Our Roots and Where They Grow

A Review of Sara Johnson Allen’s Down Here We Come Up

by Ryleigh Wann

How do you create healthy boundaries when that boundary involves blood? What about when you feel so ingrained in a place that your roots can’t help but rot with it? How do you pull yourself out of a syrupy summer in a Southern town? Winner of the Big Moose Prize from Black Lawrence Press, Sara Johnson Allen’s debut novel Down Here We Come Up interrogates the intersections of place, motherhood, and the entanglements of love and loss. It examines the harsh realities of class and race in the South and how everyone has a choice to make about how to make ends meet, how to mother, or how to love. Set mostly in the kudzu-covered scenes of North Carolina, this debut’s poetic prose kept me reading the entire time. This is a writer who knows how to discuss place, and even more, know how to write about it like a local.

The novel centers around three women who are all mothers separated from their children in various ways: through choices, actions, and borders. This book follows the story of these women and their eventual meeting, backdropped against divisions on maps and by ingrained beliefs and stereotypes. Kate Jessup, the 26-year-old main protagonist, is called back to her estranged, dying mother’s aid because she needs help with a task, and has something she knows Kate wants—the address of the baby Kate had given up for adoption. It’s not until Kate abandons the cushy (albeit unhappy) lifestyle she’s built in Boston and returns to her hometown, the former fields that have since been developed outside of the port city of Wilmington, North Carolina. The shack she grew up in looks just as rundown as when she was a kid, but some things have changed—her house is no longer full of the strange men her mother brings around but is now a safe house for migrant workers eating meals, resting, and finding work. An ex is growing pot to save the family greenhouse, the motherly figure next door has passed on to heaven, and Kate’s mother is bedridden. It’s here Kate discovers her mom’s true intentions, which involve crossing into Mexico to bring something across the border for her. Kate wants no part of any of this, but when you’re home in the South, you help out.

While the book really picks up pace in the end, the chapters leading up to this climax feel extremely Southern. You are getting to know the people tangled within this town through the stereotypical Southern complexities and niceties of being polite and minding your own business, even when that business might involve what happens to young girls behind closed doors. All the small-town gossip, all the facade of “Oh honey, bless your heart,” and these subtle interactions weave the reader through minor (at times, meandering) subplots to a payoff of getting to know characters who feel exceptionally real, flawed, and honest. Down Here We Come Up preaches a lot of lessons, but a primary takeaway is how sometimes you want something so deep in your bones, you’re willing to do whatever it takes to get it.

This debut avoids poverty porn but instead tells a narrative of people in all their complications and growth—people who want to keep their small business afloat and choose to sell drugs in order to achieve it, people who love their children in the ways they only know how to love. It doesn’t fetishize the intricacies of immigration or class but rather looks at it through the lens of a white, rich-passing, beautiful young woman who reaps the benefits of her appearance despite not having something like a driver’s license. Through this journey, Kate learns what her privilege entitles her access to and finds a sliver of trust while doing so. This novel seems to be in conversation with a larger one in the publishing industry: whose stories are and aren’t being told? Whose lived experiences get a chance to be displayed on a bookshelf and which get silenced?

I didn’t need to read American Dirt to know that the author of that novel published a book displaying what she believed readers would devour, which only contributed to the harmful rhetoric of immigration and the border. While I began reading this novel with concerns in the back of my mind, Kate eventually grew her beliefs and understanding of the system at large. In one scene she is arguing with Maribel, the woman who has become like a daughter to Kate’s mother, when Kate argues “It’s not me, it’s my country” in defense of the strict immigration laws that prevent Maribel from bringing her children across the border. Maribel responds, “Yes, but you reap the benefits and privilege of this country.” Through this book, Kate comes to age at a late stage in life after a simultaneously stunted youth and having to grow up too quickly.

What I loved about this novel was the ways in which it examined the expectations of mothers and the choices they have to make every day in deciding what is best for their children—for their daughters. It made me consider my own relationship with my mother and all the places I’ve considered home—the Midwest, the South, and now, New York City. It’s a debut that touches on complicated themes with a realistic, complicated ending, but leaves you with the comfort of knowing that whatever is forthcoming for you or buried deep in the past, it is possible to begin again. It’s possible to grow new roots.

Ryleigh Wann

Ryleigh Wann (she/her) hails from Michigan and currently lives in Brooklyn, NY. She earned an MFA in poetry from UNC-Wilmington where she taught creative writing and served as the comics editor for Ecotone. Her writing can be found in HAD, The McNeese Review, Longleaf Review, The Shore, and elsewhere. She currently serves as the Lyric Essentials editor for Sundress Publications and writes about music for The Alternative. Visit her website to read her poetry, prose, and reviews: ryleighwann.com.