Books

Gifts From the Hills: Some Highlights of Appalachian Literature

BY Jeff Minick TIMEAugust 27, 2022 PRINT

Let’s start with that next-to-last word of the headline.

If you visit Eastern Tennessee or Western North Carolina, you’ll immediately mark yourself as an outsider if you pronounce Appalachian as Ap-pull-lay-shun. It’s Ap-pull-latch-un to those who live there, with that last syllable dropping down hard as a stone.

Appalachia touches 13 states and extends from Northern Mississippi to Southern New York. Famous for its national park, the most visited in the United States, the Smoky Mountains are a subrange of the Appalachians joining North Carolina and Tennessee. Many of the first white settlers who first made the Smokies home were Scots-Irish, hardscrabble folks who built cabins and barns, and cleared the land for plowing. Logging eventually became a major industry, followed by mills that took advantage of the natural resources, swift streams, and cheap labor. With the coming of the railroad and automobiles, tourists traveled north—and still do—from places like Savannah, St. Augustine, and Charleston, seeking solace from the South’s summer heat in the cool uplands.

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U.S. Geological Survey map of Appalachian zones in the United States. (Public Domain)

The artisans of the Smokies, including the Cherokee, became noted for their baskets and quilts. Some visitors from outside the region collected the ballads and stories passed down by the generations living in these hills and hollows, while certain students of language noted some similarities between the speech of these mountaineers and that of Elizabethan England. Words like “Granny-woman,” “winder-pane,” “young uns,” and “middlin’ (moderately well)” were until quite recently in common use.

These people were also marked by their devotion to family and clan, a special sense of place, and an independent spirit—attributes that feature strongly in the literature written by or about them.

Kinfolk

Over the past 20 years and more, I have reviewed hundreds of books for the Smoky Mountain News. A fair number of these works were novels set in the Southern Appalachians, most of them in the Smokies, which will be my focus here.

Nearly all of these stories centered in one way or another on families. In his autobiographical novel “Look Homeward, Angel,” for example, the region’s best-known author, Thomas Wolfe, sets his story squarely in the Gant family, describing in great detail the alcoholic father; the petulant and frugal mother, Eliza; their son, the protagonist Eugene; and his siblings. We also hear of the Pentland clan (Eliza’s relatives) and the Pentland blood that runs in the veins of the children.

Thomas Wolfe
Author Thomas Wolfe, circa 1938. Wolfe was born in North Carolina, and his scripts have autobiographical themes, including “Look Homeward Angel.” (MPI/Getty Images)

Fast-forward almost 100 years to the publication of another novel, Janet Beard’s “The Ballad of Laurel Springs,” and we again land in a family saga, this one set in the mountains of East Tennessee. Author of the bestselling book “The Atomic City Girls,” Beard tells the story of an extended family haunted by its past, not only by violence and murder but also by Appalachian ballads—some of them seemingly as old as the hills—that have long recorded the dark deeds of lovers. Women, mostly related by blood or marriage, narrate this chronicle of century-old family turmoil and love.

Females take a prominent place in this literature. In an essay in “Appalachian Reckoning: A Region Responds to ‘Hillbilly Elegy,’” Ivy Brashear writes, and rightly so, that “Appalachia, in fact, is a very matriarchal culture. We revere our grandmothers and mothers.”

This Place Called Home

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Thomas Wolfe explores the impact of the Smokies on those who dwelled among them in “Look Homeward, Angel.”

“The mountains were his masters,” Thomas Wolfe wrote in “Look Homeward, Angel.” They “rimmed in life. They were the cup of reality, beyond growth, beyond struggle and death. They were his absolute unity in the midst of eternal change.”

Or as Fred Chappell put it more compactly in his one-line poem, “Coming Home”: “Even the sunlight is a smell you remembered.” Winner of the prestigious Bollingen Prize for Poetry and for five years North Carolina’s Poet Laureate, Chappell was born and raised in the Appalachian mill town of Canton, North Carolina. He is one of those writers who excels in a variety of genres—poetry, mainstream fiction, science fiction, memoir, and the essay—and in much of his writing, he guides us into the hills he knew in his boyhood and youth.

Published in 1987, his coming-of-age novel, “I Am One of You Forever,” gives us 10-year-old Jess Kirkland and a cast of eccentric relatives, but the book, like some of Chappell’s poetry, also salutes the land that nurtured him. Three other books finish off this Kirkland quartet, exploring the effects of both kinfolk and place on Jess Kirkland.

Like Fred Chappell, and indeed like so many other writers from this part of Appalachia, Wilma Dykeman took her inspiration and the subject matter for her books from the land of her birth. Spending her life in the mountains of both North Carolina and Tennessee, she most famously published the fine novel “The Tall Woman” and a regional history, “The French Broad.” In her memoir discovered after her death, “Family of Earth: A Southern Mountain Childhood,” Dykeman also evokes the hills that nourished her as a young girl.

Though I lived for 33 years of my adult life in these same mountains, I feel no special attachment to them. I was a Carolina Piedmont boy, and my affections lie with that terrain around Winston-Salem.

But I have known men and women who had left the mountains where they were born and eventually wended their way back again, homesick for the grandeur of tree-covered ridges. My own children, raised by my wife and me in Waynesville, North Carolina, a gateway to the Smokies, still sometimes express their yearning for the mountains they knew in childhood.

As in literature, these blue hills get into the bloodstream and never disappear.

Necessity Is the Mother of Liberty

During those years I lived in the Smokies, I witnessed many examples of the independent spirit of those who called the mountains home, too numerous to mention here. That sovereign sense of self has, of course, found expression in the stories of these people.

In Charles Frazier’s bestselling “Cold Mountain,” for instance (the actual Cold Mountain was less than 10 miles from my home), Inman—the author gives him no first name—deserts the Confederate army and begins his perilous trek home. He is a man on his own, trying to evade Confederate patrols looking for deserters and the outlaw bands that then ravaged the Smokies.

The two principal female characters in the novel, Ada, whom Inman loves, and Ruby, who helps her with the farm, are both independent spirits. “Needing and getting don’t seem likely to match up any time soon,” Ada says at one point. “What needs doing is mine to do.”

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“Cold Mountain” shows strong female characters, reflecting the culture of the Smokies.

Interestingly, as mentioned above, many female characters in Appalachian literature demonstrate a similar sense of self-will and determination. Dykeman’s “The Tall Woman” gives us this quintessential self-contained woman in Lydia Moore. Like the characters in “Cold Mountain,” Lydia is also a product of the Civil War. She works a farm, raises children, and tries to restore her husband Mark’s health and soul after the damage done to him by the war. At one point, Lydia reflects: “In this moment of large weakness she suddenly knew large strength, a core buried deep within her that would refuse to be daunted by the outrageous blows or the niggling trifles human life was heir to.”

“Montani semper liberi,” goes the old Latin tag that also serves as the motto of West Virginia: “Mountaineers are always free.”

Lost Its Soul

Like the nation as a whole, Appalachia has changed since World War II. Factories and industries, like the shoe manufacturers and Dayco Plant once located near Waynesville, have closed. Government programs have brought social programs and upgraded schools, and health care has improved. Television and now the internet have homogenized the culture with society at large. The Brooklyn teen and her Waynesville counterpart have equal access to social media.

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Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina, circa 1960. (Harvey Meston/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

And as it has elsewhere, modernity has brought disintegration of the family and marriage. Most young people gave up farming long ago, and many of them seek work far from their ancestral land. Opioids, methamphetamines, and other drugs have wracked these communities with addiction, sickness, and death.

Contemporary writers have addressed the coming of these changes to the Smokies. In “The Risen,” Ron Rash gives us Ligeia, a young woman from Florida who introduces the 1960s to two small-town mountain brothers, with disastrous results. In an earlier Rash novel, “Above the Waterfall,” a local sheriff and a park ranger face the evils that crystal meth has brought to their community.

William Forstchen’s “One Second After,” a story about an electromagnetic pulse strike that hurls most of America back into the 18th century, is unlikely to be considered by most critics an Appalachian novel. Nonetheless, the story is set in Black Mountain, North Carolina, and Forstchen’s depiction of that place and its people gives us a glimpse into the old spirit of the mountains.

Regrets and Encouragement

To discuss in a single essay the authors of Appalachia, even when limiting that study to two states, necessarily means ignoring many fine writers. Novelists like Catherine Marshall, Robert Morgan, and Wayne Caldwell, poets like John Thomas York, and storytellers like Gary Carden—even adding these names would still scratch the list of authors worthy of inclusion.

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“Christy” by Catherine Marshall.

To those I have neglected, my apologies.

As for readers, I would encourage you to take up some of these books, and not necessarily for their portrayals of the past. When we read a book like Catherine Marshall’s “Christy,” based on her mother’s teaching days in a Smoky Mountain school, or Frazier’s “Cold Mountain,” the men, women, and children who inhabit those pages can awaken the dreams and ambitions of an old America that lie half-sleeping in our hearts. They remind us of who we were, yes, but also gently shake us from slumber, or in some cases, from our nightmares, and remind us of who we are.

Jeff Minick
Jeff Minick lives and writes in Front Royal, Virginia. He is the author of two novels, “Amanda Bell” and “Dust on Their Wings,” and two works of non-fiction, “Learning as I Go” and “Movies Make the Man.”
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