Although I sometimes wish that the maps of my Jackson County had a more beguiling shape — perhaps a bear or a quarter moon — its outline is pretty prosaic (it seems to resemble a pork chop). But marvelous events (mythical and real), notable lives and tragic encounters have occurred within these boundaries. Let’s begin with the fantastic.
According to the Cherokees, the witch Spearfinger once lived on Whiteside Mountain, where she often stood at night on the high cliffs during raging thunderstorms, brandishing her deadly digit and laughing. The great serpent Uktena once swam in the Tuckasegee (the marks of his scales are still etched in the river’s rocks). The giant, Judaculla, the “Slant-eyed One,” now sleeps in the Balsams, his flinty, upturned features visible at Pinnacle Rock. A hundred coves and creeks whisper of vanquished water spirits, nunnehi, “little people,” raven-mockers and giant eagles.
Then, there are the “maybe, maybe nots” — Jackson County tales of people, creatures, events and places that live in the twilight realm between reality and myth: the ghostly baying of Boney (sometimes called Bonas), the legendary hunting dog that leaped to his death from a cliff near Cashiers; the Tuckasegee “Smoke-hole” that was rumored to have great curative powers — now vanished; the chilling scream of “painters” in Little Canada (they were drawn to houses with new-born babies and lactating mothers.)
Many famous and infamous folks have lived here briefly and then traveled on to other destinies. William Bartram, whom the Cherokees called “flower plucker,” picked strawberries here; the outlaw, Major Lewis Redmond lived for several years at the King Place above Fisher Creek; Will Holland Thomas built a home near Whittier and, according to oral tradition, buried gold in his pasture; Dr. John R. Brinkley, the “goat-gland-man,” who sold patent medicine on XERA and ran for governor of Kansas, built a summer home above Cullowhee (his name is still inscribed in the rock walls near the road); Charlie Wright, the man who rescued Gus Baty (who fell/jumped) off Whiteside (a feat that earned Charlie a Carnegie medal) was equally famous as the man who courted Kidder Cole, the most beautiful woman in Cashiers Valley — which brings us to Judge Felix Alley, another Jackson County native who not only wrote Random Thoughts of a Mountaineer but also courted Kidder. When Wright “beat his time,” he wrote a famous square dance piece, “The Ballad of Kidder Cole.” (The lyrics include the line, “Charlie Wright, dang your soul/You done stole my Kidder Cole.”) Kidder later married “Little Doc” Nickols in Sylva.)
Any county history that is not seasoned with a bit of local bloodshed and courtroom drama is likely to be a bland chronicle. My county has a generous helping. In my childhood, I often saw the infamous Nance Dude trudging the roads near Wilmot with bundles of split kindling on her back; Bayless Henderson, the luckless killer of Nimrod Jarrett was hanged in Webster (2,000 witnesses, four preachers and picnic baskets.)
There were mysteries, too. What happed to Frank Allison, the deputy sheriff who joined a foxhunt into the Balsams and never came home. There was also a minister in Glenville who went out one evening to call his cow home — his remains found over 40 years later and his identity verified by his gold watch.
Now, comes a few of our notable people and places. Gertrude Dills McKee, the first female senator for the state of North Carolina, read poetry by candlelight at the Jarrett House when she was a child and grew up to pass legislation that revolutionized education in this state. Robert Lee Madison, who grew up in the home of Robert E. Lee (and once told my fifth-grade class about attending Traveler’s midnight funeral); attended (and described) the hanging of Jack Lambert (who was innocent), and founded a little college in Cullowhee that became Western Carolina University. The writer, John Parris, who launched a career when he interviewed a snake-bitten preacher named Albert Teaster and went on to write a series of books about the history and folklore of this region.
Is that all? In actual fact, these people, places and events are but the thin outer shell of my county. Beneath that resides my personal memories and dreams fostered by the Ritz Theater on Saturday; the courtroom of the Jackson County Courthouse where I sat in the balcony with my classmates and watched murder trials as gripping as anything that I witnessed at the Ritz; the music of Harry Cagle and Aunt Samantha Bumgarner; a little lady named Sadie Luck, Sylva’s first librarian who used to say, when I entered, “Gary, I’ve been saving a book for you;” and, finally, the faint echoes of a tannery whistle and (faintly) a song my father played long ago in the Rhodes Cove twilight, “The Raindrop Waltz.”
I think, perhaps, that the story of my county is just beginning. This is but a small, modest swatch in the gigantic tapestry — or perhaps a few bars of a symphonic musical score that is still being woven/written by countless fingers and voices. Can you hear it? I hear it best at night when I take out my cochlear implant and listen to the rich, dark silence and the unheard sounds around me.
(Gary Carden is a writer and storyteller. His recent writings can be found at his blog, http://hollernotes.blogspot.com/)
Willful Creatures Stories by Aimee Bender. Doubleday & Company. 208 pages.
Recently, Garrison Keilor mentioned a new writer, Aimee Bender on his daily post, “The Writer’s Almanac.” Garrison noted that Bender’s quirky and enigmatic books were causing quite a stir on the west coast – short stories about families with pumpkin heads and little boys who are born with fingers shaped like keys. An Internet search informed me that Aimee’s books contained strange parables that often left the reader both puzzled and fascinated. I immediately ordered The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, An Invisible Sign of My Own and Willful Creatures Stories.
An Invisible Sign of My Own opens with this paragraph:
“There was this kingdom once where everyone lived forever. They discovered the secret of eternal life, and because of that, there were no cemeteries, no hospitals, no funeral parlors, no books in the bookstore about death and grieving. Instead, the bookstore was full of pamphlets about how to be a righteous citizen without fear of an afterlife.”
I was hooked. For the past two weeks, I have been reading odd fables that often resemble perverse variations of Grimm fairy tales.
In “Off” from Willful Creatures Stories, a determined young woman goes to a party intending to kiss three men: a black-haired one, a red-head and a blond. Her plan has disastrous consequences. Then, there is “Debbieland” where a shy teenager is attacked and humiliated because she wears a skirt that offends some fellow students. In “Fruit Without Words,” a customer at a roadside fruit stand discovers that it is possible to buy words that are composed of the items that they represent.
“Ironhead” is a disturbing tale of a child born with the head of an iron frying pan – born into a family of pumpkin-heads. In “Dearth,” a lonely woman finds seven potatoes in her kitchen; despite all of her efforts to rid herself of them, they return and gradually develop arms, legs and facial features. Willful Creatures also contains “The Leading Man” and the story about the boy with fingers that resemble keys – keys that are destined to open locks that appear throughout the boy’s life.
What is going on here? At present, a great many people are attempting to analyze these stories. I am struck by how many of Bender’s perverse tales appear to be parables that embody the problems that beset all of us. Bender’s protagonists are often victims of alienation and rejection. They are filled with yearnings and a desperate need to “belong” and often, they overcome daunting obstacles only to be disillusioned with their success.
My favorite in the Willful Creatures Stories collection, “Job’s Jobs,” is a marvelous variation of the travails of the biblical Job. A vengeful and unrelenting God pursues Bender’s modern-day Job. Each time that Job acquires success (a writer, a painter, an actor, etc.) God appears and demands that Job relinquish his new career. In addition, God refuses to justify his actions. Finally, Job’s world becomes so small he is left no alternative but to retreat to the infinite world of his inner thoughts.
Although I found some of Bender’s stories inexplicable, I am so pleased with the ones that provide a shrewd insight into life’s uncertainties, problems and mysteries (death, alienation, guilt, etc.) I wholeheartedly recommend these books. If you like Angela Carter, Ambrose Bierce and the poetry of Stephen Crane, you will treasure Aimee Bender.
A Hard Journey by James J. Lorence. University of Illinois Press, 2009. 344 pages.
Once on a warm, summer afternoon (circa 1957), I met Don West in the Townhouse Restaurant in Cullowhee. He was visiting his daughter, Hedy (a student at WCC) and talked easily about provocative topics: McCarthyism, HUAC, Eugene Debbs and union violence in Georgia. At one point, he indicated a well-dressed coffee-drinker at the counter and said, “See that guy? He is an FBI agent that follows me everywhere I go.” The coffee-drinker nodded and smiled. I was skeptical. Besides, I was 18, and most of my attention was focused on his daughter, Hedy.
When he got up to leave, he gave me a battered copy of Clods of Southern Earth and suggested that I read it; we could talk about it the next time we met, he said. I had no way of knowing that just a few months before our conversation, he had narrowly escaped lynching near Blairsville, Ga. Shortly after visiting Hedy, he would return to his farm in Douglasville to find his livestock poisoned, a KKK cross burning on his property and a government agent on his porch with another HUAC subpoena. I had just met what may well be the most controversial and significant poet, minister, activist and teacher in the last century of Appalachian history.
I found James J. Lorence’s biography to be a dense, difficult but rewarding book. Certainly, it presents a comprehensive portrait of a charismatic, flawed and driven man whose confrontational manner caused him (and his family) considerable hardship. Like an old storytelling friend of mine once observed about her own difficult life: “I have dug my grave with my tongue.” In a pulpit, a classroom or in crafting the lines of a “working man’s poem,” West possessed an astonishing gift: the power to persuade and inspire others. Yet, that same gift provoked his enemies to bring him down.
Born Donald Lee West on June 6, 1906, in Gilmer County, Cartecay, Ga., West’s early beliefs were shaped by his grandfather, Asberry Kimsey Mulkey. From an early age, Don was taught to believe in the inherent wisdom of common people, the equality of all men (anti-slavery) and the concept of Jesus Christ as a revolutionary. Raised in a family with a reverence for the power of words, music and oral tradition, Don learned to use them to promote his grandfather’s principles. These basic precepts remained with West throughout his life.
When West’s family moved to Cobb County and became sharecroppers, Don and his sister were ridiculed for their clothes at school. This experience, in conjunction with an encounter with educational “paternalism,” convinced Don that schools were attempting to eradicate his culture and replace it with middle-class values. Although he received a work scholarship to Berry College, Don quickly found himself expelled when he led a protest against the blatant racism in the film, “Birth of a Nation.”
Gaining admission to Lincoln Memorial University in east Tennessee, West becomes friends with Jesse Stuart and James Still, marries Connie Adams, decides to become a minister and moves to Vanderbilt, where he soon becomes involved in radicalism, strikes, unions and educational reform. A trip to Denmark convinced him that the Danish school system offered the solution to retaining traditional values in education.
At this point, West’s life becomes a striving for ideals that invariably brings him into conflicts with authority. His attempts to launch the Highlander Center (1933) in Monteagle, Tenn., with Miles Horton is successful, but leads to irreconcilable conflicts with Horton. Amid accusations that the Highlander was a “communist training center,” Don leaves and begins a series of erratic journeys (on his beloved Indian motorcycle). West’s nebulous involvement with the Communist Party causes many of his friends (including Jesse Stuart) to distance themselves from him. Eventually, West’s publicized ties with Communist and leftist politics forces him to seek work under an assumed name.
For much of West’s life, his mainstay is his wife Connie. A gifted teacher, she readily finds employment. Even when Don’s notoriety brings her dismissal as well (guilt by association), she frequently travels to Florida and other states to teach. She sends the money home to Don and her family. In time, she also becomes a talented artist.
Time and time again, West succeeds in an astonishing variety of ventures: a beloved superintendent in Hall County, Ga.; three years of teaching at Oglethorpe; a successful newspaper editor in Dalton, Ga.; the creation of the Appalachian Center at Pipestem (modeled after his beloved Danish school system); a series of awards, including Appalachian Writers Association, Berea College and the Lincoln Memorial Hall of Fame — all remarkable achievements.
Yet the majority of his successes turned to dust in his hands. His notoriety and his past involvement in radical activities results in his dismissal from Oglethorpe; the KKK and groups of anti-red organizations (including the American Legion) drove him from Dalton, and his major nemesis, Ralph McGill, the editor of the Atlanta Constitution, is credited with driving West from Georgia. For a time he lived and taught in New York. Then came a realized dream at Pipestem.
Lorence’s biography gives a detailed account of how a battered and demoralized West retreated, again and again, to his farm in Georgia to seek renewal from the land. Even this final refuge is denied him when his farm is torched and his collection of 10,000 books destroyed — a tragedy that Don later claimed was provoked by Ralph McGill. However, the last decade of Don’s life was relatively peaceful, and was spent fundraising, teaching and promoting the Appalachian South Folklife Center at Pipestem. West died at the Charleston Area Medical Center in 1992.
This is what remains: His awards, his poetry and essays and the Appalachian South Folklife Center at Pipestem, West Virginia; the multitudes of students who still speak of him with respect, the lifetime friendship of people like Langston Hughes, Paul Green, Byron Herbert Reece and Arthur Miller; and the music of his daughter, Hedy, an art that owes its authentic beauty to the same forces that shaped her unrepentant father.
It may be that the final judgment of Donald Lee West’s significance is yet to be made. If Communism is finally a harmless scarecrow and if McCarthyism has been defanged, perhaps it is possible that we can finally give this angry, impatient and gifted man a fair hearing. He loved mountain people and honored them in every act that he performed. Let us finally acknowledge that.
(Gary Carden is a writer and storyteller who lives in Sylva. His current writings can be found at his blog, http://hollernotes.blogspot.com/.)
When a friend sent me an advanced reading copy of Ravens with a note that said, “There is no one to like in this one,” I prepared myself for a dark and bleak journey through South Georgia grunge. That is exactly what I got, but “grim and gritty” is just the glue that holds this yarn together. George Dawes Green’s Ravens combines nightmare, humor, white-knuckle tension and a roller-coaster ride that never eases up. It has been a long time since I got my hands on a psychological thriller that captivated me like this one.
Meet Romeo and Shaw, two drifters from Ohio (Romeo has a pistol; Shaw is psychotic) who are on their way to Key West, Fla., with a vague plan to get jobs on a fishing boat, when a series of random events changes everything. First, somewhere in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Romeo runs over a possum that becomes lodged in the car’s fender well. Later, near Brunswick, Ga., when the Toyota Tersel develops a shimmy and a bad smell, Romeo wakes his fellow passenger, Shaw, suggesting that they stop and check the tires. At a convenience store called Chummy’s, Shaw overhears a teenage clerk talking about a winning lottery ticket for $318,000,000. Shaw learns that the winning ticket belongs to a Brunswick family named Boatwright and he immediately develops a daring scheme: He and Romeo will hold the family hostage and demand half of the money.
At first, Shaw’s plan seems silly — especially since he seems to be making it up as he goes. However, within an hour, Shaw’s vague scheme has evolved into something complex, methodical and deadly. Shaw invades the Boatwright home and forces the father, Mitch Boatright, to inform the lottery officials that he and Shaw are dual winners ... and old friends. Concocting a story about their meeting at a crisis center where Mitch was a counselor, Shaw has a series of interviews with the media and begins to acquire the trappings of a cult hero — especially when he announces plans to give “his share” away.
In the meanwhile, Shaw has given Romeo a map with the homes of all of the Boatwright relatives marked on it. Romeo drives a continual circuit, enduring the stench of rotting possum (which he thinks is the pervasive smell of Brunswick). He is linked to Shaw with a cell phone. Romeo has instructions to call Shaw at specific intervals, and if Shaw fails to answer, Romeo is to start killing Boatwrights, including a grandmother, in-laws and close friends. “Just kill whoever is nearest,” instructs Shaw.
Eventually, the strange bond between Shaw and Romeo begins to acquire a deeper, disturbing character. Shaw is accustomed to assuming the role of leader while Romeo is the devoted servant, committed to performing his master’s orders without question. As Shaw attends press conferences, church services and rallies with the helpless family, the lonely, introverted Romeo continues to drive his endless circuit. Finding himself the center of attention and with a growing cult of admirers, Shaw becomes increasingly irrational and manic. Romeo, “the angel of death” with a .22 pistol, begins to feel abandoned and spirals toward self-destruction.
Perhaps what is most disturbing about Ravens is the alterations in the Boatwright family. Mitch, the father (and a religious man) becomes increasingly fatalistic and submissive; his alcoholic wife begins to fantasize, seeing Shaw as her future lover; Tara, the teenage daughter oscillates between sexual lust and a desire to murder Shaw; and Jase, the young son gradually becomes Shaw’s disciple, eager to supplant Romeo. For each character, the unrelenting tension and danger of their trapped lives forces them to confront their own unnatural fears and yearnings. Eventually, the Boatwright family and all of their friends willingly submit to Shaw’s control.
Although the foregoing details do not appear to be comic, Ravens has an abundance of dark humor. Finally, if the reader makes a few grudging concessions, there is even one character who qualifies as a hero ... of sorts. Burris, the old, obese policeman, who is referred to as “Deputy Dawg” by his fellow officers, becomes suspicious and questions the clerk at Chummy’s. Despite the ridicule and contempt of his superiors, he launches an investigation of Shaw and Romeo. Ironically, when all of the other characters are filled with indecision, it is Deputy Dawg who perceives a way to bring peace and resolution to this kinky, terrifying tale.
Ravens, which will be published this month, has been “anticipated” for 14 years. George Dawes Green published two prize-winning novels, The Caveman’s Valentine and The Juror in 1994-95. Then came this lengthy silence. Advanced critical response indicates that Ravens is well worth the wait.
(Gary Carden is a writer and storyteller. His recent writings can be found on his blog, hollernotes.blogspot.com.)
Most small southern towns have a place like The Coffee Shop in Sylva — a cafe that has become a local landmark.
I hopped curb here in 1950 when it had a wooden frame exterior and the jukebox had both “Put Another Nickel In” (Theresa Brewer) and “A Fool Such As I” (Jim Reeves). At night, the parking lot was always full of WW II veterans in souped-up cars. Sylva was “wet” and life was good.
Just up the street, the Ritz had just begun showing Sunday movies and I never missed a Cagney, Mitchum or Bogart. I got my salary docked every Sunday because I insisted on seeing the final 15 minutes of the movie before I came to work for Cicero Bryson. I would stand in the back of the theater with the door open, and when the credits started sliding down the screen, I would run like hell.
Now, 60 years later, The Coffee Shop has morphed into a kind of nostalgia museum where you can eat breakfast, lunch and dinner under the benevolent stares of multiple John Waynes, Clint Eastwoods, Dale Earnhardts and The Three Stooges. There are tattered Confederate flags, Robert E. Lee and his generals, James Dean, Bogart, Elvis and Marilyn frolic in period shots of drive-in cafe parking lots and all-night restaurants (a parody of Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks”), their images interspersed with vintage Coco-Cola signs, Uneeda Biscuits ads and hundreds of personalized license plates (RAMB-FEV, BADABANG, NOTKNOWWN POISINUS), with every state (and Aruba) accounted for.
Advertisements for fresh strawberry pie sit cheek to jowl with a seating section labeled “Police Officer Parking.” A collection of vintage pop bottles (Sunspot, Grapette) mingle with potted plants and birdhouses. Johnny Cash, a photo of the Brothers of the Bush (1950’s Centennial) and a photo of Popcorn Sutton. The sheer magnitude of this display causes visitors to stand, mouth agape, staring at the walls, while the constant clatter of spatulas, the sizzle of butter, bacon, hamburger, and the shouts of the “breakfast crew” mingles in a kind of grand, roaring symphony of sound, smells and color.
The majority of The Coffee Shop patrons are local. Elderly couples eat dinner here and the daily menu reflects local preferences: fried okra, cabbage, meatloaf, trout, slaw, potato salad. A significant number of Cherokees eat regularly, and there are the WCU college students who often stare about as they eat as though they had found themselves in an exotic, primitive village in Russia or Germany.
But The Coffee Shop endures, a primal life form that simply acquires an additional layer of scales and armor: a protective coating of ... history and pop stars, Uneeda Biscuits and Coke — a shield that deflects “the changing world.”
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. Dial Press. 277 pages
For readers who love epistolary novels, T.G.L.A.P.P.P.S. will prove to be a delight. In addition to containing bright and witty letters between a host of literate, comical and personable friends, this novel is saturated with a love for books and reading. At the heart of T.G.L.A.P.P.P.S. is a profound concept: literature not only educates, it also humanizes and elevates us.
At the end of WW II, Juliet Ashton, a successful and popular English writer (Izzy Biggerstaff Goes to War) prowls war-torn London in search of a subject for her next book. Since both the country and the people seem subdued and joyless in the aftermath of Germany’s devastating bombing raids, Juliet yearns for a topic that will restore confidence and optimism. At this point, she receives a “fateful” letter from a stranger living in Guernsey which is one of the Channel Islands between England and France. It is a letter that will change her life forever.
Dawsey Adams has found Juliet’s name and address on the flyleaf of a second-hand book by Charles Lamb, and he writes to inquire how he may obtain additional books by this author. As it happens, Juliet has written a book about Lamb and is an ardent fan of his writings. Thus begins an incredible correspondence that will eventually grow to include the entire membership of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society — a remarkable collection of eccentrics, misfits, intellectuals and pig farmers.
Juliet initiates a vigorous correspondence with the Society members — each of which has a story to tell about the five-year occupation of Guernsey by the Germans. The stories run the gamut from hilarious to heartrending. Eventually, Juliet knows that she has found the subject of her new book. She will do a detailed history of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.
Gradually, the members emerge as distinct and vivid personalities. Among them are: Dawsey, the silent, brooding romantic who resembles Jane Austin’s Heathcliff; Isola Pribby, who lives with a parrot named Zenobia and eventually becomes a practicing phrenologist (she divines character from the bumps on your head); Clovis Fossey, who wins the hand of Widow Hubert with Wordsworth’s poetry; Amelia, the group’s most rational member and its mainstay; and Wil Thisbee, the philosopher (who has no use for Yeats). All open their hearts and bare their souls to Juliet Ashton.
However, the most powerful personality in the Society (and its founder), Elizabeth McKenna, never speaks, for she is dead — killed by the Germans in a concentration camp shortly before the end of the war. In time, Juliet learns that Elizabeth had a child by a German soldier, who later died at sea. The Society has become the child’s guardian. These scant facts about Elizabeth leave a number of unanswered questions. In time, Juliet will find someone to answer them all.
Eventually, Juliet’s fascination with the Society members brings her to Guernsey. Although her acknowledged motive is to complete her research, it quickly becomes evident that these people have become her dearest friends; she has come to stay. Although she continues to write letters to her publisher (and Susan, her best friend and confidante in London), Juliet concentrates on Guernsey — the land, the people and the awesome scenery. Each day brings additional questions and revelations. Who was the German soldier that loved Elizabeth? What are Todt workers, and what was Elizabeth’s relationship with them? Was there a witness to Elizabeth’s death? If so, are they alive? What does Peter Sawyer know about all of this? (He is willing to tell all for a stiff drink and a photograph of Rita Hayworth.)
Naturally, there is also a love story, and it is one that would rival Jane Austin since it is fraught with melodrama, misunderstandings and suppressed passion. (Juliet has an abundance of beaus, but they are mostly the wrong kind!). In addition, Juliet’s letters (written and received) sparkle with wit, literary references and ruminations on “the human condition.” This is a stimulating book. References to Oscar Wilde, Yeats and Miss Marple are interspersed with recipes, observations on goat farming, the Society’s minutes and reports, and factual data about the German occupation of Guernsey.
If The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society isn’t already a best seller, it soon will be. It pushes all the right buttons: sentiment, wit and history. Does it sometimes appear “contrived”? Oh, yes, but it works. However, as a recipe, it might be a little to heavy on the sugar.
Remembering Henderson County by Louise Bailey. History Press, 2005. 144 pages.
In Louise Bailey’s Remembering Henderson County, the author recreates the past with affection, nostalgia and humor. To me, reading any of her books (I’ve located six of them) is akin to sitting on my porch in the evening while the light fades and the hectic noise of traffic recedes, until it could easily be a century ago; rain crows call and the night wind is freighted with honeysuckle. Now, all I need is a cool sip of spring water from a gourd dipper. For me, reading a few pages of a Louise Bailey book is the equivalent of a refreshing drink from a mountain spring. I’m a little anxious about the results though. Water is not supposed to be intoxicating, but after reading Louise, I tend to get a bit light-headed and “fanciful.” This is an example.
In the chapter titled, “Who Are We Western North Carolinians?” Louise describes a conversation with a farmer near Flat Rock who bought one of the first Model T trucks (circa 1915) so he could haul produce to Laurens, S.C. “It had solid tires on the back and pneumatic tires on the front.” This model had no windshield and no curtains; consequently, on a hot summer night, a steady stream of bugs and insects peppered the passengers’ faces.
The farmer’s first run to Laurens was memorable. The roads were washboards and gullies that could easily warp an axel, and heavy rains often made them impassible or dangerous. Average speed was 10 mph. However, the most interesting aspect of the journey was the return trip. “The way the lights worked, if you had the motor running real fast, you had good light.” Inevitably, the T-model would slow and the lights would dim and go out.
It is easy to imagine what this trip would be like in moonlight. Progress would be slow, but what a wonderful experience, puttering through the moonlight ... a kind of
magical, dream-light landscape. Ah, but for this weary farmer, there is no moon. He stops and sleeps fitfully until daylight.
For me, this wonderful description of an interrupted journey reminded me of all of those analogies in literature for the creative impulse or revelation. I remember some old German poet that told a story that is similar to Louise Bailey’s description of a night journey home from Laurens.
The German poet was lost in “a dark wood,” and very frightened because a storm was brewing. Suddenly, there was a flash of lightning, and in that instant, the traveler saw the distant village, the church steeple and the roof of his own home. When he was once more in darkness, he retained a memory of where he was going and how he could get there. There are other famous brief “flashes of lightening” or momentary insights in which weary, disheartened travelers a nd poets suddenly “see” a world “behind” the darkness.
Maybe I’m getting a little carried away here, and I am definitely “embellishing” Louise’s story. However, I like the image of a Model T truck puttering through the dark At 10 mph. The lights have gone out, but for a moment, the moon swims from the clouds into the open sky and the Model T truck travels for a short time by moonlight.
Yes, I am “pushing the envelope” here, but that seems to be an apt analogy for a writer who sometimes travels by the magical but brief illumination.
To me, “traveling by moonlight” in a Model T is profoundly different from traveling by the “common light of day,” or its artificial equivalent (electricity). Maybe if I sit still on my porch tonight, maybe if I play a little Nina Simone, drink a little spring water and concentrate, I can, for a brief moment, be a passenger in Louise Bailey’s Model T. I’ll let you know what happens.
The Terror by Dan Simmons. Little, Brown and Company. 2007. 769 pages.
Dear readers, let’s begin by establishing two contrary conclusions regarding this massive, painstakingly researched novel: First, the writing in The Terror is masterful; it reeks of atmosphere, intrigue and suspense. Second, I cannot, in all honesty, recommend this book to readers who are troubled by a narrative that is steeped in unrelenting suffering and despair. Having said that, let me reiterate: The Terror is an astonishing work.
The Terror is a fictionalized (and fantasized) account of Sir John Franklin’s doomed expedition (1845-1848) to the Artic — purportedly, to find the illusive Northwest Passage. Initially, the expedition consists of two ships — The Terror (Sir John Franklin commanding), and The Erebus under Commander James Fitzjames. The two crews total 126 men. However, within a few weeks of reaching the Artic Circle, both ships are locked in a vast waste of ice. Artic nights are 22 hours long, and the temperature rarely rises above 50 below zero.
The hardship endured by the members of this expedition borders on the unbelievable: frostbite, gangrene, amputations (mostly feet and fingers), scurvy and before this tale is finished, cannibalism. Eventually, Franklin and Fitzjames discover that the ship’s canned foods have been poorly processed in London and the majority of it is spoiled and/or contaminated. As the daily allowance of liquor (grog) diminishes, the likelihood of mutiny increases. Coal is running out and the ice field surrounding the ships is expanding. A thaw seems unlikely, and as the “pressure” ice begins to literary squeeze the two ships to the point of shattering the outer hull, Franklin and Fitzjames reluctantly discuss the possibility that they might eventually abandon the vessels and attempt to drag sleighs loaded with diminishing provisions to a seaport or Esquimaux (19th century spelling of “Eskimo”) village. Success of such a venture is deemed unlikely.
However, all of these misfortunes combined do not represent a terror as great as “the thing on the ice.” There is something huge, white and deadly (much larger than a polar bear), which constantly circles the ships. Almost at its leisure, it snatches victims from the decks and even enters the ships, mangling and slaughtering its hapless victims. When the crew makes inept attempts to hunt or fish (all of the wildlife seems to have mysteriously disappeared), the “thing” murders the hunters, frequently beheading and disemboweling them.
In a series of terrifying encounters, “the thing” kills Sir John Franklin, slaughters three of the expedition’s four physicians and manages to snatch the majority of the trained seaman from the decks. Fitzjames dies of a combination of exhaustion, exposure and starvation. Eventually, the new captain of The Terror, Francis Crozier, attempts to marshal his forces and plan a retreat. Despite a demented, mutinous caulkers mate (who may be more dangerous than “the thing on the ice,” Crozier overcomes his own alcoholism and mental depression, unites the starving seaman of both ships and begins a painful (and pointless) journey.
Let me assure you that this synopsis barely scratches the surface of this novel. I haven’t mentioned Lady Silence, a beautiful Esquimaux girl who does not have a tongue. Considered a “Jonah” (jinx) by the seaman, she moves quietly among the starving men, managing to find food and shelter for herself in the frozen vastness beyond the ships.
During the latter half of The Terror, Francis Crozier emerges as one of the most engaging protagonists that I have encountered in recent fiction. After he becomes the official leader of the survivors, he frequently conducts religious services for the dead in which he reads passages from Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan. He also “hallucinates” and is blessed (or cursed) with “second sight.” (I’m not likely to forget the episode in which Crozier “channels” the infamous Fox sisters in upstate New York.) Suffice it to say that eventually, the reader will discover a mysterious link (or symbiosis) between Crozier, Lady Silence and the “thing on the ice.”
The Terror shows evidence of exhaustive research. This novel is packed with fascinating details about the Arctic and seaman, such as “growler” icebergs, ice that “screams,” Welsh wigs, the habits of Norway rats, seracs and a landscape that sometimes glows blue due to magnetism. There are deadly lightning and hailstorms, vibrating stars, a surreal “Carnivale,” (right out of Edgar Allen Poe) and tales of shaman who die laughing.
Most fascinating of all is a “Creation Myth” that bears a remarkable resemblance to the Cherokees myths about “the beginning.” However, author Simmons also presents a concluding episode that includes a grotesque parody of the Catholic Communion service that may leave readers stunned. If you read this one, please tell me what you think about the conclusion. Visit my blog: hollernotes.blogspot.com/.
To tell you the truth, when I read that some woman claiming to be Popcorn Sutton’s daughter was publishing a book about her legendary father, I was openly skeptical. Following Popcorn’s suicide on March 16, 2009, I surfed thorough a lot of sites on the internet where I encountered an astonishing number of references to alleged relatives (sons, wives, ex-wives and lovers) — all who were frantically working on their “personal recollections” of this colorful and fiercely independent man. The odor of shameless greed and b.s. hung in the air like the stench of a dead and/or offended skunk on the interstate.
Well, I was pleased and a bit humbled to discover that Sky Ann Sutton is the real thing. Born in Cocke County, Tenn., and currently living in Massachusetts (where she earns her livelihood as a New England historian), she grew up as the only daughter of a single mother. Sky readily acknowledges that most of her information about Appalachia has been gleaned from her mother’s Foxfire books. Even though her attempts to talk to her father (by phone) were disappointing, she was readily accepted by a host of Popcorn’s relatives, so she maintained contacts with all of them. As a result this book is filled with old photographs, marvelous yarns and testimonials of love.
Of course, none of the messages are from Sky Ann’s father. “Marvin Sutton and I have never been formally introduced,” she says. “I’ve been known to call myself Rumpelstiltskin’s daughter because if my father ever met me, he’d have to guess my name.” In evaluating her “paternal relationship,” she wryly concludes, “The only thing I was sure of was that my father had washed his hands of me.”
As a consequence, Daddy Moonshine resembles a scrapbook more than a biography. However, it is one hell of a scrapbook, filled with perceptive insights, hilarious anecdotes and poignant memories. There is a priceless collection of photographs and some of Popcorn’s raunchy stories would be at home in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.
Much of my empathy for Rumpelstiltzein’s daughter is due to being an abandoned child myself (a father dead and a mother who left me on my grandparents’ front porch), so I sometimes sensed other emotions lurking beneath the surface of Sky’s narrative, including anger and frustration mixed with a powerful need for acceptance from her “lost family.” (It is also an acceptance that, regardless of how often or how freely it is given, it will need to be repeated again and again.)
Potential readers should be aware of a singular fact. Daddy Moonshine was written before Popcorn’s death. Indeed, Sky’s manuscript was at the printers when she received a “text message” on her cell phone. Sky immediately contacted the printers and informed them that she needed to add a few pages. That final section became a moving eulogy to the father she had never met. Quoting a woman named “Becky,” Sky concludes Daddy Moonshine with this quote:
“There’s no way of telling how many times Popcorn Sutton went to town and, quietly and anonymously, paid the light bill, the doctor bill or the drugstore bill for someone in dire need. He paid for several funerals, too, and left more than a few boxes of groceries on front porches in the middle of the night. Helping somebody wasn’t something he did for praise or thanks, it was something he did because that is what a man’s supposed to do. Do you suppose there is anyone who will do the same now that Popcorn’s gone?”
Daddy Moonshine by Sky Sutton. Northhampton, 2009. 156 pages
As a struggling albeit brilliant writer, Gary Carden never turns down money.
So when an out-of-town man in a rental car appeared on Carden’s front porch offering a $1,000 down payment on the spot to write a play about Horace Kephart, Carden wasn’t about to say no. Carden was curious, however, what led the man to Sylva.
“He said ‘I’m told you are a remarkable playwright.’ Right away I was suspicious,” Carden recounted. When the man went so far as to call Carden “well-thought of,” it sealed that suspicion.
“I knew he was doing a snow job. I am not well thought of. I am eccentric and peculiar, so I said ‘Why don’t you tell me the truth?’” Carden said.
The man on his porch, Daniel Gore, was part of a growing cult of Kephart followers who have elevated the famed writer to folk hero status for his chronicles of early mountain culture. Gore, a musician, had written a collection of songs, called “Ways That Are Dark,” to accompany Kephart’s popular book, Our Southern Highlanders. Gore thought his CD would be the perfect soundtrack for a play, and he wanted Carden to write it.
Carden — who said he “owed everybody in the county” — took the man’s money and promptly went to town and paid bills and bought groceries. That night, he got to work on the play. An obsessive and incessant writer, Carden quickly churned out an opening scene. He cast aside the idea of fitting the play to the CD, but instead began writing a play about Kephart’s life.
Carden was no stranger to Kephart. As an authentic keeper of mountain culture, Carden has studied Kephart extensively. He finds fault in some of Kephart’s portrayals of mountain people. Carden sees Kephart as an “outlander” — someone who isn’t from the mountains but lays claims as an expert anyway — and proceeded to make that the name of his play.
Carden emailed the opening scene of Outlander to Gore, who soon reappeared on Carden’s porch. The scene simply wouldn’t do, Gore said.
Rather than a hero, Carden’s play portrayed Kephart as a drunken, broken man seeking a refuge from society in the Smoky Mountains, a “back of beyond,” as Kephart himself called in. By all accounts, Carden’s scene is exactly how Kephart arrived in the region. Kephart was famous among locals not for his writing that earned him so many accolades on the national stage, but for being a drunk. Gore wanted no part of that in his play, however.
“I told him ‘You can’t write about Horace Kephart without mentioning he drinks.’ It is the flaw that makes the man admirable. If he was perfect he would be boring as hell,” Carden said. “He was flawed, and it’s what makes people identify with him.”
Gore stood his ground.
“He said, ‘Try again,’ and left another check for $1,000,” Carden said.
After another trip to town for groceries — and a spending spree at the book store — Carden came home and got to work on the next scene. He emailed it to Gore, who once again balked.
“He said Kephart in the play has too many flaws,” Carden said. “I said ‘I am the playwright, you are the musician. I say this is a good play.’”
Carden told Gore if he was looking for was a “candy box” to wrap around the 12 songs of his CD, then Carden wasn’t his man. But Carden didn’t give up on the idea of a play on Kephart.
“I thought. ‘Hell I am going to write that play he didn’t want,’” Carden said.
As Carden toiled over the play, a strange thing happened. He started to like Kephart more and more. Carden once held Kephart in mild disdain. When Kephart fled his former life in St. Louis to hide out in the Smokies, he left a wife and six children behind. Throw in alcoholism and exploiting mountain people for book material, and Carden had plenty to hold against Kephart.
But Carden’s thoughts on Kephart softened as he climbed inside Kephart’s head to write the play.
“I will, just like any true native who lives here, grudgingly give Kephart his due,” Carden said.
Kephart’s tireless fight for the creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is ultimately what won Carden’s respect. The park’s creation was a long uphill battle, and Kephart’s role as an advocate was integral to its success. Kephart loved the mountains and was willing to fight for them, and Carden saw that.
“He was a catalyst that made things happen. That stubborn persistence that he would get up and go on, get up and go on,” Carden said.
Many people around Bryson City were against a national park that would claim their homes and land. They didn’t take kindly to Kephart’s advocacy for such a thing.
“Common sense tells you it must have hurt him deeply when people turned against him,” Carden said.
Half way through the play, Carden quit writing, however. It wasn’t unusual.
“I have a house full of plays I never finished,” Carden said.
In this case, Carden realized people might not want to face a humanized Kephart, a Kephart who wasn’t a folk hero but a just a man with his share of flaws.
“I realized, ‘Hell people would not let me do this play.’ So I shelved it,” Carden said.
But a couple years ago, Carden decided to resuscitate it.
“The hardest part was the last two pages. They took me six months,” Carden said. As Carden recited the ending from memory — a moving soliloquy beside Kephart’s grave on the hillside above Bryson City — Carden’s eyes misted up a bit.
Carden is still hunting for a home for his Kephart play. He has approached the Smoky Mountain Community Theater in Bryson City and Western Carolina University theater department, as well as several others, but so far has not found any firm takers.