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Wednesday, 07 October 2009 15:27

Kephart’s novel a time capsule from bygone era

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Among the varied “revelations” brought to light during the celebrations attending the 75th Anniversary of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park this year was the verification of the existence of an unpublished novel by Hoarace Kephart. Until this discovery, Kephart’s reputation rested on two singular achievements: he is the author of Our Southern Highlanders, a definitive work on the culture and traditions of Southern Appalachia; and he proved to be the primary impetus for the creation of the park by speaking, writing and soliciting financial support from government agencies and foundations. Now, some 80 years later, Kephart’s descendants have announced the existence of Smoky Mountain Magic, a “lost novel of mystery, intrigue and romance.”

According to the preface to the novel, written by Kephart’s granddaughter, Libby Kephart Hargrave, the manuscript has survived intact due to the efforts of Kephart’s heirs. On May 1, 2009, The Great Smoky Mountains Association acquired the manuscript with the understanding that they would publish it. Smoky Mountain Magic was officially released in mid-September.

So, what is Smoky Mountain Magic? What was Kephart’s motivation in writing it? Does it have merit? One critic (Daniel Pierce of the UNC Asheville History Department) has compared it to digging up a “time capsule from the 1920s,” and that seems an apt comparison. Also, it quickly becomes evident that Kephart had a shrewd eye for the popular novels and films of his time; he was well acquainted with writers such as Emma Bell Miles (Spirit of the Mountains) and James Fox (Trail of the Lonesome Pine.) These authors provided him with an excellent template for a tale of “mystery, intrigue, and romance.”

Kephart’s protagonist, John Cabarrus, a.k.a. “Little Jack Dale,” is a man of mystery. When he appears in Kittuwa (Bryson City), he attracts the interest of the entire community, including Tom Burbank, the local sheriff; William Matlock, a corrupt land speculator; Youlus Lumbo, a member of a degenerate mountain family; and Marian Wentworth, a beautiful, intelligent (and highly independent) young woman who is visiting relatives for the summer. We soon learn that Cabarrus has returned to Kittuwa and Deep Creek to right old wrongs, find a missing deed and conduct a geological survey that may lead to a hidden mineral deposit worth a fortune. After a few meetings and a good bit of witty repartee, John and Marian find that they are attracted to each other. The promise of a passionate consummation hangs in the air like the scent of honeysuckle.

Now, let’s add a venerable old chief of the Cherokees named Dagataga and an old friend of John Cabarrus, who is well-versed in the ancient legends of his people. A nighttime visit by John and Mirian to Dagataga’s home during a thunderstorm provides a proper setting for suspense, magic and the supernatural. As the old chief relates the frightful myth of a vengeful serpent called the Uktena, startling his audience by producing the Ulunsuti, the magic jewel that was plucked from the Uktena’s skull, Kephart’s tale moves into a new theme: the true meaning of myth and the struggle between science (or reason) and the world’s ancient superstitions and myths.

To Kephart’s credit, he manages to weave these colorful strands together into a unique pattern. In time, Cabarrus’ search for mineral deposits leads him to a wilderness labyrinth, Nick’s Nest, an “otherworldly place” that is shunned by both the white settlers and the Cherokees. Cabarrus’ descent into this dark hollow will bring him face to face with the contraries represented by myth and science.

Smoky Mountain Magic reflects a time when heroes like John Cabarrus dominated novels and film. Cabarrus is handsome, courageous, physically fit and the master of a dozen diverse fields, including mythology, geology, botany, poetry and psychology. (He will quote Disraeli, Robert Burns or The Iliad at the drop of a hat.) Whereas Mirian is frequently puzzled and uncertain about the world’s unknown aspects, she can simply turn to John who will gently “inform” her. In fact, her primary purpose seems to be to provide John with the opportunity to demonstrate his encyclopedic knowledge. It doesn’t matter if the subject is the subtleties of the Cherokee language, the diversity of plant life, astronomy, the composition of radium or the theory of “thought transference,” John always speaks with total authority. In 1929, it is possible that audiences and readers adored men of this caliber; in 2009, they would consider Cabarrus a pompous and pretentious ass.

Is Kephart’s novel entertaining? Yes, it is. Even at this late date, Smoky Mountain Magic has significant entertainment value. Some of the scenes move with an infectious vitality and excitement. Kephart is at his best in dealing with atmosphere. The visit to Chief Dagataga is masterfully done and the graphic descriptions of numerous solitary wilderness scenes are memorable.

Although many of the minor characters remained woefully undeveloped, the author has a gift for creating “local color” through masterful miniature portraits of minor “characters.” Especially noteworthy is “Sang Johnny,” who survives by digging herbs; Old Hex, Sang Johnny’s mother, who is known as a witch and practitioner of dark magic; Myra Swimming Deer, John’s childhood nurse; and the Cherokee tracker named Runner, who could follow his prey through the forests with a kind of supernatural certainty.

Smoky Mountain Magic would make an excellent movie since the journey into the unknown (“Nick’s Nest”) is still a viable theme. The characters are uncomplicated (like the cast of a Hardy Boys Adventure), violence is minimal and actual murder is restricted to the murder of creatures: a rattlesnake and a “fice” (Kephart’s spelling) dog. Despite the fact that the villains are dedicated to killing our hero, they are all thwarted without significant bloodshed. (Even black-hearted Matlock get off with a mere brain concussion); and sexual content, despite a lot of heavy breathing and a passionate kiss or two, is definitely G-rated.

Kephart’s motivation is writing Smoky Mountain Magic is obvious. He hoped to tap the rich market for tales of adventure — both in fiction and in cinema. What better topic than a journey into a forbidden realm, complete with witches, robber barons, noble savages and a winsome lady, all wrapped in a cloak of mystery and myth. Doubtless, Kephart’s notorious inability to handle his finances prompted him to write the novel. He probably dreamed of paying his debts and acquiring solvency. It should have worked, but as John Cabarrus notes, quoting Robert Burns, “the best laid plans of mice and men/ gang aft agley.” If Kephart’s spirit still haunts Kittuwa, he should be immensely pleased to know that even after 80 years, he has made another significant contribution to the Great Smokies National Park.

(Gary Carden is a writer and storyteller who lives in Sylva. Visit his blog at hollernotes.blogspot.com.)

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