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Book Review: 'Things You Would Know If You Grew Up Around Here' By Nancy Wayson Dinan

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Nancy Wayson Dinan
Ashley Rodgers
Nancy Wayson Dinan

The protagonist in Nancy Wayson Dinan’s debut novel, Boyd, is an enigmatic empath living in the Texas Hill Country. She is an acutely perceptive young woman. We never quite know if she is merely sensitive or if there is something else going on, something surreal or supernatural.

What grounds the ambiguity for us is the insurmountable cataclysm of 2015 in the Texas Hill Country — the devastating Memorial Day floods that ravaged this part of Texas and changed the landscape irrevocably.

Boyd has been able to read emotions in others since she was a little girl. While this quality piques the interest of others, they never pursue it to any great degree, ignoring, as most do, talking about feelings or excavating traumas.

With each new perception of debilitating grief or sorrow in others, Boyd acts to help, to figure out how to solve their problems or quell their sadness. But also with each new encounter, her own strength is diminished. Her superpower is her kryptonite.

Boyd has enjoyed a long friendship with Isaac. He keeps her at arm’s length because his goal is to leave the Hill Country forever after he graduates from the University of Texas. He finds the place insufferably dull and wants to flee the provincial town where his father is obsessed with history and treasure-hunting. Isaac himself pans for gold to help pay his university tuition. It is the main reason he has returned to the Hill Country and cannot wait to leave again — even though he has complicated feelings for Boyd.

Boyd’s goals are to stay right where she is. She lives with her mother Lucy Maud and hangs out with Carla, who is something of a wannabe witch.

On that May day in 2015, the rains come after a long drought. Isaac is missing, and Boyd knows he is in grave danger.

On her harrowing journey in search of Isaac, she encounters spaces that awaken her powers of perception. Ghosts emerge and point the way to history’s wretched litany of dark chapters that remain otherwise silent or silenced.

For the rest of us, Boyd imparts the many ways we humans have ravaged our earth. While the title of the novel is a mouthful, it’s kind of perfect in illustrating a hard fact: if you grew up around here, if you had a point of reference, you would appreciate the history of this place, its hidden secrets and all it has to offer.

More surreal elements emerge, too. A scarecrow comes to life, lassos of vines festoon a house where a mother cares for her bedridden daughter, and ghosts line the path of Boyd’s perilous journey. They are ultimately inextricable from the realistic elements of the novel.

“Things You Would Know if You Grew Up Around Here” shows that we don’t just accept evidence of climate change or other disasters that befall us. We learn from them in order to move toward the future. Dinan shows us through her novel’s protagonist that we have to really look to see. We have to immerse ourselves in the spaces and see what’s changed. Good fiction can move us through imagined spaces to show us our truths. This novel instructs us on the ways that the first step toward change is caring enough about it to confront it.

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Yvette Benavides can be reached at bookpublic@tpr.org.