Why are they mute? A look at Appalachian characters
by Rob Neufeld
Vicki Sigmon Collins, an Appalachian Culture Studies teacher at the University of South Carolina Aiken, seeks to show that mute lives matter in her new book, “The Silent Appalachian: Wordless Mountaineers in Fiction, Film and Television” (McFarland).
She names 78 notably silent characters, and explores their stories in essays, which she groups into 16 categories of speechlessness.
They can’t speak
“The Silent Appalachian” leads off with autism, and with one of the most noteworthy mutes in recent literature, “Stump” Hall, a 13-year-old boy in Wiley Cash’s 2012 novel, “A Land More Kind than Home.”
Pastor Chambliss, a snake-handling minister to whom Stump’s mother Julie has gravitated, quotes Matthew 9:33: “And when the demons had been driven out, the man who had been mute spoke.” He’s trying to persuade Julie “that demons have bound Stump’s tongue, and the only way to loosen it is through exorcism,” Collins relates.
When Chambliss finally has his way with Stump, Stump’s younger brother, Jess, witnesses the crime.
Collins makes a point of dignifying the belief in evil spirits while, at the same time, condemning Preacher Chambliss’ sinful usage of it. She then devotes a few paragraphs to exposing “false teachers who ‘hide behind the cloth.’”
It isn’t until the end of the essay that Collins returns to the theme of muteness, which she discusses only in terms of the plot—except for this one suggestive line: “Sadly, it is Jess Hall who could save his brother’s life, but he decides to remain silent.”
Stump’s muteness is interesting as a symbol of the kind that Jess suffers, bearing witness to exploitation.
Joining Stump in Collins’ autism section are: Jaxon MacKenzie, the12-year-old narrator of Mary Calhoun Brown’s YA novel, “There Are No Words”; Lonnie, the banjo-playing boy in James Dickey’s “Deliverance”; Rain Man (with Cincinnati qualifying as Appalachian); and Aunt Jo in Linda Scott DeRosier’s memoir, “Creeker.”
As a girl, Aunt Jo, lacking the power of accusation, had been raped. Collins compares her to Philomela, victim of King Tereus of Thrace, who’d cut out her tongue to stifle testimony.
Collins then quotes Elissa Marder’s essay, “Disarticulated Voices: Feminism and Philomena,” published in “Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy.”
In the Philomena myth, Marder wrote, the text “establishes a relationship between the experience of violation and access to language.”
Collins has found something very powerful in the notion of silence, its reverse-imaging of assault; and follows the concept wherever it will go.
The book’s second section is about hydrocephalics, recalling Juney, the benign hanger-on at a crumbling estate in Lee Smith’s novel, “On Agate Hill.”
The next section turns to people whose brain injuries prevent articulation, such as Celestine Aaron in Dot Jackson’s novel, “Refuge.” Celestine had been damaged by oxygen deprivation when her haughty Bostonian mother had accidentally given birth to her in a toilet bowl.
That Bostonian reference is significant. Seneca Steele, the novel’s narrator, had arrived at the Aaron household after fleeing her husband and his aristocratic Charleston society. But it was hardly an escape, for Sen discovers that an aristocrat has gotten control of her mountain family.
Collins has us hearing silent screaming. But she allows distortion into her big picture.
The literature she cites applies romantic notions to the mute condition, and Collins sometimes embraces the sentiments.
For instance, in certain stories, handicapped people possess the powers of healing and premonition. That’s poignant fiction, not social science, but Collins affirms the wish.
A realistic as well as humanistic presentation of people with exceptional conditions can be found in Andrew Solomon’s non-fiction masterwork, “Far from the Tree.”)
Collins’ role as champion of Appalachians also leads to the division of characters into those to be protected and those to be protected from—one seemingly justifiable step away from stock characterization.
An impressive survey
As promised, Collins includes TV and movie figures in her survey, such as Holly from “The Waltons”; Nell from “Nell”; and Sally Swanger, the woman in the movie version of Charles Frazer’s “Cold Mountain” who’d gone silent after seeing home guardsmen murder her family.
One of the interesting insights that comes from Collins’ book is seeing which authors get multiple entries, and therefore which ones can be said to like mutes in their fiction.
Ron Rash, Lee Smith, Robert Morgan, and Sharyn McCrumb are in this class.
So is Vicki Lane, who made a mute person, Cletus, her story-prompting murder victim in her debut novel, “Signs in the Blood.”
In her discussion of this book, Collins once again digresses from her theme, recaps the plot, and discourses on favorite Appalachian studies topics. In this, she is not unlike Lane, who has her sleuth, Elizabeth Goodweather, encounter several regional tropes—a Holiness church, a cultish retreat, a militia group, a buried infant—in her pursuit of clues.
An appreciation of “The Silent Appalachian” rests on Collins’ passion and extensive reading. I am glad to see that her book includes some recent fictional stand-outs: “Bloodroot” by Amy Greene; and Charles Dodd White’s “Sinners of Sanction County,” for instance.
Rob Neufeld writes the weekly book feature for the Sunday Citizen-Times. He is the author and editor of six books, and the publisher of the website, “The Read on WNC.” He can be reached at RNeufeld@charter.net and 505-1973. Follow him @WNC_chronicler.