“‘There will always be a place for you, Lum.’ Her grandmother’s words echoed through her thoughts. But where? Like a broom in the corner – used, then put back?”
Born with the 20th century, Miss Columbia Carson – known as Lum to all and sundry – has always been a misfit, both in her Shenandoah Valley town and within her own family. An intersex woman who does her best to hide her condition, Lum secretly collects trading cards of sideshow performers, recognizing them as kindred spirits. She’s a talented cook and good with little children, and by 1933, she’s moved on to caring for a second generation of relatives. She lives with her brother and his wife half the year, her cousin Margaret and her husband the other. Lum puts up with their demands, for what choice does she have? That is, until kindly neighbors and the coming of the Blue Ridge Parkway offer new possibilities.
Lum’s background is parceled out bit by bit, in chapters dating back to earlier points in time. Although this makes the narrative feel jumpy at first, it gradually fills in the picture about the circumstances that shaped her life. Ware writes sensitively of Lum’s childhood visit to the doctor, who discourages her from ever marrying, and the close relationship with her grandmother that endures despite the older woman’s refusal to acknowledge her differences. The social context of the times is finely sketched, too: the people’s Appalachian dialect, their personal pride and widespread poverty, and their wariness towards outsiders – both the dark-skinned “Melungeons” living up on the mountain, and Yankees from the government who want buy up their farms.
This compact novel is a treat for those who appreciate character-centered historical fiction. Lum’s courageous journey toward independence makes her a heroine worth rooting for, and readers will find themselves missing her company after the final page turns.