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Lisa Alther tells sweeping tale of ambiguity in "Washed in the Blood"

November 26th, 2011 1:52 pm by Paul V. Griffith, Knoxville News-Sentinel

Lisa Alther will read from and sign copies of "Washed in the Blood" at Union Avenue Books, 517 Union Ave., Knoxville at 2 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 4.

In her new novel, Kingsport, Tenn., native Lisa Alther uses as a plot device the racial and familial intermarriage that was once common in the Appalachians. For many, this aspect of mountain life is fodder for off-color jokes and stereotyping, but for Alther's subjects, it serves as a survival mechanism. Rather than disappear, Native Americans, former slaves and dark skinned colonists intermingled with white settlers, passing for white when possible but losing their identities in the process.

Combining the factual relevance of a history book with the intrigue and passion of a romance novel, "Washed in the Blood" follows the descendants of Diego Martin, a sixteenth-century hog drover who comes to the New World with a Spanish expedition. When Martin is abandoned by his party, he's forced to reframe all the ideas he once held dear and make his way in a strange and dangerous land. As centuries pass — and Spanish, English, Portuguese, African, and Native American blood becomes increasingly intermingled — successive generations of Martins struggle with notions of identity and the fickle nature of love.

"Washed in the Blood" is a novel in three parts. The first concerns the aforementioned explorer, the so-called "Swine King," Diego Martin. The second is dedicated to Daniel Hunter, a mid-nineteenth-century Quaker schoolteacher who forsakes his Philadelphia fiancée for Galicia Martin, a dark-haired, dark-eyed beauty whom he meets in the hills of Couchtown, Va. By now the Martins have melded into their surroundings. Like other families in the area, they are, as Alther writes, "neither fish nor fowl, neither white nor Indian nor African, most probably all three at once." As such, they are subject to the whims of Easterners and other area whites whose need for land threatens both the family farm and the young lovers' future.

Read the full story on the Knoxville News Sentinel Web site.


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