Storytellers draw inspiration from sources as varied as Shakespeare, the Brothers Grimm and the Bible; however, the tales that immediately produce a resonating chord in most hearts are the ones that are drawn from a storyteller’s own life. If the “teller’s life” is blessed with a colorful assortment of relatives, a collection of childhood memories and a penchant for self-effacement, he/she possesses a winning combination.
Donald Davis, like the bard of Lake Wobegon, Garrison Keillor, has that enviable gift. Not only can he recreate vivid images from his childhood (his favorite teachers, Valentine’s Day in the fourth grade, the first TV in the Davis home, etc.), he can prompt his listeners/readers to “recall” their own version of the same event.
As the title suggests, Tales from a Free-range Childhood represents the first in a series of autobiographical tales dealing with Donald Davis’ early years in Haywood County. As Davis — one of this country’s most noted storytellers — recalls his misadventures in kindergarten, his visits to his grandparents (who still had kerosene lamps) and his trips with his parents to church and local businesses, Davis conjures up a marvelous world filled with nostalgic landmarks: Charlie’s Drive-in, The Parkway Barbershop, Summerow’s Cash Grocery in Hazelwood, the bookmobile (a green panel truck) from the Haywood County Library, Massie’s Furniture, Whitman’s Bakery, etc.). Davis is blessed with total recall, even noting the difference between the taste of paste and glue in his class-constructed Valentine mailbox (he prefers the paste).
The real magic in Tales from a Free-Range Childhood comes from Davis’ ability to construct a world of “eclectic nostalgia.” The author carefully selects vivid images that convey a sense of love, comfort, safety and stability. Davis and his little brother, Joe, grow up surrounded by doting relatives, delightful playmates, a few eccentric aunts and warm and caring teachers. If there were incidents of violence, child abuse or neglect in Haywood County during the first decade of the author’s life, he carefully erased them from this chronicle of a joyful, “adventurous” childhood.
What is left then? Essentially, it is Davis’ knack for finding a kind of drama (or moral precept) in the commonplace. For example, there’s the time 5-year-old Donald is told to “watch the baby” (his 2-year-old brother). Donald and another playmate create a game called “Make the Baby Cry,” which involved denying the baby (Joe) cookies and toys, attaching a suction-cup clown to Joe’s forehead and then covering Joe with Calamine lotion. When the mother returns and discovers Joe, she sort of “loses it.” It is a kind of “hissy-fit,” I guess (Don has a talent for provoking this response from his mother). She proclaims that “never will you be allowed to watch the baby again.” Exactly what Don wanted!
So begins an impressive catalog of “adventures” that go awry. There is an ill-advised haircut for baby Joe followed by an incident that makes Donald an unintentional shoplifter at The Toggery (a woman’s clothing shop) in downtown Waynesville. Then, there is a delightful recounting of the educational debate, “to paddle or not to paddle,” with a guest appearance by “Major Bowles,” one of Haywood County’s most beloved educators. Next, there is a trip to Grandma’s house complete with a night-time visit from the imaginary “ critters” that crawl up the wall and through bedroom window. This tale concludes with a familiar refrain: Don devises a prank to frighten his little brother who wets the bed; Don ends up sleeping in the bed.
Before readers are halfway through this book, they are likely to conclude that the young Donald Davis was the type of kid that was constantly inventing adventures who had disastrous results ... like the sled ride down a snow-covered slope into a tree. Don had convinced the kids on the sled that if they were going fast enough, they would go right through the tree. “See the tracks in snow where I did it earlier? Here they are going into the tree and here they are on the other side of the tree!”
There are stories about “cow pies” (Donald convinces Joe to jump in the middle of every cow pie the pasture); a trip to a carnival and a ride on “The Octopus” with memorable results, and a nostalgic tale about Donald’s first-grade teacher, Mrs. Ledbetter, and a Valentine Day project that was repeated in the following years. In the beginning, the students sent each other valentines and young Donald is intent in getting the largest number of anyone in his class. However, by the fourth grade, Donald becomes increasingly aware of the little girl in the back of the room who rarely receives a valentine; eventually, he realizes there is a deeper meaning in exchanging valentines.
Donald Davis has published a great number of books about storytelling, including books on the history and techniques involved. Most of his admirers in this region are fully aware that Davis began as a minister. That fact has a great deal to do with the structure of a Don Davis story. Like a minister delivering a Sunday morning parable, he perceives his gentle and humorous tales as a means of illustrating life’s greatest gifts and joys: families that are bound together by affection, stability and mutual respect.
If storytellers develop “signatures” and recognizable themes, one of Don Davis’ recognizable components is self-effacement. His best stories involve the lovable troublemaker who gets his comeuppance. Like the tricksters Coyote, Brer Rabbit and Jack, he frequently devises a clever trap and then inadvertently falls into it himself. It is a type of humor that Appalachian storytellers learn to use as a shield — something between them and the world ... a world that cannot censor them since they have already confessed their flaws.
Tales from a Free-Range Childhood is a charming book, but, frankly I had much rather hear Don Davis tell a story than read it. Don’s greatest gifts are absent in this book: his facial expressions, his body language and, most of all, his marvelous sense of timing. Like many Davis fans, I have copies of “Barking at a Fox-Fur Coat,” and “the Crack of Dawn.” Thanks to the marvels of the Internet, I often listen to Don on televised shows that originate from Orem, Utah and Ocracoke. If you prefer your storytellers “live,” be advised. Don Davis will be storyteller in residence at a number of locations in this area this summer, including “The Swag” near Maggie Valley.
Signings by Davis
• City Lights Bookstore, located at 3 East Jackson Street in Sylva, on Wednesday, May 11, at 3 p.m.
• Malaprop’s Bookstore, located at 55 Haywood Street in Asheville, on Wednesday, May 11, at 7 p.m.
• Blue Ridge Books, located at 152 South Main Street in Waynesville, on Thursday, May 12, at 6:30 p.m.