Beyond the Higher Ground by Thomas A. Brigger, is the story of Tucker Mason, a project manager who is put in charge of building a prison in Southwestern Virginia, in the Appalachian Mountains. To say Mason experiences a strange series of events and unexpected friendships is an understatement – including getting run off the road, playing detective, becoming a tag-team with the polio-stricken town gossip, and finding himself in the middle of Wells County’s drug problem. But surprisingly, what I find to be the hero of this book is the dedication and reverence given to the stories of the Bright’s Mountain locals.
You would think that devoting probably about one-fourth of the story to the histories of the Bright’s Mountain families, sometimes all the way back to the early 1800s, would detract from the main plot of uncovering why someone wants to scare Mason out of his rented house. But, these stories weave themselves within the main plot like putting pieces together in a detective story. One of my favorite parts is when Verna Lee, Mason’s neighbor and waitress at the local diner, recalls her family history a few generations back and how they intertwine with the other families of the mountain. The chronology is written true to her voice and perspective, giving these scenes of local history a real down-home authenticity, like the way anyone would talk about their own family and town.
I also really appreciated how Bragger portrays Mason’s inner-world and how it becomes part of how he’s interpreting and experiencing situations. Mason is a man dealing with the loss, grief and guilt of the sudden loss of someone he loves and how that loss brings up the loneliness of a difficult childhood. The way this loved one’s scent, voice, and presence flows in and out of his reality feel so genuine to the experience of those left behind by death. This is a beautifully haunting scene Mason has while dreaming: “He remained helplessly fixed in his position, imprisoned by the hard cast of his own body that rigidly held him from her, calling to her as she continued to fade into the dissipating texture of the house… Katherine! Mason’s voice echoed in the darkness as he awakened and lay staring at the tiny green light of the smoke detector overhead. (pg. 109)” There were times I reread these moments of deep introspection because they resonated with something so human, like this quote from page 62, “And the sadness returned, the old sadness that he seemed to have known forever, the imminent desolation that had always been there, resident and obtuse in the gravity of his soul, holding him now and taking him into himself as he sat for a long time on the old iron chair on the porch, alone in the impermeable darkness of the Appalachian night.”
I feel like the only thing that took me out of the story for a moment was the moment the story takes a major focus to the drug-trade issues of this part of the country. There definitely was a build-up to this shift but becomes a big focus towards the end. However, everything all ties in together nicely, so it isn’t a big issue at all.
Beyond the Higher Ground is a deeply human story about grief, how we choose to take action from loss, how we choose to interact with the past, and where we are willing to take a stand. A solid 3 out of 4 that I would definitely recommend, especially to anyone who likes history and strong characters.