Culture Shock in Shenandoah

A veteran returns home to the mountains with a young South Korean bride.

The Shaman of Turtle Valley by Clifford Garstang. Braddock Avenue Books, $16.95.

After publishing two critically acclaimed short-story collections (In an Uncharted Country and What the Zhang Boys Know, winner of the Library of Virginia Literary Award for Fiction), Clifford Garstang has turned his well-honed skills to long form. As with his earlier books, his novel The Shaman of Turtle Valley sings with lush prose that revels in the Appalachian landscape, a region the longtime resident of Staunton knows well.

In an opening passage describing the main character’s homestead, Garstang writes, “Dermot took the time in spring to savor the flowering of the hillsides: the dogwoods that looked like drifts of snow among the evergreens; the redbuds, with their rivers of pink light flowing through the understory; the blossoms of the black locust that smelled, to him, like butter.”

Garstang conceived of The Shaman of Turtle Valley as a short story about a veteran returning home and dealing with PTSD issues. But then Garstang remembered working for the Peace Corps teaching English in South Korea. He gave the veteran a young Asian bride, and the story veered off in a new direction. She kept demanding more page space, both for her shamanistic practices and for the reactions of rural Virginians befuddled by her contrary beliefs. 

“When I started writing it,” he says, “it didn’t really have anything to do with Korea, but when I realized the culture I wanted to write about was more universal than just Virginia, that led me to think of the study of shamanism and Korean Buddhism when I lived there. That began to creep into the story and basically take it over.”

The bulk of The Shaman of Turtle Valley takes place in 1996. The main character, Aiken, is still haunted by deaths he witnessed in the Gulf War. Before exiting the Army, Aiken serves a tour in Seoul, where he meets Lee Soon-hee at a “wine house,” the Korean equivalent of a bar. Though neither speaks much of the other’s language, they fall into lust and wind up with an unwanted pregnancy. Married, with a child named Henry, the two come to Aiken’s home in Stillwater (a fictional Virginia town), where Soon-hee’s failure to assimilate leads to problems.

As Garstang writes, “Aiken knows Soon-hee loves Henry, too. She tries her best with him, even if she doesn’t always know exactly how to ease a fever or calm an upset stomach. Instead of children’s Tylenol and damp, soothing towels, she chants over him, bangs pots and pans, brandishes a knife in the air above his head—until Aiken puts a stop to her nonsense. He tells her it’s only superstition, from her backward country, but she doesn’t listen.”

But Aiken is considering only one side of things—his side—until he is forced to reexamine everything from other points of view. When Soon-hee wants to return to South Korea, he realizes that he had never considered the effect uprooting her from her home would have on her. When a cousin accuses him of statutory rape, he realizes how little he had questioned Soon-hee’s claim of being a college girl until after she was pregnant (she had been only 17). And when an old flame explains why she disappeared from his life years ago, he questions the heedless way he has ambled through life and wonders how he can change. Each woman’s view of Aiken chips away at his self-image, eroding the bedrock upon which he had once stood. By seeing himself through their lenses, he becomes a fuller person.

“The change in the main character came as a surprise to me,” says Garstang. “Every fiction writer knows that your main character is supposed to go through some kind of a transformation, but I didn’t really know what that was supposed to be until I explored the relationships with the women around him.”

From Aiken’s early point of view, we get the image of him as a dewy-eyed optimist whose only goal in life is to get away from the family farm. As he learns of the lasting impact on others of choices he had made only with his self-interest in mind, we witness the evolution of Aiken into a more considerate and reflective person. The way Garstang stitches together this patchwork quilt of conflicting viewpoints is masterful, crafting a complete picture impossible to view from one piece alone. That he accomplishes this with seamless elegance is a testament to the height of his literary skills. “I would like people to see Aiken as a man who is on a mission to take care of his family and to basically make up for whatever mistakes he’s made in the past,” says Garstang. “He’s not a perfect man, but he’s trying. And that’s all I can ask of him.” 

This article originally appeared in our August 2019 issue.

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