Book Review: Honey from the Lion by Matthew Neill Null
Matthew Neill Null sets his debut novel Honey from the Lion in the opening years of the twentieth century in Blackpine, a logging outpost in West Virginia that leaves behind a bare swath as the operation moves up the Cheat River “as a chill climbs a person’s spine.” In their wake these men leave bare land where majestic trees once stood.
In the opening chapter, Null introduces three Union soldiers from New York who come upon these woods in the war’s opening year and marvel at the timber potential, particularly when they encircle arms and fail to reach around one of many giant spruce trees. Forty years later, as the action of the novel begins, these three men who have gone on to legal and political careers, are known as the Absentees, the owners of the Cheat River Paper & Pulp Company.
Null’s narrative focuses on Cur Greathouse, who flees his nearby home amid family conflict and finds a family among these timber wolves. By chance and timing, he ends up at the end of a huge saw opposite Asa Neversummer in a partnership Cur sees as a kind of marriage. Cur also befriends McBride, his “shirttail cousin” who manages the horses for the Camp Five. Through his relationships, Cur develops self awareness, realizing eventually that throughout his life he has “poured himself into the mold of stronger people. . . . He had done nothing on his own.”
Through the course of the narrative, Null brings to life a broad cast of colorful characters, particularly these men working alongside Cur—Vance Church, who fled to escape imprisonment for union activities; his unlikable son Amos, also reportedly behind a recent deadly fire in Youngstown; and Sally Cove, born Zalah Kovak, an immigrant left behind by her husband, a union activist himself.
In this remote setting, ethnic distinctions are strong. The Italians, required to wear metal markers on their collars, handle explosives in the camp. Led by Caspani, they participate in the secret union assemblies Cur attends, ready to take action as working conditions become increasingly dangerous and intolerable.
In a parallel narrative, Null introduces Seldomridge, a Methodist minister in the town where the wolves collect their pay, named for Senator Helena, one of the company’s absentee owners. As Seldomridge no longer hears the voice of God, his sermons increasingly reflect his uncertainty. He has begun losing his regular congregation, who ask why he doesn’t just preach about Jesus. The church fills with the outcasts and curious, and against public opinion, he opens this churchyard to those who die under suspicious circumstances.
At first, readers may be wary of blatant foreshadowing, when the narrator reveals, for example, that “Admiring the waxy rhododendrons, Helena couldn’t know he would die of this place.” Null cleverly handles his narrative, though, withholding revelation of the main threads of the story that sometimes moves as slowly as timber work, but keeps readers’ attention by building tension in subtle ways. This is no clear tale of good and evil. The characters are instead colored in shades of grey. The wolves have no single individual to represent the evil they oppose, and they are opportunistic enough to admit that in the event of mishaps ending in fatalities, they gain an advantage, martyrs to draw support to their cause.
Without being didactic, Null reveals the destructive nature of the timber industry in this era and of the men themselves. Predating the chestnut blight that would wreak further havoc on the landscape, they freely cut oak trees “older than Columbus or the Gutenberg press,” reducing them to pulp. They postpone cutting one of the largest trees, the “President Roosevelt,” until it can be photographed for Harper’s Weekly, a picture ironically never published, put aside for more pressing news, the New York Subway opening. The wolves show the same disregard for other wonders of nature, sentiments not shared by Cur, who regrets his accidental killing of a heron and shudders when a colleague burns a giant butterfly with his cigar.
The novel gains authenticity through Null’s balance of diction and detail as he weaves description into the action with an awareness of sound and texture. Describing their trek through briar-filled bottom land he notes how their “spiked boots scritched along. The track of foxes and birds braided in the snow.” He paints a picture of “mountains. . . ink-scratched a faint blue with pines.” The dialogue, even in the exposition, is so subtle as to add credibility rather than draw attention to Null’s efforts.
Details of superstitions and folklore don’t cast these men as ignorant or unenlightened, but shed light on their fears and their attempts to keep a measure of their days in their moving landscape. As the growing suspense of the narrative pulls readers toward the conclusion, Null’s prose rewards a slower reading, even inviting re-reading.
Nancy Posey is a teacher, reader, writer, and artist, Her poetry and reviews have appeared in Poet’s Market,Writer’s Digest, Wild Goose Poetry Review, The Charlotte Observer, the Raleigh News and Observer and a number of other print and online publications. She blogs about reading as The Discriminating Reader. Her chapbook Let the Lady Speak was published in 2010. She also organized the 2015 Fall Face-to-Face in the Foothills Poetry Festival in collaboration with Hickory Museum of Art. www.nancyposey.com.