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Lost and found in the woods of Appalachia

Lost and found in the woods of Appalachia

Another regional writer has just published a new book. Janisse Ray, whom I know as an original member of the Southern Nature Project (www.southernnature.org) and author of “Ecology of a Cracker Childhood,” is winner of many major national literary awards as well as being inducted as a member of the Georgia Literary Hall of Fame. A Georgia native, she is a neighbor of ours here in the Southern Appalachians, which is where her new book and her first novel takes place. 

Set in Fannin County in northern Georgia just over the North Carolina line, and based on a true story that took place in the 1940s, “The Woods of Fannin County” tells the amazing story of eight children who were abandoned in the north Georgia woods by their parents and relatives and left to fend for themselves — “scrounging for food among the pawpaw groves, ramp covers and wild apples of Southern Appalachia” — for four years before they were found and rescued. Having heard this story from her father, Janisse Ray spent the next 10 years researching and actually talking to some of the children who were among the siblings in the Woods family (interestingly ironic family name for this particular story) who had been abandoned so long before. 

“I worked closely with the Woods family, who made the decision to leave their names intact. I chose to write this book as a book of fiction to protect the identities of others. Otherwise, the story is as close to the truth as possible,” Ray writes.

In an interestingly constructed and written book, for “The Woods of Fannin County,” Ray alternates between the past and the present and between a third person narrative and a first person account as told by the book’s central character of Bobby. “Sometimes, someone leads you to a jewel of a story, a diamond of a story, that reaches out and grabs you and won’t let go,” writes Ray in her promotional material. This book is one of those “jewels,” those “diamonds,” with unique chapter headings outlining the general storyline and quotes from Bobby supplying the mental and emotional details. We begin the story with the first chapter titled “A forsaken mother sets off with eight children on an inexplicable journey by mule and wagon, 1945.” From Morganton, Georgia, with no father and with all the children wondering where they were going, and with the townspeople looking on as the wagon rolls down Main Street, the slow arduous journey begins, followed by chapters titled, “The children arrive at a place in the hills they’ve never seen; The children begin to learn the lay of the land; Without fire and matches; Christmas passes unbeknownst and January almost brings disaster; Bobby learns more information about his mother; Bobby wants to destroy everything that stands in the way of love; An active moonshine still is the beginning of the end.” 

In between these narrative chapters we get to share Bobby’s most intimate memories and thoughts. 

“Where we lived up on that mountain was called Loving. I wish someone could explain that. It was a name that sure as hell didn’t fit,” he says early on in the book. “All this brings back memories I didn’t want to think about. A person needs a mother and a father. They damn sure need somebody. I’m pretty sure they put us there to die. I’ve thought about this from all angles and that’s what I come back to, every time. I think they needed to get rid of us and they were too proud to give us away,” he explains later.   

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As we get into the second half of the book, certain other characters begin having awkward interactions with some of the children, but even knowing the children’s situation decide for their own illogical or selfish reasons not to do anything about it to alleviate the children’s suffering. “He found Mr. Allen pulling corn off dry stalks in a field near the house. ‘We’re needing some vittles,’ Bobby said. ‘America,’ the old man yelled from the stoop of the house, ‘Those children need some vittles.’ ‘I told you I want no part of that,’ his wife answers back. ‘We’ve got plenty,’ he said. ‘He needs to find that daddy of his’n,’ she replied as she stepped back and shut the door, hard. His grandpa Allen was letting his own grandchildren live in a shanty up a mountain, starving to death.” 

Finally, in the last third of the book, with their mom living in a tourist motel in Morganton working as a “streetwoman” and the children no longer knowing what month it was, they pass the time playing baseball with a stout straight limb for a bat and a pine cone for a ball and riverstones for bases. To survive, they had to constantly seek food in whatever form they could find it, they had to stockpile firewood and they had to teach the little ones what they knew. Or, as Bobby says near the end of the book: “I’d say, knowing what I know now about life, that we were lost in a wilderness. We were part of that mountain and a part of the woods. It wasn’t a dream.” 

(“The Woods of Fannin County” can be purchased at your local independent book store. Thomas Crowe is a regular contributor to The Smoky Mountain News and author of the multi-award-winning non-fiction nature memoir “Zoro’s Field: My Life in the Appalachian Woods.”)

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