Vernon, Olympia 1973-
VERNON, Olympia 1973-
Born 1973. Education: Graduated from Southeastern Louisiana University; Louisiana State University, M.F.A., 2002.
Top Alumnus of the Year Award, Southeastern Louisiana University, 1999; Robert O. Butler Award in Fiction nomination, 2000; Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Foundation Award, American Academy of Arts and Letters, 2004, for Eden; Senator Mary Landriew Recognition, 2004, for outstanding accomplishments in the area of writing and awards received; Honorable Kip Holden Recognition, 2004; Pulitzer Prize for fiction nomination, 2004, for Eden; Matt Clark Memorial Scholarship (granted twice); Director's Award for Outstanding Personal Achievement, Louisiana State University, for outstanding accomplishments in literature and Language; Words and Music Scholarship, Louisiana State University; M.F.A. Thesis Award, Louisiana State University, for Eden.
Eden (novel), Grove Press (New York, NY), 2003.
Logic (novel), Grove Press (New York, NY), 2004.
Olympia Vernon's debut novel, Eden, "was called from her by angels," remarked Anya Kamenetz in a profile of Vernon in the Village Voice. "In the fall of 2001, when even the sky seemed to be falling, she sat typing for days on end, forgetting to eat, transcribing what her characters—strong and mutilated, working and praying citizens of Mississippi—had to tell her." An unreliable computer cost her reams of lost pages of work, but despite the frustration, Vernon's trance-like determination resulted in a book that Kamenetz called an "astonishing debut."
Like the protagonist of Eden, Vernon spent her childhood immersed in a world of words. "When she was growing up in Mount Hermon, Louisiana, and Osyka, Mississippi, the fourth of four daughters in a family of seven children, she wrote journals; she wrote stories; she wrote letters," reported Susan Larson in the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Writing in all its forms "was a refuge for her even as a child," Larson noted. At first interested in law enforcement—she has a degree in criminal justice—Vernon was instead steered toward writing by William Dowie, one of her professors at Southeastern Louisiana University. She was admitted to the creative writing program at Louisiana State University, and during a visit to her sister in Dallas, she was struck with the first line of Eden, which took over her life, compelling her to write and keep writing until she finally finished the novel, Larson reported.
Eden centers on fourteen-year-old Maddy Dangerfield. Blessed with a love of words and a quick intelligence, Maddy struggles to understand the bleakness and poverty that afflicts her family. Her devoutly religious mother, Faye, works as a maid to more affluent whites in rural Pyke County, Mississippi. Most of Faye's money is squandered by her husband, and by Maddy's father, Chevrolet, a one-armed alcoholic and illiterate womanizer. Chevrolet lost his arm when his mother-in-law chopped it off and fed it to the hog after he was caught with Faye's sister, Pip. Alone and alienated from the family, Pip herself is dying of breast cancer, and Maddy is sent to Pip's home during the summer to help care for her because her sister—Maddy's mother, Chevrolet's wife—can't bear to face her, even as she withers from the cancer. In the face of Pip's illness and encroaching mortality, Maddy begins to awaken to herself and to the bleak future that Eden holds for her; with Pip's help, she struggles to gather the strength to break away and achieve her potential.
Critics were enthusiastic in their praise of Eden, with many of them lauding her as a significant new voice in southern writing. Vernon's "daring first novel rejects the whimsicality writers like Zadie Smith and Michael Chabon have lent to magic realism, returning instead to the bloodiness of the Southern gothic," commented Ann Powers in New York Times Book Review. "Vernon writes with a scary, deep knowledge of a very primitive place," wrote Hal Jacobs in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. A Kirkus Reviews critic called the book "an eloquent, if bizarrely childlike, and unflinching coming-of-ager that bears mountains of grief, passion, and guilt." Vernon's "raw and fierce first novel possesses a beautiful, albeit brutal, lyricism and introduces a strong new southern voice," commented Library Journal reviewer Faye A. Chadwell. With Eden, Vernon "has produced a startling reminder of how forceful Southern magic can be," Powers observed. "Eden will not be digested easily; it carries curses and spells beneath its covers. Its potent aura of belief is almost old-fashioned. Vernon's talent, however, is as green and growing as those country fields where her ghosts lurk," Powers concluded. The novel was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
Vernon's second novel, Logic, "is a dark and harrowing portrait of catastrophically scarred people in rural Valsin County, Mississippi," commented a reviewer in Publishers Weekly. Thirteen-year-old Logic Harris, named for a word her mother saw in a magazine when she was unwed, pregnant, and thirteen, suffered a head injury in a fall when younger, and is considered mentally impaired, though her detachment may be more the result of her reaction to her bleak and devastating surroundings. After repeated sexual abuse by her father, Logic becomes pregnant with his child. Trapped in a brutal world with an uncaring mother and nearly insane father, Logic seeks help from the boy she knows as the Tallest, the son of the prostitute across the street. Ultimately, Logic has to find her own course out of the misery and guilt that festers in her home.
"Little happens in this slim, richly metaphorical, nearly unreadable narrative, yet it holds the reader by its truly daring if not always successful figurative leaps" of language, observed a Kirkus Reviews critic. "Vernon's lyrical descriptions capture a rural Mississippi rife with evil, where abuse, pathology, poverty, racism, and violence intertwine," wrote Eleanor J. Bader in Library Journal. "Vernon writes with astonishing, original poetry that finds the perpetrator and victim in everyone," noted Booklist reviewer Gillian Engberg.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, February 23, 2003, Hal Jacobs, "Teenager's Private Thoughts Help Her Cope with Dreary Life," review of Eden, section E, p. 5.
Booklist, March 15, 2004, Gillian Engberg, review of Logic, p. 1268.
Kirkus Reviews, November 15, 2002, review of Eden, p. 1654; February 15, 2004, review of Logic, p. 154.
Kliatt, July, 2004, Susan Allison, review of Eden, p. 25.
Library Journal, November 1, 2002, Ann Burns, review of Eden, p. 111; November 15, 2002, Faye A. Chadwell, review of Eden, p. 104; March 1, 2004, Eleanor J. Bader, review of Logic, p. 109.
New York Times Book Review, February 23, 2003, Ann Powers, "Jesus Was a Loan Shark," review of Eden, p. 22.
Publishers Weekly, December 16, 2002, review of Eden, p. 47; April 5, 2004, review of Logic, p. 38.
Times-Picayune (New Orleans, LA), January 25, 2003, Susan Larson, "Writing in the Dark: Drawing Power from a Painful Past, 29-year-old Olympia Vernon Plumbs Emotional Depths with a Ferocity Rare for a Novelist of Any Age," profile of Olympia Vernon, p. 1; May 9, 2004, Susan Larson, "Girl, Interrupted; One of the Young Victims in Olympia Vernon's Powerful Novel Logic Flees Her Awful World by Imagining, and Settling into, a New One," review of Logic, p. 6.
Village Voice, January 22-28, 2003, Anya Kamenetz, review of Eden, p. 53.
Olympia Vernon Home Page,http://www.olympiavernon.com (September 14, 2004).
Suite101.com Web site,http://www.suite101.com/ (July 21, 2004), Dee Y. Stewart, "Finding Logic: An Interview with Olympia Vernon.*"