The first weeks of 2018 have seen some offbeat books shamble across my desk and into my fingers.

First up is John Buchan’s Mr. Standfast, also known as Mr. Steadfast. Buchan, a Scottish novelist and politician who served as Governor General of Canada from 1935 to 1940, is best remembered for his suspense novel The Thirty-Nine Steps, a grandfather in the genre of intrigue. Alfred Hitchcock later made Buchan’s tale of a manhunt, a precursor to “The Bourne Identity,” into a film. 

While it is difficult to write objectively yet critically about someone whom you know personally or about a book whose subject matter and/or authors are familiar, sometimes necessity is more than the mother of invention and you have to do things you normally or ethically wouldn’t do. Such is the case for me in writing a review about the recent publication Jonathan Williams: The Lord of Orchards about the life and legacy of the poet-publisher Jonathan William, whom I knew and was a relative neighbor of mine who lived just up the mountain from my home in Tuckasegee, on Scaly Mountain near the town of Highlands. 

Editor’s note: This Back Then column by George Ellison first appeared in the Feb. 15, 2012, edition of The Smoky Mountain News.

Olive Tilford Dargan is fairly well known in literary circles as the author of From My Highest Hill (1941), a delightful collection of autobiographical stories set in Swain County, originally published as Highland Annals in 1925. But she is also one of the finest poets the Smokies region has as yet produced.

(Editor’s Note: Readers should be cautioned that several of the descriptions of scalping and related practices presented in this column are graphic.)     

When I was a boy, incidents of scalping by Native Americans were a staple in the old-time movies about the “Wild West.” And there is no doubt whatsoever that the western tribes utilized that practice. But what about the Cherokee, Creek, Catawba and other southeastern tribes — to what extent was scalping a part of their warfare and ritual?

For the past two centuries, local historians and writers in England have produced a large number of municipal and county histories, a project formalized in 1899 with the Victoria County History project, a massive undertaking that, more than 100 years later, is still unfinished. These detailed records have proven invaluable for historians and biographers writing on a grander scale, allowing them to compile data and statistics on topics ranging from deaths attributed to the plague to the impact of railroad revenues and services on country life.

There it stood on a sale table, all 11 volumes lined up tight and orderly as cadets on parade, Will and Ariel Durant’s The Story of Civilization.

The Friends of the Library had slapped a price tag on Volume IV.

Christianus Gottlieb Priber was born in Zittau, Germany, where he was the son of a beerhouse owner. In October 1722, Priber’s Doctor of Jurisprudence thesis (written in Latin) was published at Erfurt University in Erfurt, Germany, after which he returned home to practice law. In time, he became the German equivalent of a district attorney (Oberamts-Reigierungs-Advokat) for the government in the superior bailiwick that included Zittau. And in 1722 he married Christiane Dorothea Hoffman, with whom he had five children.

An oral history project documenting African American history in the far western reaches of North Carolina is now a book, thanks to Waynesville’s Pigeon Community Multicultural Development Center.

“I guess the motivation was because Haywood County just doesn’t have very much documented history of African Americans,” said Lyn Forney, the director of the Pigeon Center.

How did this happen?

I treasure my local public library for its friendly staff, its vibrant programs for my grandchildren, its many spacious tables, its twin carrels for study and privacy, its sun-lit vestibule where patrons may eat lunch and drink coffee while reading, typing on their laptops, or visiting with friends. The collection of books is unremarkable, but adequate. All in all, I would judge this library a cut above many comparable institutions. The congenial atmosphere is conducive to work, and I come here several afternoons a week to escape my apartment, to work, write, and read, and to browse the stacks when I need a break.

When a policy that would prohibit the display of the Confederate flag in a tiny mountain mill town’s municipal parades was first proposed, it was immediately identified as both a sensitive cultural issue and a thorny Constitutional question that cast the Western North Carolina municipality as a microcosm of the complex national debate over the role of Confederate imagery in society today.

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