As tangled and Southern as kudzu

Kate Betterton's debut novel "Where the Lake Becomes the River," the 2008 Novello Festival Press contest winner, is long, dense, loosely plotted, moving in several directions, climbing through multiples levels and nurturing ample shadow and mystery.

It is, as North Carolina author Nancy Peacock describes it on the book's back cover, "Lush and tangled as a house covered in kudzu."

And yet it is also surprisingly sparse and direct, like the Mississippi Delta landscape Chapel Hill's Betterton so seductively describes. Little kudzu and a lot of pine, sand and moss adorn Betterton's created world.

The Novello jury should be proud, once again, of its selection. The annual contest, run by the Public Library of Charlotte-Mecklenburg County and now sponsored by Charles and Katherine Frazier's Cold Mountain Foundation, has for almost a decade recognized emerging local writing talent.

"Where the Lake Becomes the River" follows 2007's "Absolution" by Miriam Herin; the novels are similar in being good reads and in exploring the tumultuous 1960s. But in all other ways they are utterly disparate.

The 2008 winner opens in 1968. The protagonist is Parrish McCullough, an artsy girl-woman and high school senior living in the fictional Athena, Miss. She is the youngest child of four in an extraordinary family.

Chapter 1 shows Parrish's role in an incident involving the civil rights struggle in Athena, then flashes back to her childhood when her family is living in postwar Japan.

Each chapter focuses on a single character and a death, near-death or resurrection as Parrish grows older. Her father, Walt, dies; her mother, Grace, remarries. The family left behind -- Parrish, brothers Griff and Jesse, and sister Louise -- copes.

Memorable characters cycle through, including Harvey, the African-American family friend who cracks open Grace's healing grief after Walt's death, and Zanda, a mute teenager who saves Parrish at a terrible time in her adolescence.

As we move back to 1968 and a further examination of the racial contours of Athena, Eurasian heartthrob Cam comes into Parrish's life, almost but not quite capturing her heart.

Thus, the novel proceeds almost as a set of linked novellas or extended short stories, each one a measured, unhurried meditation on life, death and other weighty things.

Parrish is the constant here, and she will be an acquired taste for some. She is in the vein of Scout Finch and is, in a way, too good to be true: a mystic, talented in art, courageous and tirelessly committed to justice. Though at one point she contemplates suicide, she is surrounded by too much love to get very far with it. Charming even is her scholarly obsession with death.

There is still something irresistible about Parrish. She is a psychopomp -- a guide of souls. For those of us who wish we could have an out of body experience, or see the spirit of a deceased parent, Parrish lets us live vicariously.

Betterton also lets us believe in Athena as a multicultural oasis in the racist desert of the South. More than once, the author reminds the reader that this part of Mississippi was much more accepting than the rest of the state.

Such a protagonist and setting tempt one to think of that idea purveyed locally by Allan Gurganus: that Southern creativity sometimes unjustifiably prettifies the memory of the South.

Betterton's Delta tale can sometimes seem like that of the Sun King and Marie Antoinette remade. But she withholds the rose-colored glasses, reminding us instead that clean, fragrant pine, sand and moss are as Southern as choking kudzu.