Where the Lilies Bloom

by Vera Cleaver, Bill Cleaver

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 207

Although a particular period is never identified, the descriptions suggest that the story is set in the North Carolina mountains during the late 1950s or early 1960s. In many ways time moves more slowly in the mountains, and modern-day conveniences, such as electricity, refrigerators, radios, and cars, are luxuries in this setting. The Luthers' poverty is revealed by the description of their home, a "woeful," "seedy," and "downright disgraceful" shack. The mountains and land around the shack, though, are beautiful, "the fairest land of them all," and this fair land produces the wild plants that allow the children to survive. The plants have beautiful names: mayapple, witch hazel, ginseng, goldenseal, stargrass root, and queen's delight. The book's title refers to the beautiful mountain landscape, as well as to the mountain hymn, "Where the Lilies Bloom So Fair." Nature provides a livelihood for the children but it also brings suffering with its winter blizzards, spring rain storms, and scorching summer heat. To a large extent, the whims of nature determine whether life will be comfortable or dangerous for the Luthers. The children must be ever aware of natural threats such as storms and poisonous snakes. The story revolves around its setting, and nature itself almost becomes another character.

Literary Qualities

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 572

Where the Lilies Bloom is a straightforward story, without many obvious double meanings, symbols, or mythic elements. It is narrated by Mary Call and, apart from occasional awkward phrases, which seem self-consciously "poetic," the writing is clear, smooth, and often beautiful. The Cleavers always research the geographic areas they write about, and as a result the colorful mountain dialect is authentic.

The Cleavers use humor to lighten what might otherwise be a very depressing narrative. Mary Call and Romey keep their wits about them, and they usually have some amusing observation about the people or situations confronting them. The scene in which Mary Call uses a mountain recipe to heal Kiser Pease of pneumonia—the recipe calls for the patient to be stripped and slathered with cooked onion slices—is very funny, although it also contains numerous references to the Luthers' poverty and to the possibility of Kiser's death. Romey, with his optimistic spirit, is often thinking of pranks. His most successful prank comes when he frightens Mrs. Connell away with a stuffed bear: "I like to died laughing, watching that old bird fly out of here," he says of his enemy, the "old bat." Throughout the book, even in the midst of the most serious situations, the authors include enough comedy that the reader never feels overwhelmed or hopeless.

Nature plays a symbolic role in the novel. It is portrayed as something that can be exquisitely beautiful or hatefully ugly, depending on the season and one's financial resources. As the Luthers' poverty moves them further and further away from a "civilized" lifestyle and toward a primitive way of life, they become ever more reliant on nature and more affected by weather. This move toward nature progresses slowly throughout the book. At first the Luthers try to save money by not using the electricity in their house. Then winter comes and the roof falls in, leaving a gaping hole in the middle of the house where snow and wild animals can enter. Near the end of the book the Luthers are so poor that they must move out of their shack and into a cave, like "troglodytes." As this move towards primitivism progresses, there is an identification of the Luther children with animals or birds. When winter comes, the rooster, pig, and cow are brought indoors, and the house becomes a stable. The cow eventually takes over Romey's entire room, and "the smell that came from it was not good and it was not now a laughing matter." When the roof caves in, Mary Call must fight a wild fox for the rooster. She wonders if the fox has approached a human habitation because it is so hungry it has lost its natural fear, or because Mary Call herself no longer looks like a human. Finally, Mary Call decides the family must move into a cave.

It is interesting to note that as they become more identified with beasts and nature, the Luther children withdraw more from the company of other human beings. Mary Call makes Romey refuse an invitation to the Graybeals' house, and later declines a ride with Mr. Graybeal during a rainstorm. Romey also uses an animal to frighten away Mrs. Connell. Kiser Pease is, for the most part, the only person the children see, and his visits are often prompted by his desire to give animals to Devola; his gifts to her include a pig and a cow.

Social Sensitivity

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 344

Where the Lilies Bloom shows how ambitious, intelligent people can be caught in the downward pull of poverty by factors beyond their control, such as illness, a poor local economy, or unfair land division. The novel also explores the potential abuses of the tenant farming system. The Cleavers never blame the true victims of poverty, but they criticize people who abuse the welfare system.

Parents or teachers should discuss the Luthers' extreme views on charity with young readers. The Luthers feel that charity is "seldom of real service to those upon whom it is bestowed and those who receive it are always looked upon with suspicion, every need and want scrutinized." Readers should be asked to decide how realistic this attitude is and to examine their own attitudes toward receiving and giving charity.

Another social issue raised by the Cleavers is that of children's rights. The Luthers are threatened, in large part, because of their youth. If they were older, Roy Luther's death would not have to be kept secret, because his children would not face the threat of a foster home. In this book, adults are not portrayed as exceptionally wise, good, or dependable. Roy Luther has let himself be beaten by poverty and by Kiser Pease; Riser has been selfish and greedy; Mrs. Connell is cruel and hateful. Mr. Connell and Miss Breathitt, the teacher, are the only admirable adult figures in the book. Readers might discuss the rights and protections that children should have. They should also talk about the qualities that make Mr. Connell and Miss Breathitt stand out as exemplary adults.

Where the Lilies Bloom also deals with the issue of mental disability. Devola is not incapable of learning, but she is slow and somewhat gullible. Naturally, Roy Luther is concerned about her future. However, in the process of insuring that she will be safe and provided for, he takes away her freedom of choice by forbidding her to marry Kiser. Parents or teachers might discuss the rights of the mentally disabled and ask if Roy's decision is justifiable.

For Further Reference

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 143

Carpenter, Humphrey, and Mari Prichard. The Oxford Companion to Children's Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984. Contains a brief overview of the Cleavers' major writings.

De Montreville, Doris, and Elizabeth D. Crawford, eds. The Fourth Book of Junior Authors and Illustrators. New York: H. W. Wilson, 1978. Contains a helpful autobiographical sketch and a biographical sketch with a short bibliography of articles about the Cleavers.
Estes, Glenn E., ed. Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 52, American Writers for Children Since 1960: Fiction. Detroit: Gale Research, 1986. Includes a thorough critical analysis of the Cleavers' writings.

Kirkpatrick, D. L., ed. Twentieth-Century Children's Writers. New York: St. Martin's, 1978. Includes a short discussion of the Cleavers' fiction and the prevailing themes, character types, settings, and tone of their works through 1977.

Senick, Gerald J., ed. Children's Literature Review. Vol. 6. Detroit: Gale Research, 1984. A thorough compilation of biographical facts on both Cleavers.

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