Smoky Mountain Magic
by Horace Kephart, with a foreword by Libby Kephart Hargrave and introduction by George Ellison (Gatlinburg, TN: Great Smoky Mountains Association, 2009, 205 pages; paperback $12.95, hardcover, $19.95)
George Ellison review for Asheville Citizen-Times, below
See Gary Carden review on his blog, Holler Notes
Rediscovered Kephart novel makes big contribution to Great Smokies lore
by George Ellison
I have been researching and writing about Horace Kephart’s life and work for just under forty years. I wrote the biographical introduction for the book under review, “Smoky Mountain Magic,” published exactly 80 years after the author’s final typescript had apparently been completed.
The emergence of the novel is a major literary and cultural event. It coincides with the 75th anniversary of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP)—which Kephart helped found. It appears shortly after Kephart’s depiction as a central figure in the Great Smokies segment of Ken Burns’ “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.”
How Kephart got here
Kephart arrived in the Great Smokies in 1904, having left behind a wife, six children, and a botched career as a librarian in St. Louis. All the details that sparked this midlife crisis are not fully known or agreed upon, but it’s widely recognized that alcoholism was a contributing factor.
Seeking a “Back of Beyond,” he became preoccupied with a literary career while living in a setting similar to the one experienced by his pioneer ancestors in Pennsylvania. He anticipated that residing in and writing about such a place and its people might become part of a healing process.
From 1904 until 1907, he lived alone in a cabin on Hazel Creek in the present day national park. From 1910 until his death in an automobile accident in 1931, he resided in a boardinghouse on Main Street just off the town square in Bryson City.
Kephart and the park
Against considerable odds, Kephart has become the writer most closely associated in the national consciousness with the GSMNP. His “Camping and Woodcraft” is securely established as one of the cornerstones of American outdoor writing. “Our Southern Highlanders” (published, 1913; expanded, 1922) stands as one of the classics of southern Appalachian and American regional literature, though there is debate in some quarters.
Libby Kephart Hargrave, Kephart’s great-granddaughter, relates in her foreword that the 1929 typescript of “Smoky Mountain Magic” had been preserved by Laura Kephart (Horace’s wife). After Laura’s death in 1954, it was passed down in the family to Libby’s father, who gave the manuscript to her in 1997.
This past May, at a national park anniversary celebration honoring her great-grandfather, she met park superintendent Dale Ditmanson and mentioned her intention to contact publishers. Ditmanson asked if she had considered the Great Smoky Mountains Association as a publisher. Four months later, here it is, generating funds to benefit the park.
A novel with local names
While fighting for the park in the 1920s, Kephart labored over his novel. Plot and characters varied from draft to draft more often than not. Yet, the 1929 text of nearly 73,000 words is surprisingly cohesive—in large part because Kephart finally rooted the story in a specific setting.
All of the action takes place in June 1925 in Swain County in the Cherokee communities of either Soco or Big Cove—along the Deep Creek watershed in what became part of the park. Kephart gave it the name, “Kittuwa,” borrowed from the ancient Cherokee ceremonial mound and mother town located just east of Bryson City.
One of the pleasures of reading the novel is that almost every river, creek, road, ridge, and peak mentioned can be found on a map of the area. Not a few readers of this review will have already visited many of them.
“Smoky Mountain Magic” presents a Victorian-style romance with interrelated narratives of exploration and adventure. The heroine, Marian Wentworth, is a pretty young woman who is visiting relatives in Kittuwa and collecting plants for her college herbarium in Raleigh.
The protagonist, John Cabarrus, is modeled on the author, even though Kephart was quite a bit older than his fictional creation. The hero follows his grandfather, Abelard Dale, in his love of the natural world “on the old home-place” up Deep Creek near the Bryson Place.
He returns to renew himself and to locate mineral riches hinted at by his grandfather. He explores the rugged Nicks Nest watershed—a nearly impenetrable, boulder-strewn “V-shaped trough, three to four hundred feet deep”—that locals know as “Dog-eater Holler.” It was named after “a varmint that ain’t a rael animal, but a ha’nt, and cracks a dog’s bones and eats him alive [and] some says hit will devour a man, too.”
Like Indiana Jones pushing his luck, Cabarrus enters a secluded cave and becomes trapped. The situation seems hopeless. But never fear—“Maid Marian” and “Big Tom” Buford, a competent mountain woodsman who has befriended the young couple, arrive in the nick of time.
Contribution to our literature
In many delightful ways, “Smoky Mountain Magic” is remindful of the Boys’ Books of Adventure I read when I was young. Like author Stewart Edward White, Kephart places considerable emphasis on closely observed natural history and the virtues of outdoor living. Plus, he mixes in folklore: Uktenas, giant serpents with horns; ancient dragon images; Little People, Cherokee version of leprechauns; a “witch” named Old Hex; telepathy; and magic crystals.
The descriptions of the natural world encountered along Deep Creek are accurate and beautifully rendered at times, particularly during Cabarrus’ initial exploration of Nicks Nest. The sudden appearance of “Smoky Mountain Magic” adds to Kephart’s legacy with an important account of the life, lore, and landscapes of the pre-park Great Smoky Mountains.
• The Kephart family and the Swain County Chamber of Commerce host a premiere party for “Smoky Mountain Magic” at the Calhoun House Hotel, Bryson City, 1 to 5 p.m. today. Author George Ellison; GSMNP Superintendant Dale Ditmanson; the publisher, Great Smoky Mountains Association; and Horace Kephart’s great-granddaughter, Libby Kephart Hargrave speak. The event also features a book-signing, music by Lee Knight, and refreshments. Call 488-3681. Visit firstname.lastname@example.org and www.greatsmokies.com
• Gil’s Book Sale, 196 Everett St., Bryson City, provides a second book party, 12 to 4 p.m., Monday. It includes readings and a book signing by Libby Kephart Hargrave. Call 488-4457.
• Libby Kephart Hargrave reads from “Smoky Mountain Magic” and talks about bringing the manuscript to publication; and painter Elizabeth Ellison talks about her cover artwork at City Lights Bookstore, 3 E. Jackson St., Sylva, 7 p.m., Oct. 20 (586-9499).