Requiem by Fire by Wayne Caldwell. Random House, 2009. 335 pages
Dear readers, if you have some slight respect for my opinions about Appalachian literature, I hope you will believe me when I say that Wayne Caldwell has written a remarkable novel — one that we will be talking about for many years. Requiem by Fire, Caldwell’s second work in what may well be a series of novels, is rooted in the history, folkways and culture of a vanquished place: Cataloochee. Whereas the first novel gave breath, blood and passion to the early settlers of that place, this sequel attempts to capture the lives of those same settlers and their descendants (some 1,100 in all) when they are faced with eviction.
If you have ever wondered how the federal government and the U.S. Park Service orchestrated the removal the households in Big and Little Cataloochee, here is a detailed and sometimes heartbreaking account. At its worst, the “presence of the Park” in Cataloochee and elsewhere sometimes resembled occupation by a conquering army, since uniformed and armed officials took up residence in the designated area and began issuing mandates — regulations that stipulated everything from reimbursement for land to deadlines for final departure. From the beginning, the Park stressed a singular dismal fact: This land now belongs to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. You must leave.
For many of the aged residents such as Silas Wright, the coming of the Park was a death notice. In response to petitions from landowners who refused governmental reimbursement and requested permission to stay, the Park relented but issued restrictions that were so rigorous most landowners felt that they could not comply. No hunting, no cutting of trees (firewood was restricted to deadfalls) and severe limits on gardens and fishing. Although there was considerable dissatisfaction with the Park and its dictates, the majority of the people finally loaded their belongings and left. Silas Wright, the oldest member of the community, chose to stay.
Many of the elderly “exiles” did not survive for long. Like some of the plants many of the families attempted to transplant to their new homes in Saunook, Maggie Valley or Waynesville, these displaced souls faded and died — as though they had been deprived of some vital nutrient that could only be found in the soil of Cataloochee. There were suicides and many suffered psychological damage. There were exceptions, like the family that moved to Saunook, bought an old garage and converted it into a mercantile store that specialized in “mountain crafts.”
Noting that their customers were fascinated by such antiquated items as sun bonnets, quilts, corncob pipes and rustic chairs, they quickly became “real mountaineers” (or at least what the visiting public perceived them to be), and in the process provided an income for other Cataloochans who could whittle, sew, hew and weave.
Much of Requiem by Fire deals with the trials and tribulations of Jim Hawkins, a young native of Cataloochee who readily accepts the job of warden for the Park. In essence, Jim must enforce the unpopular rules and regulations devised by the Park. Hawkins accepts his job with a sort of religious fervor. His love for Cataloochee and its people motivates him to see if he can ease the pains of their transition. Since the Park authorities have quickly developed a reputation for insensitivity and arrogance, the local residents accept Hawkins who is “one of their own” and who has a talent for acting as a buffer between the Park and the disenfranchised residents.
Certainly, he has a knack for defusing explosive situations. He also knows when to look the other way.
However, Hawkins has made one serious mistake that causes him considerable suffering. He has married a “town girl.” Born in West Asheville, Nell comes with Jim to Cataloochee and is immediately distressed. No telephone. No movie theater. No restaurants or social life. Although she endures several years of discomfort and boredom, she does not adjust but becomes increasingly resentful. Where Jim sees beauty and solitude, Nell sees discomfort and isolation. Nell’s departure is inevitable and comes at a time when Hawkins is beset with serious problems ... one of which is a pyromaniac.
Willie McPeters is an unforgettable character. Although he has much in common with other mentally deranged characters in southern fiction, such as Flannery O’Conner’s Hazel Motes or Faulkner’s degenerate Snopes family, McPeters is more elemental, a kind of embodiment of mindless and bestial destruction. McPeters begins to burn abandoned buildings in a sexual frenzy and as his destruction in Cataloochee increases, Jim Hawkins finds evidence of Willie’s presence near his home (McPeters leaves an acrid stench where ever he goes).
Ironically, as Hawkins struggles to save his marriage and track down the elusive firebug, the Park announces its new edict. All of the vacated buildings in Cataloochee are to be burned. Nothing is to be left that would detract from the Park’s mission: to return Cattaloochee to a wilderness state. Consequently, this sets the scene for the most heartrending section of Requiem by Fire — Hawkins is ordered to officiate at the burning of the place where he was born:
Destroying the place where as a baby he had padded in knitted booties. The place he’d learned fire burns and ice is cold, and that nothing is better for the sniffles than a mother’s love and warm VapoRub.The place he’d broken windows with homemade baseballs.The place that had kept him dry during storms and wet in the tub on Saturday night. The place where his father had read the Bible out loud every night and where Jim had learned about alcohol when he was caught sneaking from Mack’s jug and where his punishment had been to keep drinking until he retched. His place.
As Hawkins stands watching the inferno destroy even the boxwoods and the maple tree in the front yard, he is joined by the lonely and stubborn Silas Wright, who now believes that Cataloochee is truly gone. Silas also encounters a group of campers from the flatlands and their behavior and opinions presage the coming of vast hordes who will perceive Cataloochee as a “vast outdoor playground.” Silas senses that it is time for him to go as well.
Requiem by Fire begins and ends with dreams — Silas Wright’s dreams. The first fire is one that Silas and his friends deliberately set when Silas was a young man. They had burned the old Cataloochee school because they believed that the only way they would get an adequate school for their children was to burn the old one. Now, at the end of his life, Silas dreams of fire again. However, this time the fire is multi-faceted. It both cleanses and obliterates, destroys and renews. In Cataloochee, a way of life has perished, but a new world is approaching by a paved road. The tourists are coming.