pouring her energy into church life and the care of her rebellious sister. She’s faithful, mystical, and responsible to a fault. Of course, Easter and Anneth need each other desperately, like two halves of a complicated whole. Easter has to take care of someone and admires the spark in her beautiful sister; Anneth secretly respects Easter’s faith, finding comfort in the knowledge that her sister prays for her.

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Sojourners Magazine October 2004
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