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Over the Plain Houses

3.73  ·  Rating details ·  842 ratings  ·  138 reviews
An NPR Book of the Year | Winner of the 2017 Southern Book Prize
Gold IPPY Award | Indie Next Pick, May 2016

It’s 1939, and the federal government has sent USDA agent Virginia Furman into the North Carolina mountains to instruct families on modernizing their homes and farms. There she meets farm wife Irenie Lambey, who is immediately drawn to the lady agent’s self-possession
Hardcover, 271 pages
Published May 1st 2016 by Hub City Press
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Average rating 3.73  · 
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 ·  842 ratings  ·  138 reviews

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Diane Barnes
Nov 14, 2016 rated it it was amazing
When thinking about how to rate this book, I wavered between 4 and 5 stars. What tipped it over the edge was when I realized that this is a book I will most likely re-read at some point.

It is unbelievable that this is a first novel. The quality of the writing is haunting and believable at the same time. The natural world surrounding these people in the Appalachians in 1939 is depicted so beautifully it can take your breath away. The dissolution of the marriage between Irenie and Brodis is also r
Aug 27, 2016 rated it it was amazing
I am so impressed with Franks' debut novel --it reads like that of a seasoned author. The novel showcases her skill and maturity at crafting story arcs that flow into each other like eddies in a stream. It is a beautifully written book and a sheer pleasure to read.

And the imagery is superb, grounded in the setting's rural feel: lush, ethereal, and pregnant with unspoken thoughts. It perfectly captures the main characters' bucolic lives and attitudes. I cannot recommend this book enough.
Sep 11, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition

”It was the week before Easter when the lady agent first showed up to church. When the gray coupe rolled past, the first thing Irenie Lambey noticed wasn’t that a woman was driving but that a sculpted angel leapt straight out from the grill, her head raised and her back arched, silvery wings sweeping behind her as if she were about to take flight.”

Set in North Carolina’s Appalachian region in 1939, a time when half the people rode horses or mules, while others drove automobiles to church - a
Apr 27, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: southern
Haunting and I loved it. Some sensitive content. This author's debut novel is excellent. The details are perfect to the point everything can be visualized.
Feb 04, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: edelweiss
Irenie Lambey is a dedicated farm wife married to a preacher, Brodis Lambey. The story takes place in 1939. Brodis has some very rigid rules for his church members and his family and is often very hard and unyielding in his beliefs. Irenie feels suffocated in the life she lives with Brodis and starts sneaking out at night to take walks in the woods just to be alone. When Brodis discovers these night time wanderings, he believes his wife has become a witch and is consorting with Satan in the wood ...more
Kirk Smith
Aug 05, 2016 rated it really liked it
Dark and beautifully written. I was amazed by how well crafted it was, the prose was nearly poetic yet never distracted from the story line. The language seemed to fit Appalachia and nature is beautifully depicted. Tough subject matter here, oppression of spirit, the bondage created by unwanted pregnancy, and a zealot's passions. A quote I'll share: "Frazier June was a zealot with the tinder of insanity lit in his eye". This could just as easily have describe Brodis the minister husband and hal ...more
Claire Fuller
Oct 18, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: debut, read-in-2017
I can't remember where I heard about this book, because it isn't published in the UK, but I managed to get hold of a copy from Book Depository. It's mostly the story of Irenie, who in 1939 lives on a farm with her fervent preacher husband Brodis. Irenie, realising that the flame she had shining inside her since she was a girl has gone out, escapes to the woods in the middle of the night where she hides the things that are precious to her. And at the same time she meets the USDA agent's wife, Vir ...more
This is extraordinary. My favorite Appalachian book of the year. My favorite book set in North Carolina; my favorite book for the way it handles the region and its religion. “A spellbinding story of witchcraft and disobedience,” indeed. The way Julia Franks writes the two sides of the story and makes them both not just plausible but sympathetic is, well, extraordinary. The dialogue sounds like home. Will be re-reading this one and praising it far and wide.
(DNF @ 16%) Entirely decent historical fiction with a flavor of Ron Rash or Virginia Reeves (Work Like Any Other), but it felt so slow and aimless. Irenie Lambey is married to a harsh fundamentalist preacher named Brodis. She longs for their son to get a good education and hopes that the appearance of a USDA agent may be the chance, but Brodis cares about the boy’s soul rather than his mind. On night-time walks, Irenie stores up artifacts and memories in a cave – desperately trying to have a lif ...more
Jul 21, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2017
Engrossing read, great descriptions of a time and place.
Oct 08, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: the-best-books
Get this book and read it as fast as you can. Run. Don't walk.

Among the perfect setting of southern Appalachia in the late 1930s-- Julia Franks weaves the incredible and haunting story of Irenie, a woman who mourns the loss of her child, holds space for herself, and who dares to have any modicum of an opinion against her husband--the town preacher. What ensues tells the tale of what happens time and time again throughout the history of nearly every land- men who wreak violence on their families
Nov 05, 2016 rated it liked it
3 stars is based on the hope that this novel got better after I had to stop reading it.

I read a fascinating OpEd piece by the author in the NY Times last week which made me curious about her other published work. Like many Americans, I am puzzled by the culture wars raging during this election season, and the attitudes of disenfranchised Southerners and Appalachians in particular. Reviews of "Over the Plain Houses" indicated a dark and brooding novel with themes of religion, superstition, intol
Bette Crosby
Great read for me but probably not for everyone. Prose was beautiful, but the story is about a preacher who is pretty much a zealot and believes his wife is a possession. It includes abortion + more.
Eldonna Edwards
May 23, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This book seriously wrecked me. If, like me, you're drawn to stunning writing with southern roots you must get your hands on a copy of OVER THE PLAIN HOUSES by Julia Franks. Reading her book was the closest I've come to literary synesthesia. Descriptions of the Appalachian landscape kindled a poetic immersion into the setting without any hint of author intrusion or grandstanding. I fell in love with the writing first, which then lured me into the wood of this haunting story about Irenie and Brod ...more
Apr 04, 2016 rated it it was amazing
This book was wonderful; I'm a huge fan of world building and the author creates the world of Irenie's and Brodis' farm with such detail that I could have drawn you a map by the end. There is a vivid connection to the nature, too; I felt the seasons and the birds and plants right along with the characters.

I thought that Brodis' descent into madness was also really believable; sometimes that sort of thing can be too quick or just boring-like listening to someone tell you their dreams-but she doe
Oct 12, 2016 rated it it was amazing
I've been reading stuff trying to understand the hearts of white supremicists/patriarchal guys with entitlement issues, and this is one of the best. The writing is breathtakingly good. The point of view shifts make the minds of both protagonists clear, and the cost of the rigidity of the patriarch is clear.
Andy Weston
Oct 19, 2017 rated it really liked it
Set on a tobacco farm in North Carolina in the late 1930s this is the story of a struggling marriage. Irenie is seeking refuge from an emotionally and physically abusive marriage to her farmer cum preacher husband Brodis. But first she wants an escape for her son, Matthew, and finds it in the form of a boarding school as soon as he turns 13. Brodis is a religious fundamentalist and lives by the bible, quoting it frequently. Irenie initially manages to get away from her at first unsuspecting husb ...more
Rhiannon Johnson
May 19, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This novel initially attracted my attention with its black magic/witchcraft theme, but it sat on on my Kindle until the author won the Townsend Prize last month. That sparked me into action and I moved it up on my list. Once I started reading this story, I had a difficult time with it and honestly considered quitting it several times...but I stuck with it. The problem for me was that Julia Frank's writing style is not modern and I found myself rereading several sentences to get the flow. My note ...more
Beth Roberts
This book is a beautiful glimpse into the heartbreak that is the dissolution of a marriage and the descent of a spouse into fundamentalist extremist madness.

Some of the reviewers dnf'ed it, claiming they couldn't get "into it" and "nothing happens." I always wonder what it is those readers are looking for. This is historical fiction set in 1939 in a poor rural mountain community in the Carolinas. There's no tv, no radio - no excitement. Just the same 50 or so people day in, day out. Working to
May 26, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
This novel is immaculately constructed, from word choice, to sentence level to plot level. It's set in the mountains of North Carolina in 1939, among farmers being persuaded by the USDA to switch from food crops to tobacco. The story centers on a couple, the daughter of a local farmer married to an ex-logger preacher. Tradition vs. modernity, extreme religion vs. the secular world. The characters are vivid, the setting fully realized. I was under the spell of the author the entire time. I can't ...more
Jul 14, 2016 rated it it was amazing
I did not want this book to end. Beautifully written like poetry, a spellbinding story about the harsh and primitive struggles of a young woman married to a fundamentalist Appalachian preacher. A peek into the past where superstitions and misunderstood beliefs provide excuses for self-righteous mean behavior. Historical fiction at its best.
Victoria (Eve's Alexandria)
I found this one part lyrical, one part predictable and one part overwrought. I liked the writing, for the most part. excepting the odd painful metaphor, but I found the characterisation and the plot entirely predictable. The ending had a melodramatic inevitability that I predicted from page 20. So, while there was enough to keep me reading, there was little to surprise or delight.
Debbie Mcafee
May 27, 2018 rated it it was amazing
loved it! Haunting and thought-provoking. Great setting, characters, suspenseful plot, and superbly written. Can't stop thinking about it. I almost want to immediately pick it up and re-read.
Eager to discuss it with someone.
Nov 17, 2016 rated it liked it
Shelves: book-club-reads
Not sure what to is one of my book club reads. It started off a little odd and then I was intrigued and couldn't put it down until I knew what happened to Irenie, Matthew, Brodis and the Extension Office agents. It presents an interesting time in American history in an interesting part of rural North Carolina. Powerful issues around the strength of the church and how it and the powerful men in the church controlled women during the 1930's. Also, I found the added "we're from the governm ...more
May 09, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I enjoyed this book for many reasons, but I guess the main one is because it is set right in the mountains where I live. I enjoyed reading the names of places near here and I also loved how the author captured the "old sayings" and the dialect of the people here. The story itself was a slow build to a disastrous and very unexpected conclusion and was indeed wonderful.
Jul 31, 2017 rated it liked it
Started out rough but got pretty interesting! Liked the ending. It's written differently than I've read before. Sometimes I didn't know what they were trying to say but overall the story was okay.
Jennifer Cannady
Sep 24, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Beautifully written. Well developed characters and dialogue that completely captures both a sense of time and place.
kristin connor
Sep 17, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is not the novel I thought it was when I first began reading. It is a story that infuriates, that inspires deep pity, that leaves you with tears in your eyes while simultaneously has you shaking your fists in anger. And yet, somehow, you can't hate any of the characters. It reveals the humanity in even those deemed to be monsters. It reveals the roots and causes of much of our society's "white rage". It examines two characters without judgment but also without mercy. A must read.
Dan Pool
Sep 17, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Awesome Appalachian fiction.
Margaret1358 Joyce
Jul 14, 2017 rated it really liked it
Here is a poignant tale of the trials of an Appalachian family on the eve of WW2, when the industrial world is crowding into remote country farming areas, bringing "efficiency"--novel and upsetting changes-- to agricultural practices and social values, to the distress of those rooted in traditions bred of the land. The family is fundamentalist, the father a fire and brimstone preacher, and mother, fearful of what she begins to see as the demonic in her husband who is a fierce opponent of change. ...more
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Julia Franks is an outdoors woman who has spent years kayaking the rivers and creeks of Tennessee, North Carolina, and West Virginia. Her roots are in the Southeastern mountains, but she lives in Atlanta, where she crusades for more book choice in school curricula, and where she owns and operates The Loose Canon (, a web application that facilitates, tracks, and energizes reading cho ...more

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