From the red earth of North Carolina emerges a strange creature, one who springs from the fertile imagination of debut novelist Rhonda Riley in “The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope.”
As the story begins in 1944, Evelyn Roe has just graduated from high school in Clarion, N.C., a small town about 25 miles from Charlotte, and has already grown tired of working in a cotton mill. When her great-aunt Eva dies, Evelyn’s parents decide that Evelyn must move to Eva’s nearby farm and run it.
It’s a decision Eva instantly embraces and grows to love. “I settled in, grew lean and muscular. I ripened, ready for whatever came next, certain it would be good and new. I’d slept through the war, but now I was waking up. At night, I tossed and turned in my bed. In the house of my refuge, I set aside the God I was raised on and woke each morning, tenderized by light, bird song, and hard labor.”
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One morning during a pause in a terrible rainstorm, Evelyn’s dog, Hobo, begins barking and growling at a puddle near an apple tree. Drawn by Hobo’s agitation, Evelyn investigates and discovers what she takes to be a badly burned soldier nearly encased in the mud. Hauling him into the farmhouse, Evelyn senses something strange about the man, who heals with remarkable speed and emits an odd chiming sound from inside himself.
Within days, the creature morphs into a mirror image of Evelyn, who names her new companion Addie. And it’s not long before the two are working the farm together and become lovers. To stifle her family’s curiosity, Evelyn fabricates a story that Addie is the daughter of her father’s long-lost half sister, who ran off to Chicago with a man years ago.
Evelyn and Addie live in industrious harmony, but the appearance of a male drifter, Roy Hope, awakens Addie’s sexuality and Evelyn’s longing for a family of her own. Addie and Roy disappear; Addie soon returns alone, but this time as a man who looks like Roy. Evelyn names the newcomer Adam — pay attention to those names — and the two fall into an enduring love, settle into an extraordinary ordinary life, and during the next decade marry and produce five daughters while farming and training horses.
But when tragedy strikes, Evelyn’s family and neighbors realize that something about Adam is profoundly different and begin ostracizing him. And when Adam is injured and doctors discover anomalies in his body, Evelyn realizes that her family must leave North Carolina.
The Hopes move to Florida, where Adam finds a job on a horse farm and the family eventually buys a small ranch. As the years pass, new challenges arise, particularly one that highlights Adam’s unusual characteristics and threatens the life that he and Evelyn have built with their daughters. What follows tears at the heart.
Riley, a graduate of the creative-writing program at the University of Florida and a resident of Gainesville, fully invests her splendid storytelling powers in this affecting novel, one that is filled with memorable characters and passages of startling beauty, such as:
“The sky had grown even lower and darker, a hand slipped between us and the sun.”
“Unlike the rivers of the Appalachian Mountains, these brooked no boulders, few rocks, no white-water rapids, no muddied rust-colored rise of spring thaw. Florida’s rivers were at peace with gravity, sliding along its belly instead of tumbling down into its embrace.”
A study of life and love, death and sorrow, “The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope” creates a world in which the reader will encounter the full spectrum of emotions.
Early in the novel, Evelyn says of her loving but distant father, “He was not a bad father, not much of a disciplinarian, and never cruel. Yet his love was like light to me. I could see it and I knew intellectually that it touched me, but I could not touch it back. And like the sun’s light on an overcast winter day, it did not warm me, just reminded me of warmth and made me hunger for it.”
Riley, in contrast, infuses her work with light that warms, light that illuminates, a passionate and powerful light that examines, with biblical overtones, age-old questions of identity.
“Hope,” wrote Emily Dickinson, “is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul.” So, too, will this stunningly beautiful and unforgettable novel, a testament to the possibilities and triumph of love, find a permanent home in the reader’s heart.
Jay Strafford is a retired writer and editor for The Times-Dispatch.