Memoir project a mixed bagWritten by Gary Carden
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.