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Wednesday, 13 October 2010 20:32

A new collection of mountain writers

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Many of us have attended a Methodist or Baptist “dinner on the grounds.” At these events, once popular across the South but now fading somewhat, church families gathered after the Sunday service for fellowship and a feast of pot-luck dishes: crispy fried chicken, baked ham, sweet potato casserole, mashed potatoes, green beans, corn on the cob, fruit salads, cornbread, sweetened tea, and a table loaded down with pies and cakes so delicious and sweet that every yellow jacket in the county managed to find the place in 30 seconds flat.

Echoes Across the Blue Ridge: Stories, Essays, and Poems (ISBN 978-1-4507-0152-5, $16) is a literary dinner on the grounds. In this collection, produced by the North Carolina Writers’ Network West and edited by Nancy Simpson, the resident writer at the John C. Campbell Folk School, we are given the opportunity to stroll down a banquet table prepared by a host of Western North Carolina writers, sampling poetry, fiction, and essays on topics as varied as corn dances and Jesus freaks, kudzu and pot-bellied stoves. This anthology offers verse by Byron Herbert Reece, Kathryn Stripling Byer, Richard Bronnum, and other talented poets, stories about growing up in the mountains and life today, and essays that ring as true and clear to the ear as an ax on a log in December.

In addition to its wide assortment of writers, Echoes Across the Blue Ridge should appeal to readers who like to take their pleasures close to home. Glenda Beall’s “The Trillium,” an essay about an older man named George and his invitation to come to his home to see his trillium, which turns out to be a single beautiful plant, reminds us to look for happiness in small things and out of the way places. Gary Carden’s “Listen to the Mocking Bird,” a story about his grandfather disguising himself as a fallen woman from Waycross, Ga., and paying a humorous visit to a neighbor, is told with the author’s usual keen wit and sense of comedic timing. Betty Reed’s “I Won’t Cry,” a poem about the financial woes of a mountain family, cuts close to the bone in its lament about the boarded-up plant and lost jobs brought by the last 20 years of economic hardship in our mountains.

Finally, Echoes Across the Blue Ridge might well serve as an anthology about the preservation of the spirit of Appalachia. Many of the poets and writers here take as their subject the people who have gone before them — grandfathers and grandmothers, ghosts, old-timers now gone who were living repositories of mountain life and culture. By adding their own words to those of earlier storytellers and balladeers, the writers here not only help to preserve their mountain past, but inculcate themselves into that past, bringing it into the present so that our heritage becomes not a thing for museums but a piece of living reality, threads to be spun into the fabric of our daily lives.

In “Beyond the Clearing,” the poem which Nancy Simpson chose to introduce this volume, James M. Cox sums up this blending of past and present, and the magic of the Blue Ridge:

Beyond the clearing there’s a way to see

what matters most, what graces age.

Come take my hand, come go with me.

Walk with me to the clean bright edge.

The Christmas season will soon be on us. Those looking for a gift for someone who needs a breath of home — a loved one away in the military, a student in college — or a present for some flatlander who has never enjoyed the privilege of living in these magical mountains would do well to wrap up and mail out Echoes Across The Blue Ridge.

•••

Political commentator and writer Glenn Beck, beloved by many of the Tea Party and despised by both liberals and many conventional Republicans, recently released yet another book, a suspense novel titled The Overton Window (ISBN 978-1-4391-8430-1, $26).

Beck’s novel tells the story of Noah Gardner, son of one of the wealthiest men on the planet, the owner of a powerful public relations firm who has partnered up with certain elements of the federal government and is using all his skill and knowledge to steer the country toward a form of fascism. Noah is indifferent about the changes in the country and in the firm until he meets Molly Ross (perhaps named for Molly Pitcher and Betsy Ross of Revolutionary War fame), a committed member of a group of patriots fighting the changes which Noah is unwittingly help to effect.

Misleadingly subtitled “A Thriller” — compared to other books in this genre, The Overton Window provides few thrills, and is so mediocre in its development of character and plot that its publication may well lay to rest rumors that Beck hires ghost-writers to put together his books — this novel will undoubtedly sell well through the holiday shopping season but will then be forgotten.

This neglect will be unfortunate, for The Overton Window contains in its gruel-thin plot an important message for all Americans, liberal and conservative alike: the growing intrusion of the federal government into the lives of American citizens. When used by the federal government, or by a powerful corporation, the concept of the Overton Window, defined succinctly on the novel’s fly-leaf as a powerful technique “manipulating public perception so that ideas previously thought of as radical begin to seem acceptable over time,” can bring about alterations in our behavior and what we regard as acceptable policies. It can change how we regard our own civil liberties vis-à-vis the government.

Once regarded as a servant of the people, the government is now largely regarded as master. Through our fear of terrorism, for example, we have extended to certain federal agencies powers which our grandparents would have regarded as anathema.

Though liberals and conservatives find little common ground these days, surely both groups might join in a mutual distrust of government control. In this area, Beck’s The Overton Window, particularly the “Afterword” in which he discusses the trends in government and large corporations of the last 40 years, calls all of us to become more aware of our rights as human beings and more vigilant regarding infringements by the government on those rights.

Echoes Across the Blue Ridge: Stories, Essays, and Poems edited by Nancy Simpson. Winding Path Press, 2010. 256 pages

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