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Over the Plain Houses

Julia Franks


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Paperback (9/19/2017)


It's 1939, and the federal government has sent USDA agent Virginia Furman into the North Carolina mountains to instruct families on modernizing their homes and farms. There she meets farm wife Irenie Lambey, who is immediately drawn to the lady agent's self-possession. Already, cracks are emerging in Irenie's fragile marriage to Brodis, an ex-logger turned fundamentalist preacher: She has taken to night ramblings through the woods to escape her husband's bed, storing strange keepsakes in a mountain cavern. To Brodis, these are all the signs that Irenie--tiptoeing through the dark in her billowing white nightshirt--is practicing black magic. When Irenie slips back into bed with a kind of supernatural stealth, Brodis senses that a certain evil has entered his life, linked to the lady agent, or perhaps to other, more sinister forces. Working in the stylistic terrain of Amy Greene and Bonnie Jo Campbell, this mesmerizing debut by Julia Franks is the story of a woman intrigued by the possibility of change, escape, and reproductive choice--stalked by a Bible-haunted man who fears his government and stakes his integrity upon an older way of life. As Brodis chases his demons, he brings about a final act of violence that shakes the entire valley. In this spellbinding Southern story, Franks bares the myths and mysteries that modernity can't quite dispel.

Hub City Press, 9781938235214, 280pp.

Publication Date: May 1, 2016

Conversation Starters from

1. Brodis seems to love his son, but there’s a great deal of tension in their relationship. What are the causes of that tension?

2. In Chapter 3, Brodis lectures Matthew after he questions the Bible, saying “Comes a point where a man can’t tell the difference between a bending and a breaking.” What does Brodis mean? Do you agree?

3. Brodis commits terrible acts, but did you sympathize with him at all? At what point did you stop sympathizing with him? To what extent, if any, can we identify with him? What are Brodis’s motivations? His frustrations?

4. What is it that Irenie seems to want out of life and how does it change as the story progresses?

5. Is she a good mother?

6. How would you characterize the friendship between Irenie and Virginia? How do they influence one another? Why is theirs a rather unlikely friendship?

7. The only other couple we see in any detail are Irenie’s parents. At one point, she explicitly compares her marriage to theirs. What are the differences?

8. When Irenie goes to Copper Hill, Dr. Potts asks her several questions about her married life before he makes a decision to go ahead with the procedure. Do you think his role here is appropriate?

9. Over the Plain Houses has often been called a novel about witchcraft. To what extent is that true? Are there characters who practice magic spells? To what effect?

10. The US Department of Agriculture is the most obvious agent of change in the novel. To what extent is the change it brings positive or negative?

11. What are the other agents of progress and change?

12. Many novels use multiple points of view to highlight miscommunication. What are the central misunderstandings in this story?

13. In some ways the novel is about certainty versus doubt. Matthew questions the Bible and his parents, Irenie questions her husband, her world, and herself. Brodis, on the other hand, is in search of certainty, so much so that he swears off the “rabbit trap questions” that his own mind conjures up. What does the novel seem to be saying about the role of doubt and certainty?

14. Brodis “drowns” three times in the novel, each time with a different consequence. How does each experience affect him?15. Many have said that the natural world in this novel is a character unto itself. If that is so, what does Nature have to endure in this novel? To what extent is Nature diminished or triumphant in the end?

16. How does Brodis justify his final act of violence? To what extent is it an act of warning? An act of vengeance? Are there modern parallels?

17. Is it possible to separate Brodis’ personal motivation from his ideological ones?

18. Who changes the most throughout the novel, Irenie or Brodis? Would you characterize the change as “growth”?

19. What are some recurring symbols in Over the Plain Houses?

20. Over the Plain Houses opens with a poem by Anne Sexton, “Our Kind.” Now that you’ve read the novel, how does the poem inform the novel?

21. The novel ends with Matthew successfully enrolled in a boarding school. What do you think his future life will be?

22. And Irenie’s?