Getting familiar with this region’s great literature
It's Summer, 2010, one of the good
times to plan more reading, and perhaps a time tp appreciate the
depth and scope of Western North Carolina's literature. Here is a
survey of books by living authors of this region.
Rash, Morgan, Frazier
The big rising star in the region is Ron Rash. In the literary world, rising star is a peculiar term, for Rash has published eleven books of fiction and poetry, all acclaimed; and he rubs elbows with many fellow authors in his circle of achievement.
writers who warrant national audiences do not get the boost of
bestsellerdom, though they attract critical acclaim.
In a quartet of novels, from “Hiwassee” to “Where the Water-Dogs Laughed,” Charles Price entered the personalities of dozens of characters over three generations and, through social realism, created what will endure as the saga of Clay County history. Completing that, he moved on to an ambitious personalizing of Revolutionary War combat with the novel, “Nor the Battle to the Strong.”.
One of the emblematic stories in local history—the displacement of pioneers by the Great Smoky Mountains National Park—finally came to life in Wayne Caldwell’s paired novels, “Cataloochee” and “Requiem by Fire.” As in Ron Rash’s fiction, the characters are dignified and idiosyncratic, and events are sometimes Faulknerian gothic.
Terrell Garren, in non-fiction and fiction, including his latest novel, “The Fifth Skull,” addresses general ignorance about the minds and plights of mountain Southerners during the Civil War; and he seeks justice in all corners. Tommy Hays, director of the Great Smokies Writing Program at UNCA, carries sensitivity to race relations, felt in his Greenville, South Carolina-based novel, “In the Family Way”; and to Alzheimer’s sufferers in “The Pleasure Was Mine.”
Godwin, Smith, Chappell, Ehle, Earley
Several paragraphs into
this survey, and there are still five authors who have made it into
the American pantheon of writers to talk about.
Gail Godwin grew up in Asheville, then used a job at Blowing Rock’s Mayview Manor to launch her to Europe and, eventually, to acclaim as a leading voice of the independent, creative woman in the 1970s. Her recently published journals chart this journey. “A Mother and Two Daughters” and “A Southern Family,” her fifth and seventh novels, set in Mountain City (fictionalized Asheville), became best-sellers. Her latest novel, “Unfinished Desires,” based on schooling at St. Genevieve’s in Asheville, epitomizes her powers of empathy.
Lee Smith, who grew up in Appalachian Virginia and now lives in Hillsborough, North Carolina, sets much of her fiction in Western North Carolina, making the colloquial mountain voice modern in fertile, community-embracing plots. “Saving Grace” follows the daughter of a snake-handling preacher through Haywood County; and, her most recent novel, “On Agate Hill,” follows a Civil War orphan to a teaching job and marriage in Ashe County.
Canton-born author, Fred Chappell, is the leading synthesizer of the mountain folk telling tradition and classic world literature. His most recent book, “Ancestors and Others,” brings together stories from his career that represent that imaginative brew. Chappell is also recognized as a master poet and devoted and incisive critic.
West Asheville-born John Ehle, along with the late Wilma Dykeman, were the key figures in the emergence of Southern Appalachian literature as a large presence in modern literature. Ehle’s 1964 novel, “The Land Breakers,” a Book-of-the-Month Club featured selection, was the first of seven of his books that dramatized the region’s history from pioneer days through the 1930s. Press 53 in Winston-Salem has reprinted two of them to date.
Tony Earley’s first novel, “Jim the Boy,” remains a huge success, a classic about the transition to modernity in Rutherford County. He continues to create a Willa Cather-like mythology out of his home universe.
Kostova, Addison Allen, Ross, Lane, McCrumb
Elizabeth Kostova and
Sarah Addison Allen, both Asheville-raised, are two of the most
recent residents of the best-seller list, drawing on subjects other
then region. Kostova, in her novels, “The Historian” and “The Swan
Thieves,” crosses into the occult realms of Dracula and immortal
love with the literary grace of a Henry James novel. Allen takes
magical realism into the realm of popular romance with “Garden
Spells” and “The Girl Who Chased the Moon.”
Ann B. Ross’s latest novel, “Miss Julia Renews Her Vows,” is the twelfth in her “Miss Julia” series, in which she has also spoken her mind, hit the road, and painted the town. The Hendersonville author sets her fiction in the North Carolina town of Abbotsville. Vicki Lane has won a large following with her local lore mysteries, most recently, “In a Dark Season.” Jan Karon and Joan Medlicott have also reached mass audiences with regionally set village dramas.
Sharyn McCrumb is the fearlessly creative, regionally proud, and irrepressibly funny author of mysteries (she no longer writes them), “ballad novels,” historical fiction, and—most recently—NASCAR-based romps. “Once around the Track” is her latest NASCAR novel; and a new ballad novel, “The Devil amongst the Lawyers,” is coming out this month.
Byer and a florescence of poets
Amid the beer,
religious retreats, retirement homes, outdoor sports, and other
things for which the Asheville area is a mecca, there’s also
poetry. Cullowhee author Kathryn Stripling Byer, having retired
from two terms as North Carolina Poet Laureate, is magnetic north.
Mountain-bred sensibility, internationally tuned music, and a
concern for people and issues that expresses itself as longing
distinguish her work in such volumes as “Wildwood Flower,”’ “Black
Shawl,” and “Coming to Rest.”
There are other notable stars. Keith Flynn of Madison County brings his rock music, oratorical, and worldly background to commanding performances, a host of books, poetry workshops, and the editing of the widely acclaimed journal, “Asheville Poetry Review.” Thomas Rain Crowe of Tuckaseegee writes about home in a Thoreau-like way, but also embraces influences experienced through travel: the Beat poets out west; Dylan Thomas and the Welsh; Sufis; and, most recently, Europe’s old cities.
Glenis Redmond has navigated a Poetry Slam start into a career as a major lyric poet, much in demand in schools and arenas. Allan Wolf, one of the early leaders of Poetry Alive, based in Asheville, has crafted himself a place among the top practitioners of Shel Silverstein’s kind of verse.
Rick Chess, director of UNCA’s Center for Jewish Studies, writes poems that meditate on the intimate and modern meanings of his tradition. Nancy Dillingham and Julia Nunnally Duncan reflect on personal experience in the mountains and create distinctive and very musical sounds. Laura Hope-Gill, organizer of Wordfest, notably pairs poems with the work of photographers.
Storytellers and others
In an area as world
famous for its storytelling as Western North Carolina, it would be
an act of narrow-minded blindness to ignore the practitioners of
oral literature. Chief among these is Gary Carden, storyteller and
playwright, whose works can be obtained on DVD as well as in
Sheila Kay Adams, a musician of long lineage in Madison County, has also published a book of short stories and a novel, “My Old True Love.” Barbara Freeman is one of the leaders in regional storytelling, and has produced audio and video recordings. Curtis Blanton and Bill Carver bring the pure product to their tales. Rob Amberg and Tim Barnwell incorporate oral history into their books of documentary photography.
A survey of Western
North Carolina literature cannot exclude other greats: Gloria
Houston of Spruce Pine, who does for young readers what John Ehle
has done for adults; MariJo Moore, a versatile communicator of
Cherokee ways, and the honest, self-examining author of “The
Diamond Doorknob”; Pamela Duncan, the most noteworthy fictional
portrayer of mill life in the region; Maurice Stanley, who turns
misunderstood outlaws into psychological realities; and many
Other impressive authors to follow!
--by Rob Neufeld, June 2010