Particular parables and perverse ponderings

Willful Creatures Stories by Aimee Bender. Doubleday & Company. 208 pages.


Recently, Garrison Keilor mentioned a new writer, Aimee Bender on his daily post, “The Writer’s Almanac.” Garrison noted that Bender’s quirky and enigmatic books were causing quite a stir on the west coast – short stories about families with pumpkin heads and little boys who are born with fingers shaped like keys. An Internet search informed me that Aimee’s books contained strange parables that often left the reader both puzzled and fascinated. I immediately ordered The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, An Invisible Sign of My Own and Willful Creatures Stories.

An Invisible Sign of My Own opens with this paragraph:

“There was this kingdom once where everyone lived forever. They discovered the secret of eternal life, and because of that, there were no cemeteries, no hospitals, no funeral parlors, no books in the bookstore about death and grieving. Instead, the bookstore was full of pamphlets about how to be a righteous citizen without fear of an afterlife.”

I was hooked. For the past two weeks, I have been reading odd fables that often resemble perverse variations of Grimm fairy tales.

In “Off” from Willful Creatures Stories, a determined young woman goes to a party intending to kiss three men: a black-haired one, a red-head and a blond. Her plan has disastrous consequences. Then, there is “Debbieland” where a shy teenager is attacked and humiliated because she wears a skirt that offends some fellow students. In “Fruit Without Words,” a customer at a roadside fruit stand discovers that it is possible to buy words that are composed of the items that they represent.

“Ironhead” is a disturbing tale of a child born with the head of an iron frying pan – born into a family of pumpkin-heads. In “Dearth,” a lonely woman finds seven potatoes in her kitchen; despite all of her efforts to rid herself of them, they return and gradually develop arms, legs and facial features. Willful Creatures also contains “The Leading Man” and the story about the boy with fingers that resemble keys – keys that are destined to open locks that appear throughout the boy’s life.

What is going on here? At present, a great many people are attempting to analyze these stories. I am struck by how many of Bender’s perverse tales appear to be parables that embody the problems that beset all of us. Bender’s protagonists are often victims of alienation and rejection. They are filled with yearnings and a desperate need to “belong” and often, they overcome daunting obstacles only to be disillusioned with their success.

My favorite in the Willful Creatures Stories collection, “Job’s Jobs,” is a marvelous variation of the travails of the biblical Job. A vengeful and unrelenting God pursues Bender’s modern-day Job. Each time that Job acquires success (a writer, a painter, an actor, etc.) God appears and demands that Job relinquish his new career. In addition, God refuses to justify his actions. Finally, Job’s world becomes so small he is left no alternative but to retreat to the infinite world of his inner thoughts.

Although I found some of Bender’s stories inexplicable, I am so pleased with the ones that provide a shrewd insight into life’s uncertainties, problems and mysteries (death, alienation, guilt, etc.) I wholeheartedly recommend these books. If you like Angela Carter, Ambrose Bierce and the poetry of Stephen Crane, you will treasure Aimee Bender.

Don West’s affinity for Appalachia

A Hard Journey by James J. Lorence. University of Illinois Press, 2009. 344 pages.

Once on a warm, summer afternoon (circa 1957), I met Don West in the Townhouse Restaurant in Cullowhee. He was visiting his daughter, Hedy (a student at WCC) and talked easily about provocative topics: McCarthyism, HUAC, Eugene Debbs and union violence in Georgia. At one point, he indicated a well-dressed coffee-drinker at the counter and said, “See that guy? He is an FBI agent that follows me everywhere I go.” The coffee-drinker nodded and smiled. I was skeptical. Besides, I was 18, and most of my attention was focused on his daughter, Hedy.

When he got up to leave, he gave me a battered copy of Clods of Southern Earth and suggested that I read it; we could talk about it the next time we met, he said. I had no way of knowing that just a few months before our conversation, he had narrowly escaped lynching near Blairsville, Ga. Shortly after visiting Hedy, he would return to his farm in Douglasville to find his livestock poisoned, a KKK cross burning on his property and a government agent on his porch with another HUAC subpoena. I had just met what may well be the most controversial and significant poet, minister, activist and teacher in the last century of Appalachian history.

I found James J. Lorence’s biography to be a dense, difficult but rewarding book. Certainly, it presents a comprehensive portrait of a charismatic, flawed and driven man whose confrontational manner caused him (and his family) considerable hardship. Like an old storytelling friend of mine once observed about her own difficult life: “I have dug my grave with my tongue.” In a pulpit, a classroom or in crafting the lines of a “working man’s poem,” West possessed an astonishing gift: the power to persuade and inspire others. Yet, that same gift provoked his enemies to bring him down.

Born Donald Lee West on June 6, 1906, in Gilmer County, Cartecay, Ga., West’s early beliefs were shaped by his grandfather, Asberry Kimsey Mulkey. From an early age, Don was taught to believe in the inherent wisdom of common people, the equality of all men (anti-slavery) and the concept of Jesus Christ as a revolutionary. Raised in a family with a reverence for the power of words, music and oral tradition, Don learned to use them to promote his grandfather’s principles. These basic precepts remained with West throughout his life.

When West’s family moved to Cobb County and became sharecroppers, Don and his sister were ridiculed for their clothes at school. This experience, in conjunction with an encounter with educational “paternalism,” convinced Don that schools were attempting to eradicate his culture and replace it with middle-class values. Although he received a work scholarship to Berry College, Don quickly found himself expelled when he led a protest against the blatant racism in the film, “Birth of a Nation.”

Gaining admission to Lincoln Memorial University in east Tennessee, West becomes friends with Jesse Stuart and James Still, marries Connie Adams, decides to become a minister and moves to Vanderbilt, where he soon becomes involved in radicalism, strikes, unions and educational reform. A trip to Denmark convinced him that the Danish school system offered the solution to retaining traditional values in education.

At this point, West’s life becomes a striving for ideals that invariably brings him into conflicts with authority. His attempts to launch the Highlander Center (1933) in Monteagle, Tenn., with Miles Horton is successful, but leads to irreconcilable conflicts with Horton. Amid accusations that the Highlander was a “communist training center,” Don leaves and begins a series of erratic journeys (on his beloved Indian motorcycle). West’s nebulous involvement with the Communist Party causes many of his friends (including Jesse Stuart) to distance themselves from him. Eventually, West’s publicized ties with Communist and leftist politics forces him to seek work under an assumed name.

For much of West’s life, his mainstay is his wife Connie. A gifted teacher, she readily finds employment. Even when Don’s notoriety brings her dismissal as well (guilt by association), she frequently travels to Florida and other states to teach. She sends the money home to Don and her family. In time, she also becomes a talented artist.

Time and time again, West succeeds in an astonishing variety of ventures: a beloved superintendent in Hall County, Ga.; three years of teaching at Oglethorpe; a successful newspaper editor in Dalton, Ga.; the creation of the Appalachian Center at Pipestem (modeled after his beloved Danish school system); a series of awards, including Appalachian Writers Association, Berea College and the Lincoln Memorial Hall of Fame — all remarkable achievements.

Yet the majority of his successes turned to dust in his hands. His notoriety and his past involvement in radical activities results in his dismissal from Oglethorpe; the KKK and groups of anti-red organizations (including the American Legion) drove him from Dalton, and his major nemesis, Ralph McGill, the editor of the Atlanta Constitution, is credited with driving West from Georgia. For a time he lived and taught in New York. Then came a realized dream at Pipestem.

Lorence’s biography gives a detailed account of how a battered and demoralized West retreated, again and again, to his farm in Georgia to seek renewal from the land. Even this final refuge is denied him when his farm is torched and his collection of 10,000 books destroyed — a tragedy that Don later claimed was provoked by Ralph McGill. However, the last decade of Don’s life was relatively peaceful, and was spent fundraising, teaching and promoting the Appalachian South Folklife Center at Pipestem. West died at the Charleston Area Medical Center in 1992.

This is what remains: His awards, his poetry and essays and the Appalachian South Folklife Center at Pipestem, West Virginia; the multitudes of students who still speak of him with respect, the lifetime friendship of people like Langston Hughes, Paul Green, Byron Herbert Reece and Arthur Miller; and the music of his daughter, Hedy, an art that owes its authentic beauty to the same forces that shaped her unrepentant father.

It may be that the final judgment of Donald Lee West’s significance is yet to be made. If Communism is finally a harmless scarecrow and if McCarthyism has been defanged, perhaps it is possible that we can finally give this angry, impatient and gifted man a fair hearing. He loved mountain people and honored them in every act that he performed. Let us finally acknowledge that.

(Gary Carden is a writer and storyteller who lives in Sylva. His current writings can be found at his blog,

Take a chance on Ravens

When a friend sent me an advanced reading copy of Ravens with a note that said, “There is no one to like in this one,” I prepared myself for a dark and bleak journey through South Georgia grunge. That is exactly what I got, but “grim and gritty” is just the glue that holds this yarn together. George Dawes Green’s Ravens combines nightmare, humor, white-knuckle tension and a roller-coaster ride that never eases up. It has been a long time since I got my hands on a psychological thriller that captivated me like this one.

Meet Romeo and Shaw, two drifters from Ohio (Romeo has a pistol; Shaw is psychotic) who are on their way to Key West, Fla., with a vague plan to get jobs on a fishing boat, when a series of random events changes everything. First, somewhere in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Romeo runs over a possum that becomes lodged in the car’s fender well. Later, near Brunswick, Ga., when the Toyota Tersel develops a shimmy and a bad smell, Romeo wakes his fellow passenger, Shaw, suggesting that they stop and check the tires. At a convenience store called Chummy’s, Shaw overhears a teenage clerk talking about a winning lottery ticket for $318,000,000. Shaw learns that the winning ticket belongs to a Brunswick family named Boatwright and he immediately develops a daring scheme: He and Romeo will hold the family hostage and demand half of the money.

At first, Shaw’s plan seems silly — especially since he seems to be making it up as he goes. However, within an hour, Shaw’s vague scheme has evolved into something complex, methodical and deadly. Shaw invades the Boatwright home and forces the father, Mitch Boatright, to inform the lottery officials that he and Shaw are dual winners ... and old friends. Concocting a story about their meeting at a crisis center where Mitch was a counselor, Shaw has a series of interviews with the media and begins to acquire the trappings of a cult hero — especially when he announces plans to give “his share” away.

In the meanwhile, Shaw has given Romeo a map with the homes of all of the Boatwright relatives marked on it. Romeo drives a continual circuit, enduring the stench of rotting possum (which he thinks is the pervasive smell of Brunswick). He is linked to Shaw with a cell phone. Romeo has instructions to call Shaw at specific intervals, and if Shaw fails to answer, Romeo is to start killing Boatwrights, including a grandmother, in-laws and close friends. “Just kill whoever is nearest,” instructs Shaw.

Eventually, the strange bond between Shaw and Romeo begins to acquire a deeper, disturbing character. Shaw is accustomed to assuming the role of leader while Romeo is the devoted servant, committed to performing his master’s orders without question. As Shaw attends press conferences, church services and rallies with the helpless family, the lonely, introverted Romeo continues to drive his endless circuit. Finding himself the center of attention and with a growing cult of admirers, Shaw becomes increasingly irrational and manic. Romeo, “the angel of death” with a .22 pistol, begins to feel abandoned and spirals toward self-destruction.

Perhaps what is most disturbing about Ravens is the alterations in the Boatwright family. Mitch, the father (and a religious man) becomes increasingly fatalistic and submissive; his alcoholic wife begins to fantasize, seeing Shaw as her future lover; Tara, the teenage daughter oscillates between sexual lust and a desire to murder Shaw; and Jase, the young son gradually becomes Shaw’s disciple, eager to supplant Romeo. For each character, the unrelenting tension and danger of their trapped lives forces them to confront their own unnatural fears and yearnings. Eventually, the Boatwright family and all of their friends willingly submit to Shaw’s control.

Although the foregoing details do not appear to be comic, Ravens has an abundance of dark humor. Finally, if the reader makes a few grudging concessions, there is even one character who qualifies as a hero ... of sorts. Burris, the old, obese policeman, who is referred to as “Deputy Dawg” by his fellow officers, becomes suspicious and questions the clerk at Chummy’s. Despite the ridicule and contempt of his superiors, he launches an investigation of Shaw and Romeo. Ironically, when all of the other characters are filled with indecision, it is Deputy Dawg who perceives a way to bring peace and resolution to this kinky, terrifying tale.

Ravens, which will be published this month, has been “anticipated” for 14 years. George Dawes Green published two prize-winning novels, The Caveman’s Valentine and The Juror in 1994-95. Then came this lengthy silence. Advanced critical response indicates that Ravens is well worth the wait.

(Gary Carden is a writer and storyteller. His recent writings can be found on his blog,

Ode to the Sylva Coffee Shop

Most small southern towns have a place like The Coffee Shop in Sylva — a cafe that has become a local landmark.

I hopped curb here in 1950 when it had a wooden frame exterior and the jukebox had both “Put Another Nickel In” (Theresa Brewer) and “A Fool Such As I” (Jim Reeves). At night, the parking lot was always full of WW II veterans in souped-up cars. Sylva was “wet” and life was good.

Just up the street, the Ritz had just begun showing Sunday movies and I never missed a Cagney, Mitchum or Bogart. I got my salary docked every Sunday because I insisted on seeing the final 15 minutes of the movie before I came to work for Cicero Bryson. I would stand in the back of the theater with the door open, and when the credits started sliding down the screen, I would run like hell.

Now, 60 years later, The Coffee Shop has morphed into a kind of nostalgia museum where you can eat breakfast, lunch and dinner under the benevolent stares of multiple John Waynes, Clint Eastwoods, Dale Earnhardts and The Three Stooges. There are tattered Confederate flags, Robert E. Lee and his generals, James Dean, Bogart, Elvis and Marilyn frolic in period shots of drive-in cafe parking lots and all-night restaurants (a parody of Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks”), their images interspersed with vintage Coco-Cola signs, Uneeda Biscuits ads and hundreds of personalized license plates (RAMB-FEV, BADABANG, NOTKNOWWN POISINUS), with every state (and Aruba) accounted for.

Advertisements for fresh strawberry pie sit cheek to jowl with a seating section labeled “Police Officer Parking.” A collection of vintage pop bottles (Sunspot, Grapette) mingle with potted plants and birdhouses. Johnny Cash, a photo of the Brothers of the Bush (1950’s Centennial) and a photo of Popcorn Sutton. The sheer magnitude of this display causes visitors to stand, mouth agape, staring at the walls, while the constant clatter of spatulas, the sizzle of butter, bacon, hamburger, and the shouts of the “breakfast crew” mingles in a kind of grand, roaring symphony of sound, smells and color.

The majority of The Coffee Shop patrons are local. Elderly couples eat dinner here and the daily menu reflects local preferences: fried okra, cabbage, meatloaf, trout, slaw, potato salad. A significant number of Cherokees eat regularly, and there are the WCU college students who often stare about as they eat as though they had found themselves in an exotic, primitive village in Russia or Germany.

But The Coffee Shop endures, a primal life form that simply acquires an additional layer of scales and armor: a protective coating of ... history and pop stars, Uneeda Biscuits and Coke — a shield that deflects “the changing world.”

(Gary Carden is a writer and storyteller who lives in Sylva. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Humanizing literature

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. Dial Press. 277 pages

For readers who love epistolary novels, T.G.L.A.P.P.P.S. will prove to be a delight. In addition to containing bright and witty letters between a host of literate, comical and personable friends, this novel is saturated with a love for books and reading. At the heart of T.G.L.A.P.P.P.S. is a profound concept: literature not only educates, it also humanizes and elevates us.

At the end of WW II, Juliet Ashton, a successful and popular English writer (Izzy Biggerstaff Goes to War) prowls war-torn London in search of a subject for her next book. Since both the country and the people seem subdued and joyless in the aftermath of Germany’s devastating bombing raids, Juliet yearns for a topic that will restore confidence and optimism. At this point, she receives a “fateful” letter from a stranger living in Guernsey which is one of the Channel Islands between England and France. It is a letter that will change her life forever.

Dawsey Adams has found Juliet’s name and address on the flyleaf of a second-hand book by Charles Lamb, and he writes to inquire how he may obtain additional books by this author. As it happens, Juliet has written a book about Lamb and is an ardent fan of his writings. Thus begins an incredible correspondence that will eventually grow to include the entire membership of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society — a remarkable collection of eccentrics, misfits, intellectuals and pig farmers.

Juliet initiates a vigorous correspondence with the Society members — each of which has a story to tell about the five-year occupation of Guernsey by the Germans. The stories run the gamut from hilarious to heartrending. Eventually, Juliet knows that she has found the subject of her new book. She will do a detailed history of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

Gradually, the members emerge as distinct and vivid personalities. Among them are: Dawsey, the silent, brooding romantic who resembles Jane Austin’s Heathcliff; Isola Pribby, who lives with a parrot named Zenobia and eventually becomes a practicing phrenologist (she divines character from the bumps on your head); Clovis Fossey, who wins the hand of Widow Hubert with Wordsworth’s poetry; Amelia, the group’s most rational member and its mainstay; and Wil Thisbee, the philosopher (who has no use for Yeats). All open their hearts and bare their souls to Juliet Ashton.

However, the most powerful personality in the Society (and its founder), Elizabeth McKenna, never speaks, for she is dead — killed by the Germans in a concentration camp shortly before the end of the war. In time, Juliet learns that Elizabeth had a child by a German soldier, who later died at sea. The Society has become the child’s guardian. These scant facts about Elizabeth leave a number of unanswered questions. In time, Juliet will find someone to answer them all.

Eventually, Juliet’s fascination with the Society members brings her to Guernsey. Although her acknowledged motive is to complete her research, it quickly becomes evident that these people have become her dearest friends; she has come to stay. Although she continues to write letters to her publisher (and Susan, her best friend and confidante in London), Juliet concentrates on Guernsey — the land, the people and the awesome scenery. Each day brings additional questions and revelations. Who was the German soldier that loved Elizabeth? What are Todt workers, and what was Elizabeth’s relationship with them? Was there a witness to Elizabeth’s death? If so, are they alive? What does Peter Sawyer know about all of this? (He is willing to tell all for a stiff drink and a photograph of Rita Hayworth.)

Naturally, there is also a love story, and it is one that would rival Jane Austin since it is fraught with melodrama, misunderstandings and suppressed passion. (Juliet has an abundance of beaus, but they are mostly the wrong kind!). In addition, Juliet’s letters (written and received) sparkle with wit, literary references and ruminations on “the human condition.” This is a stimulating book. References to Oscar Wilde, Yeats and Miss Marple are interspersed with recipes, observations on goat farming, the Society’s minutes and reports, and factual data about the German occupation of Guernsey.

If The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society isn’t already a best seller, it soon will be. It pushes all the right buttons: sentiment, wit and history. Does it sometimes appear “contrived”? Oh, yes, but it works. However, as a recipe, it might be a little to heavy on the sugar.

(Gary Carden is a writer, playwright and storyteller who lives in Sylva. He can be reached This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and maintains a blog at

Recreating the past with nostalgic

Remembering Henderson County by Louise Bailey. History Press, 2005. 144 pages.

In Louise Bailey’s Remembering Henderson County, the author recreates the past with affection, nostalgia and humor. To me, reading any of her books (I’ve located six of them) is akin to sitting on my porch in the evening while the light fades and the hectic noise of traffic recedes, until it could easily be a century ago; rain crows call and the night wind is freighted with honeysuckle. Now, all I need is a cool sip of spring water from a gourd dipper. For me, reading a few pages of a Louise Bailey book is the equivalent of a refreshing drink from a mountain spring. I’m a little anxious about the results though. Water is not supposed to be intoxicating, but after reading Louise, I tend to get a bit light-headed and “fanciful.” This is an example.

In the chapter titled, “Who Are We Western North Carolinians?” Louise describes a conversation with a farmer near Flat Rock who bought one of the first Model T trucks (circa 1915) so he could haul produce to Laurens, S.C. “It had solid tires on the back and pneumatic tires on the front.” This model had no windshield and no curtains; consequently, on a hot summer night, a steady stream of bugs and insects peppered the passengers’ faces.

The farmer’s first run to Laurens was memorable. The roads were washboards and gullies that could easily warp an axel, and heavy rains often made them impassible or dangerous. Average speed was 10 mph. However, the most interesting aspect of the journey was the return trip. “The way the lights worked, if you had the motor running real fast, you had good light.” Inevitably, the T-model would slow and the lights would dim and go out.

It is easy to imagine what this trip would be like in moonlight. Progress would be slow, but what a wonderful experience, puttering through the moonlight ... a kind of

magical, dream-light landscape. Ah, but for this weary farmer, there is no moon. He stops and sleeps fitfully until daylight.

For me, this wonderful description of an interrupted journey reminded me of all of those analogies in literature for the creative impulse or revelation. I remember some old German poet that told a story that is similar to Louise Bailey’s description of a night journey home from Laurens.

The German poet was lost in “a dark wood,” and very frightened because a storm was brewing. Suddenly, there was a flash of lightning, and in that instant, the traveler saw the distant village, the church steeple and the roof of his own home. When he was once more in darkness, he retained a memory of where he was going and how he could get there. There are other famous brief “flashes of lightening” or momentary insights in which weary, disheartened travelers a nd poets suddenly “see” a world “behind” the darkness.

Maybe I’m getting a little carried away here, and I am definitely “embellishing” Louise’s story. However, I like the image of a Model T truck puttering through the dark At 10 mph. The lights have gone out, but for a moment, the moon swims from the clouds into the open sky and the Model T truck travels for a short time by moonlight.

Yes, I am “pushing the envelope” here, but that seems to be an apt analogy for a writer who sometimes travels by the magical but brief illumination.

To me, “traveling by moonlight” in a Model T is profoundly different from traveling by the “common light of day,” or its artificial equivalent (electricity). Maybe if I sit still on my porch tonight, maybe if I play a little Nina Simone, drink a little spring water and concentrate, I can, for a brief moment, be a passenger in Louise Bailey’s Model T. I’ll let you know what happens.

Death in the arctic

The Terror by Dan Simmons. Little, Brown and Company. 2007. 769 pages.

Dear readers, let’s begin by establishing two contrary conclusions regarding this massive, painstakingly researched novel: First, the writing in The Terror is masterful; it reeks of atmosphere, intrigue and suspense. Second, I cannot, in all honesty, recommend this book to readers who are troubled by a narrative that is steeped in unrelenting suffering and despair. Having said that, let me reiterate: The Terror is an astonishing work.

The Terror is a fictionalized (and fantasized) account of Sir John Franklin’s doomed expedition (1845-1848) to the Artic — purportedly, to find the illusive Northwest Passage. Initially, the expedition consists of two ships — The Terror (Sir John Franklin commanding), and The Erebus under Commander James Fitzjames. The two crews total 126 men. However, within a few weeks of reaching the Artic Circle, both ships are locked in a vast waste of ice. Artic nights are 22 hours long, and the temperature rarely rises above 50 below zero.

The hardship endured by the members of this expedition borders on the unbelievable: frostbite, gangrene, amputations (mostly feet and fingers), scurvy and before this tale is finished, cannibalism. Eventually, Franklin and Fitzjames discover that the ship’s canned foods have been poorly processed in London and the majority of it is spoiled and/or contaminated. As the daily allowance of liquor (grog) diminishes, the likelihood of mutiny increases. Coal is running out and the ice field surrounding the ships is expanding. A thaw seems unlikely, and as the “pressure” ice begins to literary squeeze the two ships to the point of shattering the outer hull, Franklin and Fitzjames reluctantly discuss the possibility that they might eventually abandon the vessels and attempt to drag sleighs loaded with diminishing provisions to a seaport or Esquimaux (19th century spelling of “Eskimo”) village. Success of such a venture is deemed unlikely.

However, all of these misfortunes combined do not represent a terror as great as “the thing on the ice.” There is something huge, white and deadly (much larger than a polar bear), which constantly circles the ships. Almost at its leisure, it snatches victims from the decks and even enters the ships, mangling and slaughtering its hapless victims. When the crew makes inept attempts to hunt or fish (all of the wildlife seems to have mysteriously disappeared), the “thing” murders the hunters, frequently beheading and disemboweling them.

In a series of terrifying encounters, “the thing” kills Sir John Franklin, slaughters three of the expedition’s four physicians and manages to snatch the majority of the trained seaman from the decks. Fitzjames dies of a combination of exhaustion, exposure and starvation. Eventually, the new captain of The Terror, Francis Crozier, attempts to marshal his forces and plan a retreat. Despite a demented, mutinous caulkers mate (who may be more dangerous than “the thing on the ice,” Crozier overcomes his own alcoholism and mental depression, unites the starving seaman of both ships and begins a painful (and pointless) journey.

Let me assure you that this synopsis barely scratches the surface of this novel. I haven’t mentioned Lady Silence, a beautiful Esquimaux girl who does not have a tongue. Considered a “Jonah” (jinx) by the seaman, she moves quietly among the starving men, managing to find food and shelter for herself in the frozen vastness beyond the ships.

During the latter half of The Terror, Francis Crozier emerges as one of the most engaging protagonists that I have encountered in recent fiction. After he becomes the official leader of the survivors, he frequently conducts religious services for the dead in which he reads passages from Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan. He also “hallucinates” and is blessed (or cursed) with “second sight.” (I’m not likely to forget the episode in which Crozier “channels” the infamous Fox sisters in upstate New York.) Suffice it to say that eventually, the reader will discover a mysterious link (or symbiosis) between Crozier, Lady Silence and the “thing on the ice.”

The Terror shows evidence of exhaustive research. This novel is packed with fascinating details about the Arctic and seaman, such as “growler” icebergs, ice that “screams,” Welsh wigs, the habits of Norway rats, seracs and a landscape that sometimes glows blue due to magnetism. There are deadly lightning and hailstorms, vibrating stars, a surreal “Carnivale,” (right out of Edgar Allen Poe) and tales of shaman who die laughing.

Most fascinating of all is a “Creation Myth” that bears a remarkable resemblance to the Cherokees myths about “the beginning.” However, author Simmons also presents a concluding episode that includes a grotesque parody of the Catholic Communion service that may leave readers stunned. If you read this one, please tell me what you think about the conclusion. Visit my blog:

Remembering Popcorn

To tell you the truth, when I read that some woman claiming to be Popcorn Sutton’s daughter was publishing a book about her legendary father, I was openly skeptical. Following Popcorn’s suicide on March 16, 2009, I surfed thorough a lot of sites on the internet where I encountered an astonishing number of references to alleged relatives (sons, wives, ex-wives and lovers) — all who were frantically working on their “personal recollections” of this colorful and fiercely independent man. The odor of shameless greed and b.s. hung in the air like the stench of a dead and/or offended skunk on the interstate.

Well, I was pleased and a bit humbled to discover that Sky Ann Sutton is the real thing. Born in Cocke County, Tenn., and currently living in Massachusetts (where she earns her livelihood as a New England historian), she grew up as the only daughter of a single mother. Sky readily acknowledges that most of her information about Appalachia has been gleaned from her mother’s Foxfire books. Even though her attempts to talk to her father (by phone) were disappointing, she was readily accepted by a host of Popcorn’s relatives, so she maintained contacts with all of them. As a result this book is filled with old photographs, marvelous yarns and testimonials of love.

Of course, none of the messages are from Sky Ann’s father. “Marvin Sutton and I have never been formally introduced,” she says. “I’ve been known to call myself Rumpelstiltskin’s daughter because if my father ever met me, he’d have to guess my name.” In evaluating her “paternal relationship,” she wryly concludes, “The only thing I was sure of was that my father had washed his hands of me.”

As a consequence, Daddy Moonshine resembles a scrapbook more than a biography. However, it is one hell of a scrapbook, filled with perceptive insights, hilarious anecdotes and poignant memories. There is a priceless collection of photographs and some of Popcorn’s raunchy stories would be at home in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

Much of my empathy for Rumpelstiltzein’s daughter is due to being an abandoned child myself (a father dead and a mother who left me on my grandparents’ front porch), so I sometimes sensed other emotions lurking beneath the surface of Sky’s narrative, including anger and frustration mixed with a powerful need for acceptance from her “lost family.” (It is also an acceptance that, regardless of how often or how freely it is given, it will need to be repeated again and again.)

Potential readers should be aware of a singular fact. Daddy Moonshine was written before Popcorn’s death. Indeed, Sky’s manuscript was at the printers when she received a “text message” on her cell phone. Sky immediately contacted the printers and informed them that she needed to add a few pages. That final section became a moving eulogy to the father she had never met. Quoting a woman named “Becky,” Sky concludes Daddy Moonshine with this quote:

“There’s no way of telling how many times Popcorn Sutton went to town and, quietly and anonymously, paid the light bill, the doctor bill or the drugstore bill for someone in dire need. He paid for several funerals, too, and left more than a few boxes of groceries on front porches in the middle of the night. Helping somebody wasn’t something he did for praise or thanks, it was something he did because that is what a man’s supposed to do. Do you suppose there is anyone who will do the same now that Popcorn’s gone?”

(Gary Carden of Sylva is a playwright, an author and has been awarded the North Carolina Folklore Award. He can be reached This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Daddy Moonshine by Sky Sutton. Northhampton, 2009. 156 pages

Carden’s views on Kephart have softened

As a struggling albeit brilliant writer, Gary Carden never turns down money.

So when an out-of-town man in a rental car appeared on Carden’s front porch offering a $1,000 down payment on the spot to write a play about Horace Kephart, Carden wasn’t about to say no. Carden was curious, however, what led the man to Sylva.

“He said ‘I’m told you are a remarkable playwright.’ Right away I was suspicious,” Carden recounted. When the man went so far as to call Carden “well-thought of,” it sealed that suspicion.

“I knew he was doing a snow job. I am not well thought of. I am eccentric and peculiar, so I said ‘Why don’t you tell me the truth?’” Carden said.

The man on his porch, Daniel Gore, was part of a growing cult of Kephart followers who have elevated the famed writer to folk hero status for his chronicles of early mountain culture. Gore, a musician, had written a collection of songs, called “Ways That Are Dark,” to accompany Kephart’s popular book, Our Southern Highlanders. Gore thought his CD would be the perfect soundtrack for a play, and he wanted Carden to write it.

Carden — who said he “owed everybody in the county” — took the man’s money and promptly went to town and paid bills and bought groceries. That night, he got to work on the play. An obsessive and incessant writer, Carden quickly churned out an opening scene. He cast aside the idea of fitting the play to the CD, but instead began writing a play about Kephart’s life.

Carden was no stranger to Kephart. As an authentic keeper of mountain culture, Carden has studied Kephart extensively. He finds fault in some of Kephart’s portrayals of mountain people. Carden sees Kephart as an “outlander” — someone who isn’t from the mountains but lays claims as an expert anyway — and proceeded to make that the name of his play.

Carden emailed the opening scene of Outlander to Gore, who soon reappeared on Carden’s porch. The scene simply wouldn’t do, Gore said.

Rather than a hero, Carden’s play portrayed Kephart as a drunken, broken man seeking a refuge from society in the Smoky Mountains, a “back of beyond,” as Kephart himself called in. By all accounts, Carden’s scene is exactly how Kephart arrived in the region. Kephart was famous among locals not for his writing that earned him so many accolades on the national stage, but for being a drunk. Gore wanted no part of that in his play, however.

“I told him ‘You can’t write about Horace Kephart without mentioning he drinks.’ It is the flaw that makes the man admirable. If he was perfect he would be boring as hell,” Carden said. “He was flawed, and it’s what makes people identify with him.”

Gore stood his ground.

“He said, ‘Try again,’ and left another check for $1,000,” Carden said.

After another trip to town for groceries — and a spending spree at the book store — Carden came home and got to work on the next scene. He emailed it to Gore, who once again balked.

“He said Kephart in the play has too many flaws,” Carden said. “I said ‘I am the playwright, you are the musician. I say this is a good play.’”

Carden told Gore if he was looking for was a “candy box” to wrap around the 12 songs of his CD, then Carden wasn’t his man. But Carden didn’t give up on the idea of a play on Kephart.

“I thought. ‘Hell I am going to write that play he didn’t want,’” Carden said.

As Carden toiled over the play, a strange thing happened. He started to like Kephart more and more. Carden once held Kephart in mild disdain. When Kephart fled his former life in St. Louis to hide out in the Smokies, he left a wife and six children behind. Throw in alcoholism and exploiting mountain people for book material, and Carden had plenty to hold against Kephart.

But Carden’s thoughts on Kephart softened as he climbed inside Kephart’s head to write the play.

“I will, just like any true native who lives here, grudgingly give Kephart his due,” Carden said.

Kephart’s tireless fight for the creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is ultimately what won Carden’s respect. The park’s creation was a long uphill battle, and Kephart’s role as an advocate was integral to its success. Kephart loved the mountains and was willing to fight for them, and Carden saw that.

“He was a catalyst that made things happen. That stubborn persistence that he would get up and go on, get up and go on,” Carden said.

Many people around Bryson City were against a national park that would claim their homes and land. They didn’t take kindly to Kephart’s advocacy for such a thing.

“Common sense tells you it must have hurt him deeply when people turned against him,” Carden said.

Half way through the play, Carden quit writing, however. It wasn’t unusual.

“I have a house full of plays I never finished,” Carden said.

In this case, Carden realized people might not want to face a humanized Kephart, a Kephart who wasn’t a folk hero but a just a man with his share of flaws.

“I realized, ‘Hell people would not let me do this play.’ So I shelved it,” Carden said.

But a couple years ago, Carden decided to resuscitate it.

“The hardest part was the last two pages. They took me six months,” Carden said. As Carden recited the ending from memory — a moving soliloquy beside Kephart’s grave on the hillside above Bryson City — Carden’s eyes misted up a bit.

Carden is still hunting for a home for his Kephart play. He has approached the Smoky Mountain Community Theater in Bryson City and Western Carolina University theater department, as well as several others, but so far has not found any firm takers.

Judging Kephart: Legacy of author, outdoorsman still debated

George Ellison never knows when a Horace Kephart pilgrim will come calling. But invariably, they will come — creaking up the wooden stairs that have smooth depressions worn into the treads from years of use — to Ellison’s second floor office where his writing desk overlooks Main Street in Bryson City.

Crude bookshelves tower around him, boards of various sizes straddling cinder blocks, packed cheek to jowl with an extensive library of nearly every book in print and out on the Southern Appalachians. The finish, if there ever was one, has long since worn off the wooden floor boards, and his writing chair is nearly threadbare.

Just around the corner 100 years ago, Kephart would have been found in a similar upstairs office, hunkered over a writing desk, penning passages on the wilderness and backwoods people who carved a hardscrabble living out of the mountains, and in his later years, tirelessly cranking out advocacy pieces calling for the creation of a national park in the Smokies.

Ellison himself first came to Bryson City more than 30 years ago on a quest of his own to learn about Kephart. Ellison was commissioned to write the introduction for a republishing of Kephart’s famed Our Southern Highlanders.

Little was known about Kephart then. What moved him to come to the Smokies and embark on a life in the wilderness among the mountaineers was a mystery. And much of his life still remains an enigma despite the best research by Ellison and other Kephart scholars.

After arriving in the mountains from St. Louis in 1904, Kephart took up residence in an old blacksmith cabin at an abandoned copper mine in Bone Valley, a sparse settlement high above Hazel Creek in what is now part of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Kephart not only immersed himself in the rugged mountain landscape, but in the unique breed of people he coined “mountaineers.”

“I became more absorbed in the study of my human associates in the backwoods. They were like figures from the old frontier histories that I had been so fond of, only they were living flesh and blood instead of mere characters in a book ... They interested me more than the ultra-civilized folk of cities,” Kephart wrote.

These were a “people apart” living in the “back of beyond,” according to Kephart, and he strove to become one of them.

“He knew how to immerse himself. When he went into a room, he didn’t try to assert himself. He asked for recipes or told a joke,” Ellison said. “He had time. He lived with them. If they didn’t say what he needed that time, well maybe they would next week.”


Over-reaching or spot on?

Kephart’s critics claim he painted the region with a broad brush in his acclaimed Our Southern Highlanders. While the characters in Kephart’s tales may have existed true to form, what about the mountain equivalency of landed gentry, living in painted clapboard houses with front porch columns, who wore starched white collars on Sunday and set their tables with china, and who sent their children off to college?

Instead Kephart’s characters were those living in steep hollows in poorly chinked cabins, wearing tattered overalls and threadbare socks, and relying on moonshine as their sole source of cash.

“He decided to take the qualities that many people would find offensive — pride, independence, suspicion of outsiders, clannish behavior, a propensity for violence, feuds — and romanticized them and made those qualities admirable,” said Gary Carden, a writer and Kephart scholar who lives in Sylva. “He compares them to clans of outlaws in the highlands of Scotland and Ireland. He was looking for the brigands and outlaws.”

While portrayed as poor and uneducated, Kephart’s backwoods characters typically triumph over their more educated counterparts. They show wit and cunning, strength and ingenuity in the face of adversity, and a wry sense of humor. They overcame a harsh environment to survive where others couldn’t.

Duane Oliver, a descendent of the very first settlers on Hazel Creek where Kephart took up residence, doesn’t fault the portrayals.

“He was a superb writer and historian,” said Oliver, 77. “He really loved these people and felt for them living on the backside of nowhere.”

Oliver hardly fits the stereotype promulgated by Kephart. His father was alternately an accountant, storekeeper and postmaster around Kephart’s old stomping grounds. Despite his early years in a one-room school house, Oliver studied in Europe and mastered in Greek and Roman art.

Oliver said Kephart’s writing wasn’t intended as a documentary on mountain culture.

“When you go to a place you find the colorful people to write about. The problem is when you read his book you think those are the only people who lived there, that everyone was ignorant and made moonshine,” Oliver said. “What my mother always said about him was he just wrote about the drunks.”

The people he chose to describe, however, he did so accurately.

“They were true to form,” Oliver said.

The problem, however, is that the outside world believed Kephart’s broad brush applied to all mountain people.

“The characters that emerge from Our Southern Highlanders are not representative of mountain life and folkways as a whole,” said Jim Casada, a popular outdoor writer who hails from Bryson City and is yet another Kephart scholar. “I think he fell into the trap of writing to sell.”

It’s no secret Kephart spiced up his writing. Ten years after Our Southern Highlanders was first published in 1913, Kephart added several chapters at the behest of a publisher: one on feuds, one on a bear hunt and three on moonshining. After all, it was the era of Prohibition, and the nation was fixated on alcohol.

“They said ‘Now you’ve got it Horace. We can sell this,’” Carden said.


A master observer

There’s one point on which Kephart critics and admirers agree: Kephart deserves accolades for his study of mountain dialect.

“He had a great appreciation for mountain talk,” Ellison said. “He had a wonderful ear.”

Kephart filled reams of pages in his journals with examples of the unique local vernacular. When it came time to write Our Southern Highlanders, Kephart produced rich and lively dialogue thanks to his years of careful notes. He clearly admired mountain talk and countered the notion that it was somehow less sophisticated. He in fact argued that it was more sophisticated. For example, Kephart recorded nine different phrases used by the same man when Kephart greeted him. His casual reply when Kephart asked what he was up to was alternately conveyed as “santerin’ about, brougin’ about, spuddin’ around, shacklin’ around, loaferin’ about, cooterin’ around, prodjectin’ around and traffickin’ about.”

“And yet one hears that our mountaineers have a limited vocabulary,” Kephart wrote.

Even Carden admits Kephart’s skills as an anthropologist were excellent.

“His assessment of people was rational and scientific. He treated them as a species to be studied,” Carden said.

Kephart’s depiction of mountaineers offered invaluable insight for government surveyors and appraisers orchestrating the massive upheaval of people to make way for the park.

“They were very well-versed in Kephart. They all had a copy of the book,” Carden said.

Even in the 1940s, when the creation of Fontana Lake would again force the exile of people from their homes, farms, churches and schools, Tennessee Valley Authority employees gleaned insight from Kephart’s pages before they embarked.

“They were cautioned they had to work with the local people, Appalachian people, and that they were a different people,” Carden said. “They were all given a copy of Kephart so they would understand who they were dealing with.”


Local color goldmine

When Our Southern Highlanders published, locals could have been offended by Kephart’s characterizations and cast him aside. But they didn’t know to do so, Carden said.

“The number of local people who read the book was so paltry,” Carden said. “Kephart had a distinct advantage. He knew they wouldn’t read it. They weren’t going to write a retort. They couldn’t contradict the portrait because they didn’t know it existed. He had a free hand. He could take liberties, and he admitted that.”

His audience was the literate elite of the time, “wealthy people like the Rockefellers who shared his concern that the wilderness was vanishing,” Carden said.

There was an en vogue school of writing in the early 20th century known as “local-color” writing. Authors played to regional eccentricities, peppering their books with real people and anecdotes that played up differences in attitude and speech. If his intention was to capitalize on that literary era, Kephart had stumbled into a goldmine.

Fitting in at first couldn’t have been easy, however. Ellison believes Kephart ultimately proved himself useful to his remote neighbors.

In a place with no doctors, Kephart knew enough first aid to set a broken arm or treat a goiter. He could write letters and address envelopes for those who couldn’t read. If Kephart was on a walk and encountered someone fixing a tub mill, he would stop to help, Ellison said.

Kephart was an excellent cook, indoors and out. He earned a place on many a bear hunt and fishing trip by the graces of his outstanding culinary skills over a campfire. Kephart’s book on backcountry cooking, Camp Cookery, was one of his most popular.

A profound expertise of firearms also got him a long way.

“He was a noted authority on guns and even had at least one patent on a bullet design,” Casada said, calling him “a true pioneer in ballistics.”

And he was, of course, an expert on outdoor living. Kephart’s book Camping and Woodcraft has been in continuous print for nearly a century, remaining the most popular outdoor how-to book ever written. Casada, who has a Ph.D. in history, wrote a lengthy introduction that appears in today’s editions of Camping and Woodcraft.

Casada believes Kephart learned by trial and error, partly from his youth in the rural West and his weekend escapes outside St. Louis as an adult. Casada thinks Kephart was an introvert, and therefore took to the woods as escape.

“He loved being in a backcountry camp around the old-time hunters and fishermen, but he also savored solitude. A lot of his time was spent in one-man camps in the ‘back of beyond’ as he put it,” Casada said.


‘A losing battle’

Critics of Kephart usually derail him for being an outsider — or outlander, as Kephart himself would say.

“There is a great distinction between being in the mountains versus of the mountains,” said Casada.

Casada has been chastised and threatened by Kephart’s descendents, demanding he cease his negative portrayal of Kephart. But he won’t.

“I am not an iconoclast, but I am not willing to ignore the past,” said Casada. “It is not that I am a great foe of his. I greatly admire him and empathize with him. I also find decidedly repugnant parts of his character.”

Chiefly, Casada finds fault in Kephart’s alcoholism and the fact he left a wife and six children behind in St. Louis when he moved to the Smokies in 1904. While Casada extolled Kephart’s outdoor skills in his introduction to Camping and Woodcraft, and later nominated Kephart to the American Camping Hall of Fame, Casada said he cannot forgive Kephart for abandoning his wife and children.

While Kephart’s flaws are more widely known today than even a decade ago, Casada believes Kephart’s elevation as a folk hero will win out.

“We are fighting a losing battle to reflect what the man truly was, someone of wonderful abilities but also with great shortcomings,” Casada said.

Casada and Carden can’t seem to shake Kephart from the pedestal he’s been placed on. This year Bryson City is throwing its first annual Horace Kephart Day. Casada offered several times to be a speaker for the event but was ignored. Carden was unable to garner a spot on the program either.

“A tremendous number of mountain people speak reverently of Kephart, almost as though he was a prophet,” Carden said.

Meanwhile, the North Carolina General Assembly embedded glowing praise for Kephart in a resolution honoring the 75th anniversary of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

But others still harbor a deep resentment, not only for doing mountain people an injustice in his portrayals but for his hand in creating the park.

“Every time I had my hair cut in Bryson City I would say ‘Tell me about Kephart,’ and the barber would cuss the whole time he was cutting my hair,” Carden said. “I discovered that a lot of local people had a grudge against Kephart. They held him responsible for the fact that their grandparents had lost their land, that they had to move out for the park.”

Indeed, that’s what Commodore Casada, now 99, thought to himself whenever he saw Kephart walking down the street.

“There goes that feller that’s for the park,” Commodore remembers thinking. He was a public character in town, so nearly everyone recognized him, although he walked around with his head down, seemingly sullen most of the time,” said Commodore, the father of Jim Casada.


The grips of alcohol

Kephart’s tendency to over-imbibe was well-known in Bryson City, according to Jim Casada, who gleaned first-hand accounts over the years from those who knew Kephart, particularly the owners of the boarding house where he lived in town for years.

“Every time he got a letter from his wife you could count on him going on a weeklong drunk. He wasn’t troublesome. He would go in his room, stay in his room and get drunk,” Casada said.

Everyone assumed his wife’s letters were importuning him for money, given the passel of kids she was raising on her own, Casada said.

Whether or not Kephart sent money, we’ll never know, Casada said. It’s likely Kephart didn’t have much to spare, despite being a regular contributor to numerous outdoor magazines. Kelly Bennett, the owner of a downtown drugstore and park proponent, bought Kephart a suit for a trip to Washington, D.C., to speak on behalf of creating the park.

Kephart once wrote he had little use for money “beyond what is needed for books and guns and fishing tackle.” Disdain for a lifestyle that revolved around money was a recurring theme for Kephart. “People seem to get no satisfaction out of anything but chasing after dollars without let-up from year to year,” Kephart wrote in his ever-popular book Camping and Woodcraft.

Why Kephart left his life in St. Louis and sought out the Smokies will always be a mystery.

“You can’t put someone on the couch 100 years later and psychoanalyze him, but something happened in St. Louis, perhaps a concatenation of traumatic events, and he never got over it,” Casada said.

Kephart had garnered national fame as head librarian of the St. Louis Mercantile Library for more than a decade, but his growing penchant for extended camping trips, and possibly his drinking habits, led him to lose the job.

Around the same time, he had a falling out with his wife. There are minor hints of infidelity on his wife’s part, but they are far from conclusive.

At the same time, it seems city life had become oppressive.

“He said he was running from what he called ‘the maddening cities of babble,’” Carden said.

The mid-life crisis even included a “half-hearted attempt” at suicide, according to Ellison, who attempted to piece the story together. Ellison would find a line from a letter here, a newspaper account there. There were just enough morsels to postulate a theory, but not enough to know definitively — the perfect combination for yet another rollicking debate among Kephart scholars.

Kephart wrote a short autobiography in the 1920s, but it offered little insight into the traumatic personal events that precipitated his flight to the Smokies. Kephart wrote simply: “my health broke down,” and on another occasion called it “nervous exhaustion.”

Kephart wrote he was “looking for a big primitive forest where I could build up strength anew and indulge my lifelong fondness for hunting, fishing and exploring new ground.”

Ellison believes Kephart thought back to a pure time in his life, his childhood in rural Iowa.

“He got it in his head that if he could find a place where life was being lived as it had when he was growing up, he could go there and put his life together,” Ellison said. “He probably did find one of the few places in the early 20th century that met the requirement that he was looking for. I think it was probably dumb blind luck that he found the place he needed.”


True intentions

Whether Kephart set out to exploit the backwoods people of the Smokies for characters in a book will never be clear. Was his motive merely to start a new life, or find a place to launch his writing career?

Ellison believes Kephart always wanted to be a writer. In fact, he had been writing for magazines for a decade prior to his move to the Smokies. Kephart offers his own account of his motives in the following passage in Our Southern Highlanders:

“When I went south into the mountains I was seeking a Back of Beyond. This for more reasons than one. With an inborn taste for the wild and romantic, I yearned for a strange land and a people that had the charm of originality. Again, I had a passion for early American history; and, in Far Appalachia, it seemed that I might realize the past in the present, seeing with my own eyes what life must have been to my pioneer ancestors of a century or two ago. Besides, I wanted to enjoy a free life in the open air, the thrill of exploring new ground, the joys of the chase, and the man’s game of matching my woodcraft against the force of nature.”

But Carden wonders whether Kephart concocted the image of himself as an explorer as a clever bit of revisionist history. It made a better story for the public, not to mention a book publisher.

“I began to feel early on that he hadn’t come to be like Thoreau and back nature into a corner and reduce it to its lowest means,” Carden said. “Kephart said he had picked this place on a map as being one of the most remote sections of the United States and had come here to live. But I got the distinct feeling he came here to die.”

Carden points to the first-hand account of Granville Calhoun, the “squire of Hazel Creek,” who initially put Kephart up in an extra room in his house.

When Kephart disembarked from the train at Hazel Creek, Calhoun claims he not only couldn’t walk but kept falling off the mule. Calhoun and his wife nursed Kephart back to health. Kephart’s symptoms as described by Calhoun sound vaguely like severe withdrawal for a serious alcoholic, and the subsequent recovery like a period of detox.

Accounts claim that Kephart stayed sober for his three years on Hazel Creek, and didn’t return to the booze until taking up residence in town.

Perhaps Kephart knew, and perhaps he got lucky, that the Smokies would have a nearly instant and profound affect on him, both physically and spiritually.

“What ever happened to him saved his life,” Carden said. “He stopped drinking and got healthy, started hiking and was excited and enthusiastic about everything he saw. This place virtually saved his life.”

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