From American Book Review:
Blood Clay is a little (it weighs in at just around two hundred pages), great American novel in story, character, and writing.
Ours is a country of immigration and migration, and one constant within that instability is a person's search for companionship in her new home, at a community level and a more intimate one, to be part of "the even numbers of the regular world." In this novel, Valerie Nieman's third—she also has a collection of short stories, a book of poems, and an NEA fellowship to her name—Tracey Gaines relocates to another state, leaving behind a marriage, a job, and her family. Almost immediately, a major local tragedy heightens Tracey's newness and her quest for acceptance within Saul County and with the individual she's closest to, a fellow teacher at A. O. Miller Alternative School, Dave Fordham. Dave, in turn, is cursed with "his loneliness, an outsider in his own home place."
Even the details in Blood Clay exude a particularly American atmosphere: Tracey is a northerner who moves deep into rural North Carolina tobacco country. When geography-based issues aren't the simmering—or explosive—heat beneath a relationship in this book, race, class, and gender are. The sanctity of individuality and personal property? Yes—that's one of the big matters in the investigation into the violent death of one of the school's young students. Justice, the media, gossip—"the rumors fly so fast, they grow wings and maybe horns and tails"—and that peculiar thirst for blood in a competitive society, "the moment of potential, the blood under the skin ready for spilling"? Most definitely those are all here....
From the North Carolina Literary Review:
From Our State magazine:
In Blood Clay, Valerie Nieman, a writing professor in Greensboro, tells the story of Tracey Gaines, who relocates to fictional Saul County, North Carolina, after a painful divorce. Despite her desire for a new life, Gaines discovers that it’s not easy to assimilate in a small town, where generations of shared history bind people together. She manages to find companionship with a fellow teacher and with the feral cats that prowl the land around the dilapidated farmhouse.
Then Gaines witnesses a tragic event, for which she incurs some blame. The resulting ostracism not only compounds her loneliness, but also forces her to confront her own character flaws. As she works through the trauma, Gaines strives to create a sense of belonging — both in the community and within her own soul.
But fitting in remains a challenge, even for longtime residents of Saul County. Regardless of all the history citizens share, the community is changing: tobacco business wanes, young people move on, developers snap up farmland. Insiders aren’t in after all, and personal histories can and do foster estrangement. “It’s hard to come to someplace new and not fit in, I know that, but it maybe is worse to come back to where you’re from and not fit in there anymore,” a new friend tells Gaines.
Nieman, whose lyrical writing edges on poetry, tells this story with insight and compassion. She doesn’t idealize the South: troubled race relations, provincialism, and phony politeness all play a part. But the novel also captures what makes the town humane, large-minded, and forgiving. The message is optimistic: Although life inevitably causes pain, we can still find a home.
From the Charleston Gazette-Mail:
"Valerie Nieman's third novel, "Blood Clay," is the deeply moving, elegantly constructed story of what happens when extraordinary violence happens to ordinary people; however, the story is about much more than violence.
Set in the small-town world of Saul County, N.C., it encompasses a great deal of history, private and public, as we come to know many of the denizens of Taberville and the surrounding region.
Tracey Gaines and Dave Fordham are single teachers at the A.O. Miller Alternative School. Living across the road is Orenna Sipes, a black single mother raising her two daughters. Artis Pennell, whose farm abuts Tracey's, is, like her, a divorced newcomer; but, unlike her, he has custody of a teenage son. Through the fates of these interwoven characters, Nieman works out the timeless theme who am I and where do I belong?
Events are set in motion early on when Tracey witnesses a tragedy involving a child. Her involvement -- what she did and didn't do -- not only disturbs her conscience but interferes with her ability to assimilate into a community worlds away from her urban Ohio and Pennsylvania. While the tragedy sets Tracey and her two neighbors on a collision course, Nieman wisely takes her time getting there. This is not a breathless blockbuster but a fascinating portrait of real people in anguished yet believable circumstances to which every reader can relate...
Not only her nuanced plot, setting and characters but also Nieman's poetic language brings her world to life. She paints the setting with precise, laser-cut visuals. Nieman's journalistic background shows in her tight economy of construction.
She offers a near-sociological view of this world, involves the reader deeply with several characters and provides true, aching insights about identity, both personal and cultural, and she does so in fewer than 200 pages. Not a word, image or event is wasted."
From Gently Read Literature:
"In her new novel, Blood Clay, set rural North, Carolina, Valerie Nieman is interested in the tangled social lines of the new South, the struggle of newcomers to belong, and of natives to keep their balance in changing times. Beneath the fascination with change runs a deep love for the changeless, the way the deep roots of a place can hold and comfort, despite the complications of both past and present.
Nieman’s heroine, Tracy Gaines, has left a failed marriage and bad weather up north, and journeyed down to the red dirt tobacco country of Saul County, North Carolina. Here she falls in love with a “slouchy” old farm house, “whiter in the moonlight than in the day, half hidden by the cedars that reached the second story porch.” The house, she believes, will, with a lot of hard work, allow her to earn belonging: “Resurrected board by board, the scraping and painting. . .would settle her in that place, make her a part of its history.” Her efforts at the house are overseen by a pack of feral cats; they will take her food but won’t come close. They—like Tracy herself—are not entirely sure she’ll make it.
While the house has all the charm of a Southern romance, Tracy’s job is another story, a tough haul, usually thankless, sometimes dangerous, in an “alternative” school for teenagers who are “behaviorally impaired,” “emotionally damaged,” or simply learning disabled with no place else to be sent. Also teaching at the school is Dave, an old-family, native of the place, who tried to leave Saul County for the big city of Baltimore. After a brutal encounter there, he has returned, a cripple in more ways than one: “I’m afraid I’ve turned into a racist,” he says, “as well as a coward.” Though born and raised here, he is, and in some ways is as much an outsider as Tracy.
She has also gotten acquainted with Artis, the divorced father of one of her troubled students, and a tobacco farmer whose land is adjacent to hers. But her neighbor’s wide smile is misleading. When Tracy invites him over to drink a glass of tea and inspect her work on the old house, his smile fades. “Oh honey. Let’s just stay neighbors,” he says before turning and walking off to his truck. “You got too much cat in you for a hound like me.”
Still new to the challenges of the house, the job, and local society, Tracy, driving alone on a dark country road, is witness to a terrible accident involving a child. In the days afterward, rumors and charges swirl. Some claim that the new teacher from up North caused the horrible accident. Some say she has sought to cast blame unfairly on Artis. At the very least, others say, she had not acted honorably, but stood by in shameful cowardice; a true person of the place would have taken action to save the child. This last view is one that Tracy is not sure but what she shares herself. The accident and its aftermath embroil her in a police inquest, and bring her head-to-head with both Artis and the child’s mother. Tracy is still “new,” but the accident tugs her painfully but deeply into the life of the hamlet.
Though the story is tautly suspenseful, it has its beauties too, especially in the close, sensual exploration of the old house and the woods surrounding it. In a “midden” pile that she finds in the wood, for example, Tracey excavates evidence of the past, an old belt buckle, a little stoneware bowl from the 1930s, an ancient jar of cobalt blue. As she digs in the heavy red clay, she is rewarded by the scent of the deep and on-going life of the place, the “yeasty smell of the opened ground,” as good as 1bread baking in the kitchen.'"
Linda Brinson posted this review on Briar Patch Books:
This is one of the best contemporary Southern novels I’ve read in a long time. There is no exaggerated humor here, no condescension, no frothy romanticism – but there is plenty of truth, and a story you won’t soon forget.
Tracey Gaines is a transplant from Ohio to North Carolina, fleeing cold winters and a marriage gone bad. She found a job teaching in a rural area at an alternative high school – an alternative for the kids who can’t or won’t succeed in the mainstream public high school. And then she fell in love with and bought an old farmhouse in that red-clay tobacco country.
Tracey has been wounded emotionally, losing confidence and heart because the marriage that started out with such passion and high hopes ended with surprisingly little emotion other than emptiness and disappointment.
Her fellow teacher, Dave Fordham, has been wounded physically as well as emotionally. After an “incident” when he was teaching in inner-city Baltimore, trying to “save the world,” he’s retreated to his North Carolina home.
So, Tracey is “not from around here” and suspicious of Southerners motives and actions, while Dave knows that one can have strong Southern roots without being wrapped in a Confederate flag.
Nieman uses their contrasting viewpoints deftly. They provide depth to one of the great strengths of this novel, its honest dealing with the complexities of race, class and prejudice in today’s rural South. Just as Tracey likes to dig for humble treasures in the old dump at the back of her property, this book unearths bits of the human history that make us who we are.
There’s a strain of violence through this novel, starting with a grisly event near the book’s opening that’s pivotal to all that follows. Though Tracey, as always, tries to do the right thing, tries to help, her rewards are suspicion, notoriety, criticism and retaliation. What happens forces her to examine her own emotions and actions and to ask whether she really did all that she could have.
Blood Clay, never resorting to stereotype, creates a 21st-century rural North Carolina that rings true. Nieman knows what she’s writing about as she describes the empty-eyed students, the Mexican migrant workers, the aggressive boys on four-wheelers, the sullen black mother who resents the Northern do-gooder’s attempts to help.
And, oh, the language – the rich prose and vivid descriptions. Nieman is able to write passages that soar to poetry without ever seeming self-conscious or getting in the way of the book’s strong plot. That is a rare gift.
Here is Dave, trying to teach his students about alliteration:
… His students leaned back in their chairs, dulled by the dull beige tiles and dull mustardy walls.
“Land,” he said. “Leaves, less, loam, loan, leaving.”
On wide-spreading land like this you should be able to grow anything, but couldn’t grow these kids. If you cut them loose in the fields, they would all die, sit down and die in the midst of plenty they couldn’t see any more than they could understand the last sound that came out of their mouths.
The terrible incident that shapes the book jolts Tracey and Dave out of their wounded, drifting existence. And even as they confront their human weaknesses, they find strengths. Readers, too, will find much of value in this thought-provoking and beautifully written book.
Valerie Nieman’s third novel, “Blood Clay,” is set in the fictional North Carolina county of Saul and concerns newcomer Tracey Gaines, who has moved south from Ohio to escape her painful divorce.
Gaines has bought an old farmhouse, which she is renovating, an apt symbol for the new life she is trying to build. She finds work as a teacher in an alternative school where every day is a trial, given the angry and damaged students she must try to reach and teach.
Gaines is at first delighted by the friendly smiles and bright “howdys” she gets from the folks in Taborville, but soon discovers the Southern hospitality she has heard so much about is superficial. It takes a lot more than a nod and a grin to be accepted as a member of the community.
One person who seems to welcome Gaines with sincerity is her colleague, Dave Fordham. Though Dave was born and raised in Saul County, he is almost as estranged from the community as Gaines. After college, Dave left home to teach in Baltimore, in an inner-city school where gangs ruled the streets and the school. After a brutal attack that leaves him crippled in body and spirit, Dave returns to Taborville where he, too, feels alienation.
At the crux of the novel is a tragic accident involving an elementary student, Lakesha, whose mother, Orenna, seems to resent the kindness Gaines shows her daughter. One simple act of charity — Gaines buys a coat for Lakesha after seeing her in a thin sweater — brings icy stares from the girl’s mother. But those glaring looks are nothing compared with the hostility Gaines gets after Lakesha’s tragic death — a horrible death witnessed by Gaines.
Weaving together a tale of small-town culture with various kinds of disconnected citizens, Nieman courageously approaches subjects that continue to haunt the South: racism, ignorance and violence. The pain of families and their dysfunction sits side-by-side with tobacco culture. Yet, there is beauty here and a sense of pride in history:
She loved the view from here, over the trees to the fields and beyond, the low wave of worn-down mountains. This house had stood for a century. The people who built it had lived here long before that. This was a place where people found a way to stay put.
Gaines wants to stay put for the first time ever; in spite of the tragic, limping life she has made, her desire is to claim it.
Valerie Nieman does something unusual in her new novel, "Blood Clay," set in the tobacco country of rural North Carolina: The "big" event, in which a young black girl is killed by a pack of dogs, isn't the climax of the story. Instead, it comes near the beginning; the rest of the novel explores its complicated aftermath. A neighbor, Tracey Gaines, witnesses the attack. Rather than plunge in and risk a mauling or death herself, she runs away to call for help. Is Tracey a coward or has she acted sensibly? Opinion in Saul County is divided, because Tracey, a recently divorced Ohio transplant, doesn't quite belong there.
How and why people belong in a place, how others fail to fit in and how a few, who used to be bound to the community by blood and by the blood-red clay where tobacco has been lovingly hand-cultivated for generations, suddenly find themselves on the outside -- this is the focus of Nieman's nuanced exploration of the contemporary South. Tracey strikes up a friendship, then something more, with Dave Fordham, a fellow teacher at the local alternative school. Dave once left Saul County to teach at an inner-city school in Philadelphia, where gang members beat him viciously. Lame and permanently frightened, he has changed too much to settle back into his old place -- and people he has known all his life don't look at him the way they used to.
Even animals take part in this dance of belonging and not-belonging. The feral cats at the old farmhouse Tracey is restoring have to decide whether to belong to her -- to accept her food and affection -- or remain wild, hungry and free. Tracey identifies the dogs who attacked the girl as belonging to Artis Pennell, a tobacco farmer she has already offended by mistaking his down-home neighborliness for romantic interest. The dogs are quarantined pending Artis' trial for involuntary manslaughter, and Artis, like Tracey, finds that he has detractors as well as supporters. The tobacco business, crippled by anti-smoking campaigns, no longer assures his son, Jim, an identity and a livelihood, so Jim, one of Dave's students, drifts into delinquency.
It's not the first time Southerners have been torn by a sentimental attachment to something toxic. Tracey, fresh from the North, sees only a variant of the old dark story, but Dave, in courting her, constantly challenges the stereotypes, enlarges her understanding -- as Nieman enlarges ours in the course of this taut, realistic novel that's a tragedy, a love story and a comedy of manners, all at once.
From Books for Readers, No. 140
Valerie Nieman's latest is BLOOD CLAY, a highly realistic story about people you feel you could know and be friends with. They get caught up in unexpected, gripping, and horrific events. Something very unusual and ugly happens early on, and the novel is about the repercussions of this event, and how the main character tries to live with what she has witnessed. The victim is a child, and the main character is not heroic– she may be, in fact, cowardly or possibly culpable in some way. I won't describe the actual event, but I will say it is deeply grounded in issues of rural contemporary America, in this case, a small town and the surrounding county in North Carolina.
The main character and the other point of view character are both teachers in an alternative school for kids. He is a native of the small town, returned home reluctantly after physical and psychological trauma. She is a newcomer, fleeing personal rejection and a failed marriage. She is emphatically seen by the local people as an outsider, in spite of having farm roots. Both of these people are damaged by life, but no more damaged than perhaps most of us, and their damage is solid, believable, and not treated at all melodramatically. This is one of the joys of the book– that however shocking or terrifying the events, people wake up the next morning and make tea, feed the cats, go to work.
Indeed, their relationship to work, too, is one of the triumphs of the novel: the characters don't self-destruct in the face of their suffering, but rather work– both at jobs and on their living spaces. What is sometimes forgotten in fiction is that the quotidian work of surviving and healing is as realistic as despair. But Valerie Nieman does not forget this. In BLOOD CLAY, teaching and taking meals– and the very clay and plants of North Carolina are the ground of the story. They go out to dinner, they dig around in old middens to rescue cobalt blue glass bottles. Feral cats are important characters, as is an old farmhouse in bad repair.
The seminal violence of the story happens quickly, shockingly, with no thrumming drumbeat of foreshadowing, so that the reader is as shocked and paralyzed as the main character. With similar realism, Nieman creates an unpleasant and possibly dangerous neighbor of the main character who certainly does some bad things– but could do much worse. Guns are discussed and appropriately hung in truck cabs if not on walls, and they are not window dressing. On the other hand, the novel never puts forth violence as a catharsis. Things small and large are seen in perspective in this apotheosis of everyday people living ordinary lives– which means lives full of discovery, love, anger, violence, struggle, cowardice, failure and hope. What is unusual and deeply satisfying here is the insistence on how the story goes on and we keep on, living through our failures, facing our fears, reaching for one another.