My Mountain Granny by Matthew Link Baker. Catch the Spirit of Appalachia, Inc., 2010.
In the opening pages of My Mountain Granny, author Matthew Link Baker announces his intention of producing a book that would embody a kind of memorial to the memory of Evelyn Howell Beck, a mountain woman that he encountered in Whittier on Dec. 10, 1998. This meeting was the consequence of Baker’s life long desire to discover the “real Appalachia” and the character of the people who lived there. An associate had assured him that he could learn all he wished to know by talking to Evelyn Howell Beck.
Over a four-year period (1998-2002), Baker would visit Evelyn 20 times. Part of Baker’s book is based on these recorded conversations.
In actual fact, although Baker’s book is a moving tribute to Evelyn, it also qualifies as a homage to the town of Whittier, which once had a “boom town” reputation. The narrative (which manages to be disjointed, pleasant and informative) combines Evelyn’s memories with a collection of remarkable photographs, historical sketches and a generous amount of oral history.
Founded in 1885 by Clarke Whittier, a relative of the poet, John Greenleaf Whittier, this village quickly grew into a robust community that thrived on profits from timber and the commercial advantages of having a newly constructed railroad running through it.
Because the founder’s promotion of the region as a place destined to become “the cynosure of eastern America,” investors and settlers flocked to the new town. (Robert Lee Madison, who would become the founder of Western Carolina University, and his brother Monro were among the first arrivals.) Suddenly, Whittier was filled with excitement, visionaries and hucksters (the most infamous being a fellow named James Latimore Hemrod who fleeced the town and quietly departed). For a short time, sawmills, churches, hotels and boarding houses sprang up like toad stools.
Some of the most fascinating information in My Mountain Granny concerns Whittier’s “salad days” — that brief period when the town thrived. Baker gives an entertaining account of the years when Whittier became a center of old camp meetings. Beginning in August, families camped out in and around the town, attending revivals and singings. These events, sometimes called “arbor meetings,” frequently lasted for six weeks. Popular quartets performed and regional ministers preached services that culminated in “alter calls.” Medicine shows, sponsored by major medicine companies, provided hours of entertainments (Bill Monroe and the Grand Old Opry star, Grandpappy) that were interspersed with “doctors” who gave sales pitches for elixirs that cured everything from hair loss to warts and the common cold.
According Baker, Whittier became the Little League baseball center for the region in the 1920s — a title that the town held until the 1970’s. One of the memorable teams was the Whittier Orioles which was composed of Cherokee and white youngsters from the area.
Baker also recounts a famous “Whittier story,” which has become a part of this region’s history/folklore. It concerns Col. Raymond Robbins, a noted public figure in the 1930’s who had become wealthy in the Gold Rush of 1898. Using his money to finance his social work, Robbins became a leading prohibitionist. When the Colonel mysteriously vanished in September 1932, President Hoover, fearing that Robbins had been murdered by political enemies, launched an investigation. Several days later, a man calling himself Reynolds Rogers appeared in Whittier and immediately became an active citizen, attending civic meetings throughout the region, including the Cherokee tribal council.
However, to everyone’s astonishment, a local youth finally recognized him from his photograph in the Grit! Rogers turned out to be the missing Colonel. Did he have amnesia, or did he simply grow weary of his stressful life? (Wilma Ashe, a young Whittier resident, befriended Robbins during his sojourn in Whittier and often told colorful stories about her conversations with him in later years.) After Robbins returned to his estate in south Florida, he often told his friends about the little community that was situated in the fork of two rivers — a place where he had been happy for a short time.
Baker gives a lively account of Whittier during the periods when the town struggled to survive. Especially interesting are the sections that deal with the years when 25 percent of America’s workforce was unemployed. During the 1930s, thanks to Roosevelt’s Work Progress Administration (WPA) and the Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC) with camps at Smokemont — coupled with the community’s reliance home-grown food — Whittier managed well. Evelyn Howell Beck’s memories of those days harkens back to a time when survival required community effort.
“We helped each other,” she said.
The bright economic promise of Whittier was dashed by a combination of unforeseen events: the Great Depression, the creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (which terminated the thriving, but unregulated timber industry), and the devastating flood of 1940. The photographs of this disaster are especially memorable.
Today, Whittier is a quiet village. The railroad, the land speculators and the medicine shows are gone and this little settlement on the Tuckaseigee now attracts people for a different reason. It is, as Clarke Whittier once described it, a kind of pastoral Eden like that perceived by another poet where “peace comes dropping slow.” In the distance, the local residents can hear the thunder of the interstate and the hurry and bustle of progress. However, in Whittier, life has adjusted to a slower pace — there, as in Grey’s famous “Elegy,” the natives treasure the “noiseless tenor of their day.”
In view of this little book’s numerous fine points, it is unfortunate that the text is marred by a number of flaws. For example, the references to Charleston, the old name of Bryson City, are not clarified. The book’s layout is confusing because often, the wonderful photographs and the text are not correlated. Photographs of Robbins are haphazardly placed. Evelyn’s recorded memories are frequently repetitious. Baker occasionally inserts personal observations about the “good old days” that are heartfelt and well-written, but they are not always clearly distinguished from Evelyn’s personal recollections.
All in all, the book’s value as a tribute to a bygone time and the resilience of mountain people certainly outweigh its technical flaws.
On a hot July night in 1935, a young Wise County, Virginia, school teacher named Edith Maxwell came home late. Her father Trigg, who did not approve of his daughter’s late hours, confronted her and a violent argument (which turned into scuffle) developed. Some 15 minutes later, Trigg lay dying on the floor.
A doctor was summonsed, several neighbors arrived and finally the local sheriff conducted a brief investigation. The following day, Edith and her mother were arrested and charged with Trigg’s murder. The alleged weapon that killed Trigg was identified as Edith’s high-heeled shoe. Later testimony would indicate that Trigg died from a blow to the head by an axe, an iron or a skillet, but the shoe would win the hearts of the journalists.
Thus began one of the nation’s most sensational murder trials — a minor domestic tragedy that became a kind of media circus. Within days, a swarm of journalists and writers descended on Wise County, quickly dubbing Edith as the “Hillbilly Girl of the Lonesome Pine” (a reference to the John Fox novel which has its setting in Wise County). Many of the journalists belonged to that somewhat sleazy school of writers that are referred as “colorists” or “yellow journalists” because they were adept at inventing sensational details that had little or no relationship to facts. In addition, the most disreputable writers were employed by Hearst-controlled newspapers — all noted for gossip, distortion and sensationalism.
Suddenly, grotesque images of Edith, her family and her neighbors began to appear in major newspapers. Like the heroine in Trail of the Lonesome Pine, Edith was described as a “golden haired” (she wasn’t) innocent who was a victim of a tyrannical father who enforced a harsh curfew that required Edith to go to bed so early she “had never seen the moon.” A photograph of a cow strolling down the street in Wise County conveyed the impression that Edith’s neighbors lived in rustic ignorance.
Much was made of a grim tradition called “mountain justice,” which required the nearest relative of a murder victim to avenge the crime by killing the murderer. Although the tradition only existed only in the imaginative minds of journalists, such distortions implied that Edith would be killed by her brother, Earl.
Ironically, Earl, who had moved to New York where he “lost” his mountain accent, immediately returned to Wise County and became Edith’s champion and most devoted defender. Within a matter of days, Earl found capable lawyers to defend his mother and sister. In time, he would conduct fundraising efforts on her behalf and launch a vigorous public relations campaign. Earl also engineered a contract with Hearst papers, giving them exclusive rights to Edith’s story. However, despite his best efforts, Edith (who was tried separately from her mother) was found guilty and sentenced to 25 years in prison.
During the next two years, Edith Maxwell became something of a national celebrity. After the verdict was appealed, she was transferred to the Jonesville, Va., jail (which had more “humane facilities”). Within a few weeks, both letters and visitors increased to several hundred each day. Newspapers such as the Washington Post and the Washington Herald expanded their coverage by aggressively soliciting funds for Edith’s defense. Two major national women’s organizations, the National Women’s Party (NWP) and the National American Women’s Suffrage Association (NAWSA), decided that Edith’s trial would be an excellent sounding board for current issues such as the Equal Rights Amendment. Certainly, the fact that Edith was found guilty by an all-male jury indicated that she had been denied her rights to a jury “of her peers.”
Before the media circus was over, Edith’s defense would be taken over by some of America’s most prominent (and controversial) attorneys. In addition, a host of “missionaries” would arrive to offer cultural and educational assistance to the citizens of Wise County as they ventured reluctantly into the 20th Century. Journalists continued to refer to the locals as “bumpkins, local primates, hillbillies and half-wits.” As one cynical reader put it, “It would cause us to wonder why our social, welfare, missionary and religious organizations spend so much in all years past soliciting funds and workers for the uplift of the heathen of the Orient or the savages of Africa, when for less effort and expense, they could have gone to Wise County, Va. and found a country full of them.”
Although the unrelenting journalistic distortions left the people of Wise County (and much of Appalachia) smarting from the depictions of their region, their culture and their people, there was some objective coverage. Sympathetic writers such as Ernie Pyle and James Thurber did their best to correct the distortions. Of course, what seemed to have gotten lost in this extravagant spectacle was ... did Edith Maxwell murder her father? In fact, her guilt or innocence seemed to become irrelevant as the warring factions collided: journalists, “sob sister” writers, lawyers, social critics and angry Appalachian advocates engaged in verbal battles that dominated the news for five years (1935-1940).
After two trials and the denial of a hearing before the Virginia Supreme Court, Edith’s defense, conducted by “outlanders” (eastern lawyers) and funded by activist organizations, began to collapse. Weakened by flawed research, contradictory testimony and hysteria, the atmosphere in Wise County began to resemble the infamous Snopes Trial in Dayton, Tenn. In desperate need of money, Edith and her brother entered into an ill-advised contract with a Hollywood studio and gave her endorsement for a film entitled “Mountain Justice.” In addition, the former teacher seemed to become despondent and wrote a letter to her wealthy benefactors in Washington and New York stating that she wished to withdraw from any association with the NWP and the NAWSA.
When it was finally over, Gov. James H. Price granted Edith Maxwell a pardon and she quietly departed the Goochland Penitentiary in Richmond with $10 and an assumed name. After serving six years of a 20-year sentence, she received a pardon because of a letter written on her behalf by Eleanor Roosevelt. Upon learning of Price’s decision, Edith asked that Price wait for one day before officially announcing her pardon. It was her wish to vanish. She said that she wanted to avoid journalists and hoped to live in obscurity for the rest of her life. She got her wish.
Living as Ann Grayson, she later married, had two children, allegedly lived happily and died at the age of 65 in 1979. She never returned to Wise County.
This is a fantastic story and I highly recommend it.
Note: Sharyn McCrumb’s new novel, The Devil Among the Lawyers, is based on Edith Maxwell’s trial. It will be reviewed in this column at some future date.
Never Seen the Moon: The Trials of Edith Maxwell by Sharon Hatfield. University of Illinois Press, 2005. 286 pages.
The design of this book’s cover, in addition to being visually attractive, quite possibly serves as an inadvertent assessment of this book’s contents:
Judaculla Rock, in all of its ancient splendor, serves as a backdrop for a diverse collection of objects - a dulcimer, a collection of wild flowers in glass containers, an ancient (fossil) stone displayed on a blue towel, an electric guitar and a laptop computer. The diversity of the objects suggests the eclectic (and possibly incompatible) nature of this book’s contents.
Appalachian Roots has two authors: Dave Waldrop and Michael Revere. Consequently, this book consists of two sections — an autobiographical account of Waldrop’s life, followed by a kind of miscellany of Michael Revere’s writings (essays, poetry, journals, etc.). Aside from a common cultural bond and friendship that these two authors apparently enjoy, Waldrop and Revere seem to have little in common.
Waldrop reveals a profound love for his family, a reverence for American values and all things “Appalachian,” especially music. Revere alternates between heartfelt homages to people and topics that he admires (Wilma Dykeman, the Church of God, and rock and roll) to bitter denunciations of consumerism, the wealthy landowners in Highlands, and America’s obsession with materialistic values. In addition, he condemns what he perceives as a moral/political betrayal of this country in a rash of vitriolic poems and essays attacking topics as diverse as academia, Richard Nixon, and James Dickey.
The heart of Waldrop’s autobiography stresses three themes: love, family and forgiveness. The author celebrates his abiding love for his mother and gives a painful account of the numerous indignities that she suffered as the wife of an alcoholic. Much of Waldrop’s account of his childhood depicts a family that is often precariously balanced on the brink of ruin — where love, survival and shelter are dependent on the whims of a drunken, perverse father who is capable of shockingly brutal attacks on his wife, often beating her into unconsciousness. Time and time again, young Dave and his brothers (and single sister) are forced to flee the Waldrop home in order to take shelter with relatives. Invariably, the family returns with the vain hope that the unstable father and husband will repent.
Although the primary focus of Waldrop’s story concerns his father’s tragic addiction and demise, Waldrop has vivid memories of humorous and joyful events. There is a wonderful account of a midnight ride in a car with half-deflated tires down a Jackson County railroad track. Then, there is Chuckie, a groundhog that became a household pet. At another point in his life, young Waldrop discovers a cure for chiggers: a plunge into the black, toxic waters of Tuckaseigee River (toxic because of the extract released into the creek by Mead Paper) would kill fleas, ticks and chiggers.
Waldrop also found a number of opportunities to excel in school, sports and part-time employment. Rejected by his father, Waldrop found the acknowledgment that he desperately craved elsewhere. Eventually, this same yearning for acceptance and approval would lead him to success in the military service and in his employment in the Jackson County schools system as a counselor, coach and bus driver.
Michael Revere’s contribution to Appalachian Roots comes under the heading, “Soul Harvest.” It is difficult to describe and/or evaluate Revere’s writing. It runs the gamut from doggerel verse and haiku to journalistic accounts of his personal encounters with “spirit lights” and extraterrestrials. In addition, Revere also gives a description of his ability to compel Air Force jets and the CIA to do his bidding. Michael readily admits that an early experience with LSD brought about a drastic change in his personality. Following this drug experience, Revere receives an honorary discharge on the grounds that he had developed “unsuppressable (sic) nomadic tendencies” that compel him to travel. For almost 40 years, Revere has been a rootless wanderer, living briefly in Oregon, Chapel Hill, Brevard, Montana, West Virginia and numerous small towns in between.
“Soul Harvest” contains more than 130 poems, journal entries and essays. At times, many of the poems contain a kernel of insight into human suffering love and joy.However, a considerable number of the poems and prose pieces are either angry, incoherent or offensive. Frequently, Revere appears to relish an “in your face” approach which is designed to shock his readers, as in “The Fried Baby Hillbilly Brain Vision,” “Carolina Hog Slaughter,” and “The Deliverance Vision.” Revere seems to have a compulsion to confront “famous” folks such as the folksinger Pete Seeger, the poet John Beecher and the novelist James Dickey.
One of the most provocative sections in “Soul Harvest” deals with a series of journal entries titled “Sky/Space Journal.” Revere believes that he can communicate with the “spirit lights” which pulse, move and dance in the night skies above Cullowhee. According to Revere’s journal, he monitors the night sky for months, both in North Carolina and other locations, and feels that he can establish direct contact with a host of alien beings.
At times, Revere has a disarming honesty about his own frailties and is perfectly willing to concede the fact that he is mentally unstable. He readily admits that his erratic home life (parents who were CIA agents, mother’s alcoholism, his confused identity due to changing his name, etc.) and his belief that he is an unwitting pawn in a covert CIA experiment — all have contributed to his confused and contradictory response to life. One thing is certain. This footloose, Church of God, drummer/rock-and-roller, poet and UFO fan is an original.
Does Appalachian Roots have problems? Yes, it does. Although this book is deeply moving at times, it could have used some serious editing and revision. It also needs a preface! There is no attempt to define this book’s purpose. Why did Waldrop and Revere join forces? What did they set out to accomplish?
There is also a lot of repetition. Waldrop repeatedly catalogues all the trees growing around his home; he repeatedly names all of the vegetables in the family garden, and he repeatedly proclaims his intent to never drink alcohol or judge his fellow man. On the other hand, he does not tell the reader enough about some of the book’s most provocative episodes. Waldrop avoids giving descriptive details. Specifically, what did his father say and/or do that was unforgivable? What are the physical characteristics of his brothers and his sister? The family’s three horses? All of these characters and creatures simply beg to be developed.
However, in spite of the absence of descriptive details, Appalachian Roots captures the essential facts in two very different (but equally daunting) journeys to adulthood in Appalachia. I would like to think that there will be a sequel to this book — an autobiography that tells us all of the details that were absent in this one.
Appalachian Roots, by Dave Waldrop and Michael Revere. R&R Publishing, 2010. 244 pages.
For the past few years, internet literary critics of fantasy/supernatural novels have been raving about about a writer of “punk rock prose” named Caitlin Kiernan. The praise has been excessive, comparing her to H. P. Lovecraft, Poe and Clive Barker. However, if the endorsements of Peter Straub, Neil Gaiman and Garrison Keillor (no kidding!) should move you to find one of her seven novels — and if you live in a small town in Western North Carolina — you may have a problem. Neither the libraries nor the bookstores stock “the poet and bard of the wasted lost.” There is a reason for that.
Kiernan’s work certainly falls within the boundaries of what is called horror, fantasy and the supernatural — but these are classifications that the author steadfastly rejects. She has a point. Although the novel Silk is packed with otherworldly creatures that live by night, imbibe a mix of pot, mushrooms, Ramen noodles and bourbon while exhibiting sexual behavior that is, by mainstream standards, “aberrant,” the cast of characters are quite definitely ... human. They are young, homeless and frequently mentally unstable. Although some are gifted, they are invariably impaired in some fatal or tragic manner. All of them are painfully alienated and lonely creatures, who, in order to survive, huddle together, attempting to create “families.” Often living in unheated tenement slums, they emerge at night, to congregate in back-alley nightspots with names like Dr. Jekyll, the Cave or Dante’s where drug addicts and acid-head musicians and prostitutes dance and drink and make out until daylight.
Mainstream America is horrified by Kiernan’s world (Silk is set in drab and bleak slums of Birmingham, Ala.), and if morbid curiosity tempts the average reader to sample a few pages in something like Daughter of Hounds, they will probably close the book as though they feared contamination or infection and quickly return it to the shelf.
Such reactions delight Kiernan, who notes that she does not write for “the office monkeys” — her contemptuous label for people who live a 9 to 5 existence in a “politically correct” world. Kiernan’s protagonists flip burgers, wash dishes in coffeehouses, work in garages, peddle drugs or eke out a minimal existence in the uncertain world of music (punk rock, goth, grrrl, etc.) and outsider art. Kiernan captures their world with a grim and gritty prose that frequently has a dark and lyric beauty — especially the dialogue which has been called “poetically nasty.”
The characters are unforgettable: Daria Parker is an intense, chain-smoking young woman who dyes her hair with cherry Koolaid and works in the Fidgety Bean, a local coffeehouse, using her wages to keep her band, Stiff Kitten, up and running. Her lover, Keith Barry is a talented musician with a hopeless drug addiction. Spyder Baxter functions as a kind of den mother for a dozen wrecked and lost outcasts (lesbians, transsexuals and drug addicts) who gather each night in her ramshackle house to listen as Spyder weave dark stories about fallen angels and ... spiders (a topic that she knows a great deal about). Niki Ky, a haunted young Vietnamese fleeing from the memory of a suicidal lover, finds herself in Birmingham where she first befriends Daria, but finds herself drawn to white-haired Spyder and her court of “shrikes.”
Although there are terrifying scenes in Silk, scenes in which Kiernan’s characters find themselves at the mercy of a nameless evil that skitters through the dark alleys of Birmingham, thumps on the walls (and whispers in Spyder’s basement), it is finally an evil that originates in the tormented minds of Spyder and her followers. A foolish, drug-induced ritual in Spyder’s basement (lots of mushrooms and an occult mantra) leaves the participants haunted by the belief that they had summonsed “something” and now it follows them relentlessly.
Despite all of its bleakness and obscenity, Silk contains descriptive passages that glow and pulse with sensory details: a thunderous and nightmarish band festival in Atlanta in which the Stiff Kitten performs (and fails) is especially notable. Then, the massive snowfall that buries Birmingham during the novel’s conclusion reads like a frozen tableau in Hell. She may be “nasty,” but this weird woman can write!
Kiernan’s latest novel, The Red Tree, chronicles the psychological disintegration of a single character named Sarah Crowe, an author, who flees a wrecked life in Atlanta and rents the Wight Farm in rural Rhode Island in order to complete her latest novel. The farm turns out to be the infamous site of supernatural events dating back 300 years, including demonic possessions, suicides and human sacrifice. When Sarah discovers a battered manuscript in the basement — a kind of journal composed by the last occupant of the house, Dr. Charles Harvey — a renter who committed suicide, she becomes obsessed with the manuscript, especially after reading about “the red tree” which is located a short distance from the house. Eventually, she gives up all pretense of completing her novel and devotes all of her time researching the history of the great oak, which has played a prominent role in the region’s occult history.
When an artist named Constance Hopkins rents the attic of the house, Sarah gains both a roommate and a lover. However, in time, the two women begin to bicker. Both develop a dread of the “red tree,” and begin to suspect that they are helpless pawns of the tree. Attempts to visit the tree turn into nightmarish treks (It takes you hours to walk a few hundred feet, and even a longer time to return to the house). As Sarah continues to read the manuscript, (which she shares with Constance), this novel gradually turns into a terrifying story of compulsive possession. Eventually, Sarah comes to doubt the world around her, a doubt that is substantiated when she visits Constance in the attic and discovers that no one lives there.
The Red Tree takes the form of a journal in which Sarah Crowe provides a daily record of events. After Sarah discovers the manuscript in the basement, she begins to record passages from it. As a consequence, Sarah’s journal is interspersed with passages that were typed on a manual Royal typewriter with a worn ribbon. Like the faulty typewriter in Stephen King’s Misery, these typed passages (just as they appear in the original manuscript) give the narrative a disturbing quality.
Caitlin Kiernan’s novels give abundant evidence of the author’s impressive research and learning. Within a single chapter, the reader may find references to sources as varied as Seneca, Nina Simone, Thoreau, Tom Waits, Joseph Campbell and H. P. Lovecraft. Kiernan often wields her impressive learning like a bludgeon and seems to take considerable satisfaction in doing so. The reader may feel both taunted and intimidated by this amazing author. However, discerning readers will probably forgive this author for her occasional outbursts of unabashed arrogance and vulgarity. Caitlin Kiernan has a rare talent.
Silk by Caitlin R. Kiernan. RoC Books, 2002. 353 pages.
The Red Tree by Caitlin R. Kiernan. New American Library, 2009. 385 pages
The Death of Sweet Mister by Daniel Woodrell. Plume/Penguin Group, 2008. 196 pages.
Several years ago, I read an amazing novel by Daniel Woodrell entitled Winter’s Bone, and after the review was published, I found that Woodrell’s narrative style lingered in my memory. Perhaps it was because the plot of Winter’s Bone resembled another favorite of mine, Charles Portis’s True Grit, except instead of a western setting, Woodrell’s tale took place in the Ozarks. The protagonist in both tales — a spunky teenage girl — goes on a daunting search for her missing father.
Last month, I discovered that Winter’s Bone has been made into a movie and has recently won considerable praise at the Sundance Festival. The film is also receiving impressive endorsements from a growing number of Appalachian writers who invariably comment on the fact that Winter’s Bone depicts Appalachian culture without resorting to the traditional stereotypes (moonshine, feuds and inbreeding).
After reading a series of glowing reviews for Winter’s Bone, I decided to track down other Woodrell novels (there are six) in the hope of finding yet another Appalachian novel that treated our culture and its people with authenticity and integrity. That brings me to The Death of Sweet Mister, Woodrell’s novel that precedes Winter’s Bone.
The narrator of The Death of Sweet Mister is an overweight, 13-year-old boy called Shug who speaks in a strangely poetic manner about the natural world that surrounds him. He and his mother, Glenda, live in a house in the center of a cemetery. Glenda is a graveyard caretaker, but Shug does most of the physical labor (cutting grass, weeding and planting flowers). However, this peaceful existence is often disturbed by Red, Glenda’s husband, an inept criminal just home from prison, who abuses both Shug and his mother; as Shug describes their relationship, “He had a variety of ugly tones to speak in and used them all at me most days.”
Red and his criminal cohort, Basil, spend most days in a drunken stupor; however they have also a scheme for stealing prescription drugs which requires the assistance of Shug. The hapless boy is forced to break into doctor’s offices while Red and Basil wait in the car. Frequently, they force the boy to pose as a Grit salesman, a ruse that gets Shug into homes where he steals drugs directly from the bedside of victims. Initially, Shug develops confidence and manages to talk himself out of a series of bizarre dilemmas. When he is finally caught, he learns that Red and Basil have impressive criminal records.
The Death of Sweet Mister is “country noir” at its best. There is a grim inevitability about the gradual corruption of Shug, a sensitive, intelligent boy who is powerless to save himself. Certainly, the threat posed by Red is powerful, but the greatest danger is deceptive. Shug is “a momma’s boy,” and his total devotion to Glenda may be the most destructive influence in his life. Like the “femmes fatales” in the novels of James Cain and Raymond Chandler, Glenda, a compulsive flirt, is adept at using her greatest weapon — her feigned helplessness. Addicted to “sipping tea” (rum and coke) that she carries in a silver thermos, she stumbles about in sexy disarray, a flashing beacon to any amoral male that passes by.
In this instance, the vigilant male is Jimmy Vin, a man with a job (chef), a taste for expensive things, money ... and a Thunderbird! He encounters Glenda and Shug when they are in desperate straits. Glenda calls him after she and Shug have been abandoned by Red on a lonely, rain-swept road. When Jimmy Vin comes to the rescue, the stage is set for sensual encounters, passion and danger. This heady brew of theft, love, hate and deception reads like the best of modern crime fiction. However, there is more going on here than heart-pounding drama.
In the final analysis, this little dark and twisted tale is about Shug. Woodrell sets the stage for a confrontation. What is going to happen when Red discovers the Thunderbird parked in Glenda’s driveway? When Red, the psycho, meets Vin, the gourmand, who will survive? And what about Basil? However, the real issue is what will become of Shug?
Perhaps the best insight into this novel is given by commenting on the title. “Sweet mister” is the affectionate nickname that Glenda gives to Shug. When she calls him “sweet mister,” she is acknowledging Shug’s best qualities: his childlike devotion and his constant striving to please. However, at the end of this tale, things have changed. Shug has watched his mother entice other men, and as he matures, his devotion is colored by rage and resentment. Glenda’s veiled suggestions that Red is not Shug’s father leaves the boy with a sense of “being excluded” from a “more significant” place in her affections.
The Death of Sweet Mister, then, is not a literal death. It is the death of everything that is innocent and wholesome in Shug. That probably explains why one major critic (London Times Supplement) called The Death of Sweet Mister “an Oedipal noir.” Although Shug’s tragedy does not have the redemptive conclusion of Winter’s Bone, it is consistent with Woodrell’s chosen themes. The author has staked a claim to a specific topic: the resilience of adolescents who find themselves trapped in a menacing environment.
The Memory of Gills by Catherine Carter. Louisiana State University Press, 2006. 59 pages.
Recently, when Catherine Carter was asked for a bit of biographical information that could be used to publicize her appearance as a participant in the Gilbert-Chappell Distinguished Poet Series at the Jackson County Library, Carter gave her impressive credentials and added that she was “raised by wolves and vultures.” This response should not be dismissed as merely a bit of imaginative whimsy since it provides a key to a dominant theme that runs through the poet’s collection, The Memory of Gills.
Frequently, Carter’s empathy with the natural world (and her yearning to be absorbed by it) strikes a familiar chord. Robinson Jeffers, the poet who spent much of his life along the (then) isolated coastline of Big Sur, Calif., so that he might observe the “red with tooth and claw” existence of wolves and vultures, shared the same attitude. In his need to feel and see the world as animals do, he sometimes expressed a yearning to be literally consumed by them. So, too, does Catherine Carter in “Evidence of Angels:”
teases the buzzards – lying very still
to make them circle and look;
Carter’s fanciful comparison of a buzzard’s descent to an angelic/divine visitation becomes a recurring theme in her other poems. For example in “The Stingray,” she notes that the gods “have a certain passion for feathers and hair” and tend to visit/ravish selected females in the guise of bulls and swans. Carter wonders why the divine never arrives from the depths of the ocean where the “brown silken wings and the diaphanous mouth” of the stingray are well-suited for a rapturous union with earthly flesh.
As the title of this collection suggest, Carter perceives the ocean as her “original element.” In the poem, “In the Mountains an Occasional,” she describes an encounter with a wayward osprey. The presence of this sea bird in a land of rocks, suggests that the bird and the poet are both a long way from home. The bird’s cry is a summons:
it may say though you stab
down roots like claws
into these long levels
and planes of granite, remember
the cormorants fishing, the realm
To Carter, it is a call to come home. And again, in “The Other Story,” Carter uses the ancient myth of the silkie (“the seal wife) as a fulfillment of the yearning to return to our natural home.
The folding web below,
my thumb is growing. Other
skin slackens and creases,
bristles spring from my chin.
The fisherman’s wife (the silkie) is preparing to go home!
However, “In the Room Where the Words Are,”when the poet makes a fanciful descent into the ocean, searching the sandy floor for a memory of home, she finds only a sense of irrevocable loss.
In “Raised by Wolves,” Carter fantasizes about living in both worlds:
When I visit the den,
we nuzzle and scratch each other
(that opposable thumb so handy),
Ask why humans live in pieces,
Why they use air machines
on such cool nights; if we are the last
wolves since the new strip mall,
we’ve seen no more.
But Carter’s yearning to belong to another (or perhaps all) species is different from Jeffers; not only does Carter’s quest embody everything from microbes to the stars (and the world of Cthulhu), it mingles fantasy and humor. In “A History of a Lost Colony,” a microscopic culture that lives in the recesses of a refrigerator, dares to launch a mission to a sister colony living in “the outer grill,” only to suffer devastation and ruin (wiped out by ammonia cleansing!). Carter records their tragedy as though it were the collapse of a “Star Wars” colony in a distant galaxy... and, indeed, it is!
Carter perceives a link between herself and all things, but it is often expressed as an imprint or a refrain so faint, it resembles a palimpsest — a message that has faded or eroded. Running through many of these poems, there is the unspoken regret that humanity has lost a vital link with the natural world. In “Hearing Things” Carter observes the world around her, and senses a silent, blind striving that finally takes the form of faint voices that ask — not just to live, but to be allowed to fulfill their preordained destiny: garbage (“Don’t embalm us in the landfill”), vegetation (“Keep the backhoe from the land” and stray dogs at the shelter (“Leave the gate unlatched”).
Not all of the poems in A Memory of Gills deal with a desire to renew an ancient tie with the natural world. Indeed, there are a number of poignant poems about love and love’s loss — and a wonder poem about a brassiere!
However, the primary themes in this marvelous collection evolve around our loss of touch with the natural world.
A native of the tidewater of Maryland, Catherine Carter now lives in Cullowhee, where she is an assistant professor of English at Western Carolina University.
Princess Noire: The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone, by Nadine Cohodas. Pantheon Books, 2010. 449 pages.
The first time I ever heard Nina Simone sing, I was in one of those pretentious “high fi” stores in Atlanta back in the early ’60’s where all of the clerks wore lab coats, which suggested that they were trained specialists who had access to highly arcane knowledge. They used terms like “woofers” and “tweeters” and were constantly adjusting the “decibel levels” on a row of gigantic speakers. In order to demonstrate the merits of the speakers, one of the “specialists” picked up a Nina Simone record and dropped it on the turntable, saying, “Listen to this.”
The recording was “Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair,” and it is still one of my favorites. Suddenly, the speakers vibrated, and Nina Simone’s deep, dark contralto literally made the hair stand up on my neck. I had never heard a voice like that before, and I was fairly certain that all of the high tech equipment wasn’t responsible for the aching, near-painful beauty of this woman’s voice. I became an instant fan.
In all of the years that I listened to Nina Simone sing (1960-2000), I knew very little about her personal life except what I gleaned from liner notes and album covers. I knew that she had been born in Tryon, N.C., and had been proclaimed a “musical prodigy” by the time she was nine. I saw references to Carnegie Hall concerts,and I knew that she had marched with Martin Luther King. I knew that she had become a kind of deified goddess in Europe as she blazed a trail that was both inspiring and troubling due to her bizarre and unpredictable behavior on stage. There were magazine articles about her confrontations with her fans and promoters in the concert halls of London, Paris and Nassau where she frequently refused to perform because of imagined slights and repeatedly walked out of performances.
I received something of a shock when I read her autobiography several years ago (I Put a Spell on You), for it revealed the troubled life of a woman who readily acknowledged her mental instability but seemed incapable of accepting the blame for conduct that wrecked her marriages and alienated her friends, family and fans. However, Nadine Cohodas has now published a painfully detailed biography, Princess Noire: The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone, that finally reveals all of the bitterness, vanity, fears and guilt that haunted this gifted and tragic woman.
Nina Simone was born Eunice Waymon on Feb. 21, 1933. Eunice’s mother was a minister and musician, and although the family was poor, J. D. Waymon provided for his family by operating both a barbershop and laundry. Although most of the region remained segregated for another 25 years, Tryon’s artistic and cultural community proved to be exceptionally tolerant. In fact, when Eunice’s musical talents became common knowledge (she was playing hymns at the age of 3), some of the town’s prominent residents established the “Eunice Waymon Fund” to pay for her music lessons. In addition, a noted musician, Muriel Mazzanovich who had retired to Tryon, taught the budding prodigy, training her to be a classical concert pianist.
Nina Simone’s biographer, Nadine Cohodas, provides significant evidence that the obsession to be a black classical pianist was the seed of discontent that would provide the basis for Nina’s mental illness. Subjecting herself to rigorous training, Eunice attended the Allen School of Music in Asheville (1949) and was given a scholarship to the Juilliard School of Music in New York with the goal of being eventually accepted at the prestigious Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. Throughout these years of training, Eunice Waymon developed a reputation as a solitary young woman who denied herself any distraction (no boyfriends, no parties, etc.). Indeed, many felt that her determination and fervor were detrimental to her character.
When the Curtis Institute rejected Eunice’s application, the blow was devastating. In later years, Nina often noted that the Institute’s rejection was motivated by racism. The broken-hearted girl vowed to apply again, but in the meanwhile, she needed to make a living. Then, one of her friends recommended that she apply for a position in one of the numerous bars or nightclubs in Atlantic City where many young musicians found summer work.
It was at this point that Nina Simone was born.
When the owner of the Midtown Bar asked her for her “stage name,” Eunice told him to call her Nina Simone. “I always liked the name Nina, and I saw the name Simone on a movie poster” (probably the French actress Simone Signoret).
For many years, Nina told her friends that her work as a jazz and blues pianist was temporary. However, within a few months she had developed an ardent following. Her audiences were fascinated by the unusual blend of classics like Bach and contemporary jazz. At first, Nina resisted singing, but when the club owners insisted, she began to sing in the dark, dramatic contralto that would make her famous. When she became a sensation in New York, she finally stopped her strenuous training sessions and gave up her dream of being admitted to the Curtis.
However, her nightclub performances were the beginning of Nina’s conflict with her audiences. She refused to sing if there disturbances (laughter and talking) in the club, and would often stand staring resentfully at the crowd until she had total silence. “I expect and deserve respect,” she often told them. Other times she was more direct. “Shut up!” she would say, pointing at the offending party.
When fame came to Nina Simone, it was both disconcerting and exhilarating. An early bad marriage left her embittered. In addition, a series of relationships with unethical recording companies — which had issued many of her records illegally — had cheated her out of millions of dollars. Her subsequent financial problems produced a growing sense of paranoia and the feeling that she was being victimized by everyone.
Although her career flourished during the next 40 years, Nina’s mental illness grew steadily worse. She was finally diagnosed as schizophrenic, but due to her mounting debts and lavish lifestyle, she continued to perform in folk festivals, Carnegie Hall concerts and the performance centers of Europe and Africa. Even when she began arriving late for concerts and initiating shouting matches with irate audiences, her performance would frequently turn the tide and the same audiences that booed her tardiness and provocative speeches would end up give her standing ovations.
During the civil rights movement, Nina marched with Martin Luther King, writing and singing hundreds of protest songs. Among her best friends who rallied to her side during her tumultuous final years were the writer James Baldwin; Lorraine Hansbury, the playwright who wrote “Raisin in the Sun;” and the poet, Langston Hughes. When she died on April 20, 2003, she was living in a small seaside village in France where a group of devoted friends tended to her every need.
During my first year at Western Carolina Teachers College (now Western Carolina University) in 1953, I managed to offend my grandfather so severely that he banished me. “Out of my sight!” he said, and sent me to Brevard to spend the summer with Uncle Albert. Albert was the bookkeeper for the Silverstein Tannery and got me a job there. “Good,” said my grandfather. “Maybe he will develop a sense of what it means to earn a livelihood.”
I worked in the “buffing room” which was next to the “green hide room,” a place where decaying (green) flesh was stripped from hides; the hides were then hung up to season. The resulting stink hung like an evil fog over the whole place, including the Green Fly Cafe (also owned by the Silverstein Tannery) where we all ate each day. Eventually, I became inured to the smell that permeated everything near the tannery; I even reached the point where I could eat the Green Fly’s diet of collard greens, pintos and cornbread with a reasonable amount of gusto.
The buffing room was in the loft of a large, barn-like structure, and its purpose was to convert inferior hides into acceptable shoe leather. This was done by placing hides (which were spotted with holes and possessed areas that were so thin they were semi-transparent) on a great table and coating them with a nauseous, yellow gunk. Four workers stood at each table with huge brushes strapped to their forearms and alternately dipped the brushes in the yellow gunk and then spread it, like lemon cake icing, over the hide.This process was repeated several times, and then huge metal rollers beat the gunk into the hide until it was absorbed. This was repeated until the hides acquired an acceptable thickness.
A bucket of water set by each table and when the brushes became clogged, we would clean them in the bucket. The water level in the bucket was always a little over half-full, because the buffing machines actually caused the floor to shift beneath our feet, like the deck of a ship. The water sloshed n the bucket in rhythm with the buffing machines. The deafening noise of the buffers rendered conversation impossible, and we learned to communicate with a kind of “buffing room mime.”
It was mind-numbing work, and we quickly fell into a repetitive routine that lasted for two hours. We received a 15-minute break — one in the morning and one in the afternoon — between each shift (which was deducted from our pay). During break, workers would go to the toilet, go smoke on the loading dock, or sit on the floor next to their work station. One colorful fellow would climb on the idle buffing machine and preach to his fellow workers to “find Jesus.”
In addition to me, my work station consisted of Lil, a gigantic blond woman who resembled Boris Karloff; a small man named Westley who hummed country-and-western songs, and a fellow named Manard who talked constantly about hunting, fights and epic drunks. During the breaks, Lil laid on the floor and slept while Westley, Manard and I fled to the loading dock. While Westley yodeled and did a passing imitation of Eddie Arnold’s standards (“Cattle Call,” and “ A Big Bouquet of Roses”), Manard talked about his Saturday nights which he spent driving around Brevard with a bottle of John Paul Jones whiskey and a paper sack full of cherry bombs. His greatest joy in life consisted of lighting cherry bombs and pitching them out the window when he passed a crowd in front of a church or theater.
Sometimes when the buffing room was going full blast, the owner paid us a visit. He wore riding pants, carried one of those little jockey whips and was usually accompanied by two white poodles. Sometimes, he would stop and watch us spread gunk. He would say something like “Faster, faster,” and the dogs would bark at us. Then he would pop his whip against his pants’ leg and walk away.
I lasted two months at the Silverstein Tannery. When I received word my grandfather would let me return home, I collected my last check ($12) and boarded a Trailways bus to Sylva. During my last week, Manard broke the buffing room monotony by taking two days of “sick leave” and then showing up with the lower part of his face encased in adhesive tape.
During our break, I followed Manard to the dock and watched while he carefully poked a cigarette in a slit above his lip and lit up. “So what happened to you?” I said. It was a little hard to understand Manard because he had lost most of his teeth, but this is the gist of what he said:
“Well, last Saturday after drawin’ my pay, I drove down to the South Caroliny line whar I bought a fifth of JPJ and a sack of cherry bums. I come on back to Brevard, cause I knowed that there was a big church revival down on Carver Street. I set outside that church til almost midnight, sipping JPJ and listenin’ to WNOX in Knoxville. Drunk that whole fifth and it was close to midnight afore them folks come pouring out of that church. Then, I rolled a winder down, and using my cigarette, I lit one of them cherry bums, and I throwed my cigarette out the winder and put that cherry bum in my mouth.”
Recently, I read that a historical society in Brevard was soliciting personal reminisces from former employees. Suddenly, it all came back: The Green Fly, the buffing machines, the white poodles and Lil asleep by her work station. I have serious doubts as to if the historical society really wants to know how I feel about the old Silverstein Tannery. However, I will admit that every time I think of Manard with a cherry bomb in his mouth, I laugh.