John Ehle comes to Asheville for anniversary release of Asheville-based novel
by Rob Neufeld
“Last One Home,” the sixth book in John Ehle’s six-novel epic about Western North Carolina, follows his mountain characters into modern times. The transition from rural to urban society in the years surrounding World War I affected Asheville greatly. In Ehle, we have the Thomas Wolfe and the Sinclair Lewis of his place and time.
“Press 53,” a Winston-Salem publisher, launches the release of its “25th Anniversary Edition” of “Last One Home” at West Asheville Library, 2 p.m., Sat., Oct. 10. The event, co-sponsored by the library’s friends group and The Writers Workshop, features Ehle and includes a reception afterward.
The mountain man
Ehle’s novels are a testament to mountain character. In “Last One Home,” Pinkney (“Pink”) Wright, the farmer’s son who makes the leap to merchant, gets a chance to stand up for his roots when he overhears a nurse derisively refer to his folks as “mountaineers.” His father-in-law, Enid King, had just spoken an oddly honest prayer over Pink’s injured five-year-old son.
“Mountaineers. Well, that’s what we are,” Pink muses. “We laugh at our strangeness, we laugh with one another. We work, such work as needs doing, but do not pester it needlessly…We abhor mistreatment of anybody…We welcome strangers, but we do not imitate them.”
Kevin Watson, the publisher of Press 53, related to the moral compass of Ehle’s work after having spent sixteen-and-a-half years working as a reservation agent for an airline that had “sixty-three corporate vice-presidents and…couldn’t make a decision.” He had taken a night job at the Nashville airport in order to work as a songwriter during the day.
As a writer of stories, Watson became part of a community of writers, whom he brought together in “The Silver Rose Anthology.” When Watson moved to North Carolina, three of the authors went to him to publish their next books. Press 53 held its inaugural launch party in January 2006.
Laura Hart McKinney, an N.C. School of the Arts professor who chaired the public library’s “On the Same Page” community reading program, was at the party. She went to Watson to publish the upcoming “On the Same Page” pick, “The Land Breakers” by John Ehle, which was out of print.
Watson fell in love with the book. Ehle told Watson and his business partner Sheryl Monks, “I think I want to work with you kids.”
. Three Ehle novels later, Watson was preparing to publish Ehle’s “Lion on the Hearth.” Ehle called and said to Watson, “Have you read ‘Last One Home’? This Ehle guy may have a career.” Ehle wanted to bring out “Last One Home” first.
“Last One Home” is one of Ehle’s two most Asheville-set novels. The move to Asheville that the leading character, Pink, makes as a young man in 1903, shocks his parents and community. Pink’s marriage to Amanda King was as much a matter of business as love. Their fathers discussed the dowry terms.
In their second meeting, “the two fathers walked together up to the King pasture and measured off the land that was to be included, Wright moving the line farther into the King holdings, taking in a little poplar woods. ‘Now, as for the cattle to be offered?’ Wright said casually, peering approvingly at the herd of beef cattle grazing nearby.”
Pink’s family’s move to Asheville deprives the community its harvest of the support they’d given Pink and Amanda. In the city, Pink flourishes—not without great crises—and ultimately establishes an insurance company. Among the many duties he serves as man resurrected in fiction, he gives us unrivaled insight into life as lived in Asheville over a twenty-five year period leading through the 1929 market crash.
The view is always through characters’ predicaments rather than through historical account, as when Amanda desires to be taken to the exclusive Battery Park Hotel for her tenth wedding anniversary. Pink takes Amanda in his company car, which a liveryman parks. The head waiter startles when he sees Pink, and then says, “A table by the window, Mr. Wright?” Ehle’s dialogue continues:
“How did he know you,” Amanda whispered to Pink.
“I delivered groceries here,” Pink told her, and the two of them laughed.
John Ehle speaks and reads at the West Asheville Library, 942 Haywood Road, 2 p.m., Sat., Oct. 10. The Writers Workshop and the Friends of West Branch Library celebrate the re-release of John Ehle’s “Last One Home.” A reception for the West Asheville native and a book signing follow. Call the library at 250-4750. Visit The Writers Workshop website
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