Trampoline: An Illustrated Novel by Robert Gipe has been one of the biggest, and dare I say, most pleasant surprises of 2015. The basic white cover features a hand drawn image of the novel’s protagonist, Dawn Jewell. The back cover features praise from well-loved Appalachian authors Ann Pancake, Silas House, and David Joy. These names are joined by the likes of Darnell Arnoult, George Singleton, Gurney Norman, Pamela Duncan, and Jim Minick on the interior book flaps. Virtually every page is sprinkled with a hand drawn picture. The novel, released by Ohio University Press, straddles the line between young adult/juvenile and solidly adult fiction. I’d argue any reader would really gain something from this book, yet the strong language and nature of some of the action may lend it towards more mature young people. Trampoline is centered around the character of Dawn Jewell, but to simply call it a “coming of age” story would limit the scope of the novel. What Gipe is able to do with the novel is present Appalachia and all of its complexities through the experiences of a teenage girl. As Dawn navigates her feelings on family, the environment, education, and love, Gipe is able to subtly allow the reader to explore all of the dark corners but ultimately the light of Appalachia. He bases the action against the backdrop of history, the battle to protect Blue Bear Mountain, thus lending a sense of accuracy to events that, at times, feel hard to swallow. Overall, Gipe has created a story that isn’t afraid to be ugly. He has built a character that feels frustrating but so familiar. He presents events that are frightening but they, in turn, give reason for the tight bond among Appalachian residents. This story isn’t about mountaintop removal. It’s more than just saving the mountain. It’s about saving oneself through learning to love the person you are.
The novel is told in five acts. With act one, we are introduced to Dawn Jewell. She lives with her grandmother, Mamaw, who is an environmentalist working on a petition to prevent surface mining on Blue Bear Mountain. Dawn’s Momma is in and out. She’s often high; she steals money from both her mother and her daughter. The novel’s action begins with a community meeting about surface mining on Blue Bear. The argument gets heated and suddenly Dawn finds herself standing up in front of everyone defending her grandmother. Dawn spews words about the land, the people, and their homes. She surprises even herself. It’s as if Dawn’s eyes have been opened to her cause. She didn’t know she felt so strongly about saving Blue Bear until she opened her mouth and listened to what was coming out. At this point it gets complicated. The second and third acts are dotted with seedy characters and dangerous situations. Dawn gets into fights at school, steals two cars, crashes one, and falls in love with a voice on the radio. It is not long after Dawn starts getting into trouble that we meet more of her family. Her brother, Albert, lives with their mother and uncle Hubert. All three, Momma, Albert, and uncle Hubert are in a constant state of drunk, high, or up to no good. Dawn floats in and out of their nonsense. She runs afoul of Keith Kelly, her cousin’s coal miner friend. Dawn gets the nerve to write to Willett Bilson, the voice on the radio. Dawn and Hubert’s strange relationship (he is her dead father’s brother and has a history with her mother) is at times tumultuous and at other times tender. The climax of the novel occurs as Dawn is driving, with Hubert in the passenger seat, when Keith Kelly is run off the road and ends up dead. This is Dawn’s breaking point. Act four sees Dawn being dropped off at her Aunt June’s house. Aunt June is the only family member to have escaped the mess that is the Jewell family. She lives in Kingsport, which is also where Willett Bilson lives. After several events, including a party, a trip back to Kentucky, a run in with Keith Kelly’s family, and a trip to the hospital, Mamaw tells Dawn to go back to Kingsport. Mamaw sees the influence Momma and Hubert have over Dawn. Instead of heading straight back to Aunt June’s, Dawn gets a ride over to Willett’s house. But this isn’t the fairytale Dawn had imagined. Willett looks nothing like the picture he sent to Dawn; she feels betrayed and lost. Act five is about resolution. Dawn concedes to giving Willett a chance, and although he is nothing like she thought, he may be just what she needs. Hubert and Dawn’s relationship finally comes to a head when Dawn decides to kill him at the same time that Hubert decides to kill himself. Instead they have a moment of healing. Momma and Hubert find religion. The story concludes with little fanfare. It isn’t tied up in a neat bow. Rather the last scene sees Dawn flying in a helicopter over a mountaintop removal site. She looks down to see Willett has spelled out “You Are Here” and we feel that Dawn has finally come to terms with who she is now, in this moment.
Gipe’s novel is in no ways sensational. Dawn’s experiences feel authentic. Her insecurities and struggles feel familiar. The outlandish qualities of her family are not wholly alien to the reader. This novel touches on mountaintop removal and activism but it’s given a more broad context within Appalachia. This novel, likely due to its older target audience, speaks more on the dark side of activism in the region. Several episodes within the book blatantly exhibit the cruel and hateful responses to environmental activism. By the end of the novel, Dawn realises why she is fighting for the mountain:
“Blue Bear wasn’t just about winning a fight. Everything I could see from Mamaw’s porch, every place I had run through on a four-wheeler, every birdsong and spring flower, every ferny frond that come up beside a yellow muddy trail—all that kept me alive sure as if it was air I was breathing. The trees and the roll of the earth helm me up like the ridge holds the cloud from passing so it can pour down rain. The vines and the rabbits and the squirrels and the orange lizards out on the rocks after a storm—all those things I’d forget when people dragged me down—I needed them close and always” (225).
This quote does more than just tell us why Dawn is fighting for the mountain. It shows how she is trying to save the mountain as a means to save herself. To me, the overarching theme is more than just placing value on the environment and stopping mountaintop removal. It is about coming to terms with oneself. Gipe shows us, through Dawn’s experiences, that each person is made up of many things. Dawn spends much of the book running. She tries to escape from her life as a Jewell when, really, it is this background that makes her who she is. Dawn is more than just a Jewell. Dawn is more than just an activist. She must accept all parts of herself; the chubby, high school dropout, activist artist that she is. The reader is challenged to see more than just the surface of Dawn. By extension, Gipe may be saying that the individual must see more of Appalachia than simply the surface. Appalachia is more than coal and mountains, just like Dawn is more than stealing cars and getting drunk. Gipe is stressing the importance of looking deeper. He is refusing to let the reader get away with limiting anyone or any place. Over the span of 312 pages the reader may just begin to understand what Gipe is implying. His message is subtle, but present.
I honestly loved this book. It was a challenge to read. At times I was appalled at the position Dawn, a fifteen year old girl, was put in. But at the same time I was enthralled. Gipe does an amazing job of giving humanity to each character. This book is so different from other books I’ve read. It falls in between the two poles of light children’s literature and the heavy adult literature from Appalachia. When I began the book, I was somewhat distracted by the drawings but by the end they became a means of “seeing” what Gipe means by different dialogue or action. My only criticism is that this book can’t quite be placed in a category. It’s a bit heavy for students, yet following the journey of a teenager may not be what adult readers are looking for. Perhaps that is the point. By writing about these intense experiences, maybe Gipe is pushing the young and old reader alike to adapt. Perhaps he is saying that struggles and questions are universal; but what is important is learning who you truly are.