Red clay, bad blood

Valerie Nieman is a seasoned journalist, a novelist and a poet. She uses all those experiences and talents to good effect in this, her third novel.

Originally from western New York State, Valerie Nieman teaches writing at N.C. A&T State University in Greensboro, N.C.  She arrived in North Carolina via West Virginia, where she graduated from West Virginia University. In North Carolina, she graduated from the MFA program at Queens University in Charlotte. She’s also the poetry editor for Prime Number Magazine.

Press 53 is a small press in Winston-Salem, N.C., that publishes high quality literary fiction, nonfiction and poetry.

By Linda C. Brinson

BLOOD CLAY. By Valerie Nieman. Press 53. 192 pages. $17.95.

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.

Meet the author

Here’s your chance to meet Valerie Nieman, whose new novel, Blood Clay, is reviewed on this blog. The Press 53 Center for Creative Writing in Winston-Salem is having a dinner and author talk with Nieman and Marjorie Hudson, the author of Accidental Birds of the Carolinas, on Wednesday, July 27.

The dinner, from 5:30 to 7:30, is for members only, at a price of $53. Not a member but want to go? For $80, you can get your ticket and become a member of the center for a year.

Those who don’t want to go to the dinner but would still like to meet the authors can show up for a free “Summer Soiree” from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. that evening. The soiree will be in the lounge area at the Press 53 Center for Creative Writing, 411 W. Fourth St., Winston-Salem, lower level.

For more information, visit

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