By Newton Smith • Contributor
Gary Carden, local bard, playwright, host of the Liars Bench and reviewer for The Smoky Mountain News, has once again come up with a surprising publication.
Amid the cherished traditions of Western North Carolina is the deep foundation of family and friends getting together to celebrate their heritage, whether it be through music, dance, food or craft.
By Brent Martin
It is a rare event these days to come across a work of non-fiction dealing with any environmental issue that does not leave one with feelings of despair and loss. Author Jay Leutze, however, has given us a tale of how one little corner of Appalachia, when galvanized to stand up for their homes and natural resources, persevered in the face of despair and overwhelming odds, and won. But Stand Up That Mountain is more than just the story of how the Dog Town community in Avery County, N.C., hung in there for years to ultimately defeat the Putnam rock quarry, it is also a blow by blow account of Leutze’s development as a conservationist — now one of North Carolina’s most valuable and treasured — who had moved to his old family home on Yellow Mountain in the Roan Highlands to withdraw from some such distractions in order to follow his passion to become a writer.
For those who don’t know, James Still (1906-2001) is one of the most beloved and influential of all Appalachian writers. He left an enduring legacy of novels, stories, and poems during his nearly 70-year career. He is known formally and to many writers in the region as “the Dean of Appalachian Literature,” or more simply said “the Godfather of the Appalachian Literary Tradition,“
Originally born in Alabama, Still adopted eastern Kentucky as his home during the early years of the Great Depression. Life in Kentucky and the Cumberland Plateau became an integral theme in Still’s work, which evokes Appalachian culture, language, and landscape. Although best known for his novels and poetry, Still was also a prolific short story writer whose works often appeared in prestigious journals such as the Virginia Quarterly Review, Yale Review, and Prairie Schooner, as well as general interest magazines like the Atlantic and the Saturday Evening Post. When Still died in 2001 at age 94, he had secured a lasting reputation among readers of Appalachian literature based on a relatively small number of literary works.
The Hills Remember honors Still with the first comprehensive collection of his short fiction. The book includes stories from other Still collections such as River of Earth but also includes several lesser-known stories as well as 10 stories which have only recently been discovered and that have never-before been published. Ted Olson, who teaches in the Appalachian Studies and English programs at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, Tenn., will be familiar to readers in Western North Carolina from his reviews, etc., as editor of the Poetry Page of Asheville’s Rapid River monthly magazine. Olson, in his landmark book, writes a comprehensive introduction concerning Still and his work and examines the author’s short fiction within the contexts of his body of work and within the canons of Appalachian and American literature. In his introduction, Olson favorably compares Still’s short fiction to that of other notable American writers as Poe, Hawthorne, Hemingway, Welty and Cheever. Presenting all of Still’s compelling and varied short stories in one volume, The Hills Remember is a testament to a master writer.
Still’s stories in The Hills Remember are distinctive in style and universal in theme. Still’s stories in this collection stand out as evocative and timeless yet remarkably accessible to the general reader. Simply said, these are “tales from the soul of Appalachia.” Not until recently with the writing of Charles Frazier, Wayne Caldwell and Ron Rash has the spirit of James Still and the mountain South been unleashed to a whole new generation of appreciative readers. And with Ted Olson’s new book of Still’s short stories, we can look for a whole new wave of popularity among a new and larger generation of Still fans — much as he was a household name in Kentucky during the 1960s.
If asked to choose amongst the 53 short stories in this collection, I would be hard-pressed to choose only one as an out-and-out favorite. However, the story “Hit Liked To a’ Kilt Me” stands out in my mind as one that is unique in this book as well in all of Appalachian literature. It is all about how this story is written in the dialect of what Appalachian poet (and friend of James Still) Jim Wayne Miller called “Southern Mountain Speech.” James Still is the only Southern writer, to my knowledge, who attempts to literally duplicate the southern mountain dialect. The title of this particular story being indicative of what the reader will find in his reading of this rich and at times raucous poetic language.
In the book’s title story “The Hills Remember,” a crowd gathers near the bank of Troublesome Creek to watch the villain of their Kentucky hill-town lie back in his own blood after being accidentally shot in the back. In its telling this story thrusts forward the universal themes of good and evil, right and wrong, and fate and chance. On the other end of the spectrum, in the story “Mrs. Razor,” Still gives us a whimsical story about six-year-old Elvy and her fantasy life as a wife and mother. “Mrs. Razor” gives us a glimpse into a child’s world of pretend and offers a heartwarming look at the relationship between father and child. In “Horse Doctor,” a young boy accompanies his father (Still’s father was a horse doctor with no official training) on a visit to a sick mare at a neighbor’s farm. Through stark prose and subtle imagery, the story reveals the naivety of the young narrator and explores the intricate relationship between Appalachian neighbors and families.
In one of Still’s most loved stories, “The Nest,” a young Nezzie Hargis becomes lost during a snow storm. In a seemingly unfamiliar terrain of isolation, in actuality Nezzie is never far from home. As she painfully struggles to find her way in the blinding storm, we see Nezzie mature from childhood innocence to adulthood. And in the story “Brother of Methuselum,” Still focuses on his character Uncle Mize, who by a strange twist of fate begins to grow young again at the age of 103 — his hair and teeth return, he props his walking stick in a corner, and he tosses his glasses away. “Brother Methuselum” explores the theme of immortality while offering us a story of Appalachian mysticism.
In a book that is endorsed on the University Press of Kentucky’s handsome cover by Appalachian luminaries Ron Rash, Loyal Jones, Gurney Norman, Chris Offutt and Jeff Daniel Marion, this is a must read for anyone who is “from here” or that has embraced the Appalachian mountain region as their own. We will learn more about ourselves than we knew and will be the better for having done so. The Hills Remember rests, as we speak, on my bedside table. It will remain there until I have read it from cover to cover — one story, each night, at a time. There is no better way to read a book of short stories. And this one’s a classic.
The Hills Remember: The Complete Short Stories of James Still edited by Ted Olson. University Press of Kentucky, 2012. 406 pages.
Gary Carden didn’t realize he had an audience. He was coaching Lara Chew through a rehearsal of “Mother Jones,” a play he wrote three years ago about the famous American labor and community organizer. “Mother Jones” will be on stage for audiences in April.
Carden was seated in the front row of a small performance hall at the Mountain Heritage Center at Western Carolina University.
Chew attends the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Macon County, as does Carden, at least when he feels able to drive over the Cowee mountain range. Chew has spent many insomnia-ridden nights memorizing this more than hour-long dramatic monologue. For the most part, with only an occasional stumble, Chew’s rendition of Carden’s work sounded smooth and true. He mostly listened in silence.
Finally Carden interrupted.
“Drag that out right there,” he urged her. “Because that’s your theme.”
Chew nodded in understanding. She repeated the section again with more emphasis. Carden smiled appreciatively, apparently pleased with the result and the responsiveness to his suggestion.
Chew later discussed working with Carden, a Sylva native who has established himself as one of this region’s most-recognizable, best-known and best-loved wordsmiths through his storytelling, plays and short stories.
At the same time, Carden has earned a reputation for being, well, mercurial.
“He speaks his mind, and I appreciate that,” Chew said. “He wrote ‘Mother Jones,’ so he knows how it’s supposed to go. Yes, he’s easy to work with.”
Carden responded, “No, I’m not. I admit that readily.”
Then Carden added a self-assessment that he can “become irrational” if something blocks what he’s trying to accomplish artistically.
“Yeah, I reluctantly admit that I am a pain in the ass. I have been called a curmudgeon, a damned old geezer, ‘Gary Contrary,’ and a waitress in a local cafe calls me ‘Mr. Grumpy.’ I wish everybody loved me, and as one of my best friends tells me, ‘Gary, you are digging your grave with your tongue.’ But so be it. If you passionately love something and want to accomplish something meaningful, you are going to have to be a pain in the ass,” he said.
Carden is nothing if not complex. He’s a mix of a man, one who can be difficult but is equally capable of great love, generosity and tenderness; and of seemingly endless patience, as on this day with Chew.
How does a man become what and who he is? Carden has spent almost a lifetime, 77 years now, trying to answer that question through written and spoken words. He has told his story, in one form or another, a million times. The characters change, the context changes, the task remains unchanged: Who am I?
The facts that make up Carden’s life history aren’t easy. His father was murdered. His mother left for Knoxville, Tenn., ostensibly for “business school,” Carden said he was told.
“I grew up thinking that Knoxville was some magic place where my mother lived and I ran away several times, at the ages of 3 and 4, going to Knoxville,” he said. “On one occasion, I was taken to Knoxville. I now think my grandparents intended to leave me … but something miscarried, and they brought me back home with no explanation.”
Later, Carden learned that his mother had married a man she’d met in Sylva who had told her that if she came to Knoxville — without the boy — they would get married.
“My grandmother used to discipline me by taking me out on the front porch and pointing to a worn place near the banisters,” Carden said. “‘There is where she left you,’ she would say. ‘Now, I took you when nobody wanted you and you owe me.’”
These experiences profoundly shaped the future writer.
“Even when you are 77 you are still an abandoned child,” Carden said.
Dot Jackson is a longtime friend of Carden’s and an unabashed fan of his work. A former reporter who was twice nominated for Pulitzer Prizes for work at The Charlotte Observer and at The Greenville News, Jackson has authored several nonfiction books. Her novel Refuge was published in 2006.
“Gary has made the most of a painful early childhood,” Jackson said. “As did Pat Conroy with his quick-fisted daddy, Gary has trademarked the imperfect lot of the orphaned toddler. Fact is, he’s done it with such alternating heart, pathos and comedy that like most everything else he does, it’s pretty much a work of genius. And unforgettable.
“I remember realizing, as I read more of the stuff he was writing, that he was exceptionally good. Not the kind of ‘good’ that was learned, but the kind that is once-in-a-blue-moon born.”
Jackson remembers a young Carden expressing a possible desire to work in newspapers, where she spent most of her writing career. The South Carolina resident said being a reporter ensured her a decent living and the ability to write.
“But there was, involved in it, the business of give and take, learning to get all heated up about the fire at the trash dump, or ‘The Sewer Commission met on Thursday and took no action’ … This was not Gary’s world, and mercy kept him out of it,” she said. “He lived in a colorful, sweet-and-sour world of imagination. There were rainbows and clucking chickens and Cherokee bad words and sanctimonious uncles, and the stench of tanning hides that would have wrinkled a late-night editor’s brow — though the world would probably have loved it. Would have, and does.”
Creative ability is a mysterious gift to comprehend anytime, why some people have it and others don’t. So how to decipher the wellsprings of Carden’s vast talent? That mystery is even more unfathomable in his case than others. Because Carden’s family was not what you’d describe as the artistic set, with the possibility, perhaps, of his father.
“He was exceptionally gifted as a musician and was reported to be able to play any musical instrument and often composed melodies off the top of his head, a talent that both awed and disturbed my grandfather. He would sometimes ask him to repeat a melody that he had just played and my father would reply, ‘I can’t, Daddy. It’s gone,’” Carden said.
The remainder of his family Carden described as “the salt of the earth.” Which means not visibly artistic, or interested in the arts, or interested in helping Carden explore his growing passion for literature.
“No one read except my grandmother, who read Mary Rinehart novels and went to the movies each year to see ‘Trail of the Lonesome Pine’ and ‘How Green Was My Valley,’” Carden said. “There was a single bookcase in the house and it was filled with religious tracts, songbooks and They Were Expendable, a book about World War II.”
Carden was a lonely child. He had few playmates. When pressed, he’ll admit to being an outcast within his own family. Like countless isolated children have done before and since, Carden found what solace and comfort he could in books.
“I went to the barn and read and read and read,” Carden said.
When not reading, Carden listened to a small radio his uncle gave him, tuning into radio shows broadcast from the big city of Chicago straight into little Sylva. He memorized songs. He enjoyed comic books.
Eventually, and critically important to his development as a writer and storyteller, Carden discovered the novels of Thomas Wolfe. He felt in his bones the music of the Asheville writer’s “poetic language.” Carden remains as passionate today about Wolfe’s work as when he first read the novelist.
In his book Mason Jars in the Flood, Carden through one character noted that Wolfe wrote “about loneliness and loss,” the great contrapuntal themes that sound in Carden’s own life. The language, he wrote, was beautiful: “the words booming like the organ at First Methodist. I found myself responding to the sound rather than the meaning. ‘Lost! Lost!’”
Carden taught about Wolfe at one time to elderhostel students. Carden quit because, he said, it upset him when they repeated all of the “hackneyed criticisms” of Wolfe, such as “he over-wrote.”
You can thank Sylva’s Fire Department for Carden’s writing career. He started writing in the ninth grade when the fire department sponsored a contest.
“I won it by counting all the matches in a box and estimated the damage I could do with them,” Carden said. “I got a trophy that immediately turned green. The next event was another contest. I won six tickets to the first production of ‘Unto These Hills,’ and had no one to give them to since my family was uninterested.”
His first stories, as Carden tells it to audiences, were relayed to “my grandfather’s chickens in a dark chicken house when I was 6 years old. My audience wasn’t attentive and tended to get hysterical during the dramatic parts.”
Carden had polio and sclerosis. This worked to his advantage when it came time for college: He attended WCU on a vocational rehabilitation scholarship.
“There is no way I would have been able to go otherwise,” Carden said.
Carden graduated with a degree to teach English, which he did for 15 years in Georgia and North Carolina before returning to WCU for his masters in English and drama. The university later awarded him an honorary doctorate.
Carden then wrote grants for 15 years for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.
“It was easy to do and the money rolled in,” Carden said. “I’m not bragging because Washington was eager to fund Native Americans.”
Then Carden went deaf. He continued on with Cherokee until, Carden said, “it became embarrassing.”
“I had problems because I misunderstood what was said by contacts in Washington. Once, I remember that a consultant said, ‘How do you justify Mead?’ That is what I heard. I said I didn’t see what Mead had to do with anything, Mead being the paper plant in Sylva that was a major polluter at the time. We ended up yelling at each other until I realized that he had said, ‘How do you justify need?’ That is just a tiny example of what became a daily problem,” Carden said.
His deafness propelled him directly into fulltime storytelling.
“I was fine as long as I got to do all of the talking,” Carden said. “Then I started teaching elderhostel and most of the elderhostel sponsors were tolerant of my deafness.”
When talking or listening to people, Carden described his attempt to turn up the volume by turning his two hearing aids on full blast. Even then, catching what was said was multiple choices and simply guessing, Carden said.
“Sometimes I’d guess right, sometimes wrong,” he said.
A girlfriend of old paid three years ago for a cochlear implant despite, Carden admitted, an inability of the two to “talk for 30 minutes without shouting at each other.”
The gift transformed his life. Able to hear, his ability to function creatively exploded again into full bloom.
Writers work in different ways, some methodically and others more impulsively. Carden is in the latter camp. He often writes starting at 3 a.m., taking advantage of insomnia to do work more or less “on impulse.”
“Sometimes ideas bother me for months and even years before I finally break down and write about it,” Carden said.
Carden said he started out writing poetry, which he described without elaboration as “a terrible mistake.”
“I did a few inept short stories and finally gave it up until I wrote Mason Jars in the Flood,” he said.
Carden has written eight plays. Asked why has found drama so satisfying a form to work in, Carden explained there is something fundamental about being on stage that helps fill the hole of loneliness.
“When you are on there, people pay attention to you,” Carden said. “You get on that stage and people look at you, and you’re understood until the next day. In my mind it disproved my suspicion that I was worthless ... I was proving that I was ‘worth something.’ The problem is, this quick fix does not last. Within a day or so, the sense of being worth something fades, and you have to start looking for an opportunity to do it again.”
Carden has in the past decade started receiving long-due recognition. Awards and general accolades for his lifetime of work have started flowing in, pleasing those who have watched him labor for so many years. Among them is Joyce Moore, the retired owner of the popular City Lights Bookstore in Sylva. She was at a recent production of Carden’s “The Liar’s Bench” with husband, Allen.
“I’m glad Gary finally seems to be hitting the big time after all the years,” Moore said. “He’s an incredibly talented person.”
Mason Jars in the Flood won the Book of the Year Award in 2001 from the Appalachian Writers Association. Two of Carden’s dramatic monologues, “Prince of Dark Corners” and “Nance Dude” have been filmed and appeared on PBS and the Discover Channel. He’s a 2006 winner of a Brown-Hudson Award in Folklore.
Carden has become a speaker at various literary events, including an upcoming appearance April 13-14 at the Carolina Literary Festival in Wadesville, where he’ll talk about storytelling becoming drama.
• “The Uktena,” a Cherokee “mime” play.
• A series of Cherokee plays based on the Nunnihi, street chiefs, old myths.
• “The Raindrop Waltz,” an autobiographical play that has received national exposure.
• “Mason Jars in the Flood,” an award-winning book of short stories.
• “Land’s End,” three monologues presented as a complete play.
• “Belled Buzzards, Hucksters and Grieving Specters,” a play written with Nina Anderson.
• “Papa’s Angels,” written with Colin Wilcox. Made into a movie.
• “Nance Dude,” filmed with Elizabeth Westall.
• “Prince of Dark Corners” made into a movie for PBS and Discovery Channel.
• “The Bright Forever,” a play.
• “A Sunday Evening in Webster,” a monologue.
• “Signs and Wonders,” a play. Premiered in Highlands last year.
• “Coy,” a play that was originally a part of the trilogy “Land’s End.”
• “Mother Jones,” a monologue.
• “Outlander,” a full-length play about Horace Kephart and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It will have a full musical score and will be performed this June at the Parkway Playhouse in Burnsville.
(Note: Since its publication several years ago, this column about Evan O. Hall has sparked a number of comments. Something about Hall’s indefatigable and self-reliant cleverness reminded people of someone they, too, had known in days gone by.)
Back in the late 18th century and throughout the 19th century, America specialized as a nation in producing a special breed of citizen popularly categorized as an “original genius”; that is, they were folks self-reliant, indefatigable, and exceedingly clever when it came to improvising and making do with little or nothing. Some of these “original geniuses” had experienced formal education, many hadn’t. Most were “local characters” of one sort or another. Many were irascible and difficult to get along with, others were mild mannered.
With the spread of wealth and material goods, much of the country stopped producing their quota of “original geniuses” early in the 20th century. But the more remote areas such as the far western states and Alaska continued to do so for most of that century and even up until the present day. Because it was pretty much off the beaten track prior to World War II, the Smokies regions also continued to turn out “original geniuses” on a regular basis.
One such was Evan O. Hall, who resided with his family on Goldmine Branch in the present-day Great Smoky Mountains National Park. If from Bryson City you drive north on the infamous Road to Nowhere (i.e., Lakeshore Drive), park at the gated trailhead and walk down the Goldmine Loop Trail just opposite the parking area (not through the tunnel). After several miles you’ll come to the point where Goldmine Branch and Tunnel Branch empty into Lake Fontana. It was in this general area that Hall lived and flourished.
Images of Evan O. Hall, his wife, Ivalee Cole Hall, and their numerous children are fortunately preserved in Duane Oliver’s Along the River: People and Places - A Collection of Photographs of People and Places Once Found Along the Little Tennessee River, An Area Now part of the Fontana Lake Basin & Southern Edge of the Great Smokies Park (1998). Since not all of these are indexed, here’s a listing of the picture numbers for the Hall family that I was able to locate: 152, 229, 293, 929, 953 (the photo reproduced with this column), 1134, 1313, and 1452.
Rollins E. Justice contributed a memoir titled “Rev. Evan O. Hall” to the “Swain County Heritage” volume published in 1988. His opening paragraph reads: “Reader’s Digest used to have a regular monthly feature story, ‘My Most Memorable Character.’ Had I offered a story, and I often thought of it, it would have been about the one person outside my family who had the most influence on my life. My first teacher, Rev. Evan O. Hall, inspired ambition in learning, working, and right living.”
The following brief synopsis of Hall’s character and activities is derived from this memoir as well as from information contained in Michal Strutin’s History Hikes in the Smokies (2003).
Evan O. Hall, the son of a Baptist minister, was born in Bryson City in 1888. By 1916 or so, he was living on Goldmine Branch with his wife, Ivalee Cole Hall (a former student he had married in 1913), and their family, which eventually numbered five daughters (Bertha, Zena, Gladys, Bonnie, and Minnie) and four sons (Greeley, Brownlow, Luther, and Stanley).
As a Baptist minister and school teacher, Hall was indefatigable, walking 10 mile round trips each day regardless of the weather on mountain trails and across swinging bridges to reach his destinations. Justice notes that Hall’s religion was “the confident, happy kind,” while as a teacher he “instilled respect for our country, its heroes, and ethical living [so that by] example and instruction he built honesty, ambition, and willingness to work into his students.”
Hall taught shape-note singing, ground cornmeal for his neighbors, sawed lumber for them at his handmade sawmill, cut tombstones for the community in his blacksmith shop (where he also shoed horses and mules), and made them coffins when they died. He was, in short, as Strutin rightly notes, “a community treasure.”
Picture #929 in Along the River is captioned: “Greely O. Hall at E.O. Hall’s Water-Powered Light Plant on Gold Mine Branch with First Radio on the Branch, a Mid-West Radio.”
Evan O. Hall had initially constructed a gristmill on Goldmine Branch, using wood from his own land to construct the housing, shafts, axel, and overshot waterwheel. The only items he didn’t construct were the millstones, which he purchased and set in place. Utilizing the power of this waterwheel (or perhaps another that he constructed) and his native ingenuity, he proceeded to wire and light his home with electricity, the first such in the area. In the evening hours, the entire Hall family no doubt enjoyed gathering around their newly-purchased, waterwheel-powered Mid-West radio.
Evan O. Hall — an “original genius” if there ever was one — and his entire family left their Goldmine Branch residence when Lake Fontana was flooded in the 1940s and moved to Haywood County. He died in 1969.
By Jennifer Garlesky • Staff Writer
Kathy Sherrard and Anne Allison have dedicated their lives to educating the public about black bears.
For the last 24 hours, I have felt like a character in a movie. You have seen the movie, probably dozens of times. A small-town team nobody has ever heard of gets its big chance against a nationally ranked powerhouse. The fans there look up things about the team just out of curiosity, where the town is on the map, the enrollment numbers, maybe. They cannot pronounce the name of the school.
Walking into the new nature center at the Balsam Mountain Preserve in Jackson County is like walking into a replica of a Southern Appalachian forest, with all the best goodies already uncovered and there for the taking — or rather touching.