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Wednesday, 28 February 2007 00:00

Thankfully, some books are short

Written by 

Ludie’s Life by Cynthia Rylant. Harcourt Children's Books, 2006. 128 pages.

Sometimes bad things come in small packages.

 

Cynthia Rylant’s Ludie’s Life (0-15-205389-1, $16) is, as the jacket cover tells us, “the story of one woman’s experiences in a hardscrabble coal-mining town, a story that brims with the universal themes of life, love, and family — and the joy, laughter, heartache, and loss that accompany them.”

Ludie’s Life, a story told in poetic form, is also predictable (was there ever a coal-mining town that wasn‘t hard-scrabble?), sentimental (read the previous sentence again), and flimsy both in length and construction.

Rylant deals clichés with the reckless enthusiasm of a Saturday night poker player. When we reach page 58 and read that “In her last months of high school, / Ludie’s granddaughter / started dating the only rich boy in her senior class” we know that within a page or two the rich boy will eventually dump the poor granddaughter. Other stereotypes knock us about the head in this poem: a wicked stepmother, good country people, the wise old mountain woman.

These folksy clichés extend to some of the ideas in the poem. At one point, describing Ludie’s old age, Rylant writes that Ludie’s children and grandchildren came to her house and “found a cup of coffee / and a smile / and an open front door. / Ludie had seen too much of life / to waste any time / telling others how to live.” Several lines later, after telling us about the death of one of Ludie’s granddaughter’s — we have no idea which granddaughter or how she died — Rylant tells us again that “She would not waste any time / telling others how to live.”

Rylant here is warning against one of the great post-modern sins — Thou Shalt Not Teach Morality — yet these lines strike me as the most ignorant in the book. Here is Ludie, who lives into her 90’s, a woman who raises six children and several grandchildren, who experiences a goodly share of life’s travails — and she has nothing to say? Imparting information on how to live doesn’t require a soapbox or a pulpit, as Rylant seems to imply, but it does require the ability to pass along our own experiences to help those who follow us. Perhaps unintentionally, Rylant underscores Ludie’s failures in this regard when she tells us of Ludie’s biscuits: “Those who missed the biscuits / tried to make a batch themselves / hauling that pan of self-rising flour out of Ludie’s closet / when they stopped by. / But their biscuits never measured up, / and next time Ludie just did it for them.”

Here we must suppose that Ludie “would not waste any time / telling others how to make biscuits.”

One redeeming feature of Ludie’s Life is its brevity. To review a big, bloated book often means several days of gray skies and dismal rains. Ludie’s Life, which most readers can finish in forty-five minutes, offered this critic nothing more than an afternoon mountain shower.

•••

The Stackhouses of Appalachia: Even to Our Own Times (0-9789548-1-5, $29.95) tells the story of Amos Stackhouse, a Quaker and entrepreneur who came from Pennsylvania to Western North Carolina following the Civil War. Stackhouse and his family lived first in Hot Springs in Madison County, where he was involved in several business enterprises and then moved into rural Madison County, where Amos Stackhouse opened a second store. His home and store became the center of a small, thriving community, Stackhouse, and its traces may still be seen today.

Jacqueline Burgin Painter, the author of The Stackhouses of Appalachia, has given us an impressive chronicle not only of the Stackhouse family but of the development in railroads and tourism in Western North Carolina following the Civil War. Through her use of letters, newspapers, old photographs, and interviews, Painter shows us the impact that a single man with capital and vision could have on a mountain community. We see the enormous effect of railroads on the mountains, especially in terms of tourism, logging, and commercial farming. Through the Stackhouse family, we gain a broader picture of our region, the effects, for example, of influenza after the First World War, which devastated several mountain communities. We learn through first-hand accounts what it was like to run a boarding house, to go off to war, to see the trains come to the mountains. At one point Hester, the wife of Amos, Jr., takes two sons to a boarding school in Weaverville. After writing home to report several discipline problems, she writes about the school:

“There were two dreadful fights in study hall — Hugh Byrd and a boy named Brittain had the first. Hugh cut Brittain’s arm right bad, cut his coat, broke up a desk, upset a large stove — the red-hot pipe and all in the floor. Then, he cursed a boy named Rhinehart, who broke up a chair over Hugh’s head ... A pretty example, I think, in a church school ... Painter’s chronicle is filled with such accounts, reminders that our present-day problems and concerns may not be as unique or as new as we may think.”

•••

Another two weeks, and it’s time for the shamrocks and green beer. Besides gathering at O’Malley’s on Main in Waynesville or any other number of pubs in the area, Irish folk and Irish folk at heart might glance again at an older book, Thomas Cahill’s How The Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe, a title, incidentally, which only an Irishman could have devised.

Here Cahill tells us the story of the slave Patricus, who escapes his Irish master to return to Britain, only to come again as a missionary to Ireland. We read again of the early saints and hermits, of the monks who by copying manuscripts did indeed help to keep our civilization alive, of the connections between Celtic legends and history.

In his concluding discussion of the state and of faith, Cahill gives us this reminder:

“If our civilization is to be saved — forget about our civilization, which, as Patrick would say, may pass ‘in a moment like a cloud or smoke that is scattered by the wind’ — if we are to be saved, it will not be by Romans but by saints.”

Unlike Ludie, Cahill points out a way to live.

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