Thomas Crowe

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bookSpartanburg poet and nonfiction writer John Lane has broken out of his comfort zone and journeyed into the netherworld of the novel and Appalachian noir. Joining company with Ron Rash, Charles Frazier, Wayne Caldwell, Wiley Cash, Pam Duncan and David Joy, Lane has maybe even raised the bar a bit by dovetailing the upstate South Carolina textile mill culture with that of the Western North Carolina farming communities. Talk about conflict! In Fate Moreland’s Widow, conflict crosses state lines and cultures and embodies the tensions and inequities in characters redolent of the haves and the have-nots and of labor unions vs. the business elite on both sides of clearly drawn lines.

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“At times I think there are no words

But these to tell what’s true

And there are no truths outside the Gates of Eden.”

— Bob Dylan (“The Gates of Eden”), For Michael Davitt and Sam Gray, in memory

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At a time when weather and the environment is making all the news headlines and is rendering hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people homeless around the globe, rather than burying our heads in the proverbial sand we need, instead, to consult with the experts in order to get answers to our questions about global warming, pandemic diseases, overpopulation and the like.

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bookWhen people ask me what I’ve been doing this fall, I tell them I’ve been on a reading jag — reading new novels hot off the press. What I’ve found is that there have been a lot of very good books that have come out in the last year, including some by some very talented new writers who are just coming on the scene. 

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bookAs I write this, I am wondering if I should disqualify myself from writing a review about a book written by someone I know. But in this case I must write, and trying to be objective, let you know that something special has been born among us here in the mountains of Western North Carolina. Alongside a rising tide of great books written by the likes of Charles Frazier, Ron Rash, Wayne Caldwell, Wiley Cash … there’s a new kid on the block. His name is Will Harlan and he lives in Barnardsville. 

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Not too long ago there occurred an unlikely meeting of the minds. Sylva developer John Beckman and Whittier farmer William Shelton sat down in the back of Sylva’s Spring Street Café with maps and blueprints to talk about the issue of disappearing farmland in the mountains of Western North Carolina.

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Now is the time for all good men and women to come to the aid of their county.

Ask not what your county can do for you, but what you can do for your county.

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bookWith its title Colony Collapse Disorder taken from a recent mysterious collapse of honeybee populations in North America, Keith Flynn’s new collection of poems, while being entirely prescient in terms of the current social-political-economic situation here in the U.S., is anything but only local or nationalistic.

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bookAs the poet Yvan Goll lay in a hospital in Paris dying of leukemia, a continuous line of some of the most celebrated artists and writers of the first half of the 20th century formed to donate blood to keep Goll alive while he struggled to finish his final volume of poems Dreamweed. With the blood of poets and painters coursing through his veins, he completed his masterwork and quickly died.

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Since the publication of Wiley Cash’s debut novel A Land More Kind Than Home earlier this year, I have been listening to the buzz of conversation about this “remarkable new book” written by a Western North Carolina native. The book seems to be on everyone’s lips. Finally unable to resist my own curiosity, I bought a copy so I could see for myself what all the fuss was about. It only took the first few pages until I was hooked.

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bookFrom the foothills of the Southern Appalachians, and in the tradition of such spiritual classics as Gurdjieff’s Meetings With Remarkable Men, comes Carolyn Toben’s Recovering a Sense of the Sacred: Conversations with Thomas Berry at a time that is not only propitious, but providential.

Maybe once every hundred years someone emerges from the shuddering mass of humanity who speaks to us with a kind of clarity and wisdom that is universally profound. Father Thomas Berry is such a figure. He was born and raised in a lush and verdant part of the country where nature and beauty trumped progress and development. In this place and in a special meadow near his boyhood home near Greensboro, the seeds of a universal vision for the earth and humanity were cultivated and nurtured — seeds which grew eventually to become a vision that is biblical in its insights, wisdom and compassion.

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I’d never read a horror-fiction genre book in my life. That is, until I found myself at an author’s event last month at Blue Ridge Books in Waynesville talking with Eric Brown about his recent book about Bigfoot (Sasquatch) set “here in the mountains over near Lake Fontana.” Being a sucker for tales of Bigfoot and Bigfoot mythology, I was immediately interested and asked for a copy of the book.

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For those who don’t know, James Still (1906-2001) is one of the most beloved and influential of all Appalachian writers. He left an enduring legacy of novels, stories, and poems during his nearly 70-year career. He is known formally and to many writers in the region as “the Dean of Appalachian Literature,” or more simply said “the Godfather of the Appalachian Literary Tradition,“

Originally born in Alabama, Still adopted eastern Kentucky as his home during the early years of the Great Depression. Life in Kentucky and the Cumberland Plateau became an integral theme in Still’s work, which evokes Appalachian culture, language, and landscape. Although best known for his novels and poetry, Still was also a prolific short story writer whose works often appeared in prestigious journals such as the Virginia Quarterly Review, Yale Review, and Prairie Schooner, as well as general interest magazines like the Atlantic and the Saturday Evening Post. When Still died in 2001 at age 94, he had secured a lasting reputation among readers of Appalachian literature based on a relatively small number of literary works.

The Hills Remember honors Still with the first comprehensive collection of his short fiction. The book includes stories from other Still collections such as River of Earth but also includes several lesser-known stories as well as 10 stories which have only recently been discovered and that have never-before been published. Ted Olson, who teaches in the Appalachian Studies and English programs at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, Tenn., will be familiar to readers in Western North Carolina from his reviews, etc., as editor of the Poetry Page of Asheville’s Rapid River monthly magazine. Olson, in his landmark book, writes a comprehensive introduction concerning Still and his work and examines the author’s short fiction within the contexts of his body of work and within the canons of Appalachian and American literature. In his introduction, Olson favorably compares Still’s short fiction to that of other notable American writers as Poe, Hawthorne, Hemingway, Welty and Cheever. Presenting all of Still’s compelling and varied short stories in one volume, The Hills Remember is a testament to a master writer.

Still’s stories in The Hills Remember are distinctive in style and universal in theme. Still’s stories in this collection stand out as evocative and timeless yet remarkably accessible to the general reader. Simply said, these are “tales from the soul of Appalachia.” Not until recently with the writing of Charles Frazier, Wayne Caldwell and Ron Rash has the spirit of James Still and the mountain South been unleashed to a whole new generation of appreciative readers. And with Ted Olson’s new book of Still’s short stories, we can look for a whole new wave of popularity among a new and larger generation of Still fans — much as he was a household name in Kentucky during the 1960s.

If asked to choose amongst the 53 short stories in this collection, I would be hard-pressed to choose only one as an out-and-out favorite. However, the story “Hit Liked To a’ Kilt Me” stands out in my mind as one that is unique in this book as well in all of Appalachian literature. It is all about how this story is written in the dialect of what Appalachian poet (and friend of James Still) Jim Wayne Miller called “Southern Mountain Speech.” James Still is the only Southern writer, to my knowledge, who attempts to literally duplicate the southern mountain dialect. The title of this particular story being indicative of what the reader will find in his reading of this rich and at times raucous poetic language.

In the book’s title story “The Hills Remember,” a crowd gathers near the bank of Troublesome Creek to watch the villain of their Kentucky hill-town lie back in his own blood after being accidentally shot in the back. In its telling this story thrusts forward the universal themes of good and evil, right and wrong, and fate and chance. On the other end of the spectrum, in the story “Mrs. Razor,” Still gives us a whimsical story about six-year-old Elvy and her fantasy life as a wife and mother. “Mrs. Razor” gives us a glimpse into a child’s world of pretend and offers a heartwarming look at the relationship between father and child. In “Horse Doctor,” a young boy accompanies his father (Still’s father was a horse doctor with no official training) on a visit to a sick mare at a neighbor’s farm. Through stark prose and subtle imagery, the story reveals the naivety of the young narrator and explores the intricate relationship between Appalachian neighbors and families.  

In one of Still’s most loved stories, “The Nest,” a young Nezzie Hargis becomes lost during a snow storm. In a seemingly unfamiliar terrain of isolation, in actuality Nezzie is never far from home. As she painfully struggles to find her way in the blinding storm, we see Nezzie mature from childhood innocence to adulthood. And in the story “Brother of Methuselum,” Still focuses on his character Uncle Mize, who by a strange twist of fate begins to grow young again at the age of 103 — his hair and teeth return, he props his walking stick in a corner, and he tosses his glasses away. “Brother Methuselum” explores the theme of immortality while offering us a story of Appalachian mysticism.

In a book that is endorsed on the University Press of Kentucky’s handsome cover by Appalachian luminaries Ron Rash, Loyal Jones, Gurney Norman, Chris Offutt and Jeff Daniel Marion, this is a must read for anyone who is “from here” or that has embraced the Appalachian mountain region as their own. We will learn more about ourselves than we knew and will be the better for having done so. The Hills Remember rests, as we speak, on my bedside table. It will remain there until I have read it from cover to cover — one story, each night, at a time. There is no better way to read a book of short stories. And this one’s a classic.

(Thomas Crowe is the author of the award-winning memoir Zoro’s Field: My Life in the Appalachian Woods and lives in Tuckasegee. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

The Hills Remember: The Complete Short Stories of James Still edited by Ted Olson. University Press of Kentucky, 2012. 406 pages.

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Rose McLarney grew up in rural Western North Carolina, where she continues to live on an old mountain farm. Daughter to a somewhat legendary biologist who founded the international conservation organization ANAI, she is a female reflection (a generation or two removed) of Kentucky farmer/poet Wendell Berry.

Her work poems have the pith, the profundity, the probing of Berry’s, and yet she is very much her own muse, making a new poetry that ever since her appearance on the Western North Carolina scene a few years back has raised the bar for all other poets who have taken note of her range of subject matter and her crafting of the language. Since then, she has gone on to earn an MFA degree from Warren Wilson’s Program for Writers and now teaches writing at the college. Her poems have appeared in The Kenyon Review, Orion, New England Review, Asheville Poetry Review, and others. She has been awarded various poetry prizes and teaching fellowships and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. In recent years she has worked locally with the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project based in Asheville. Clearly, with this first book, Rose McLarney has arrived.

I remember those early Asheville appearances and thinking that she, of all the young poets testing their wings alongside older “birds” at various literary events, would make her mark. And she hasn’t disappointed. In fact, she has taken the dictum of William Carlos Williams’s “ideas/images only in things” and catapulted that idiom into a new poetic stratosphere. To use her own metaphor, one could say that “some years there are apples.“ And in 2012, The Always Broken Plates of Mountains is a ripe, juicy apple indeed.

“The (Southern Appalachian) hills stabbed with sumac” have been Rose McLarney’s home for her whole young life. And her knowledge of the place shows in her observations and metaphors regarding nature and simple farm life. As she says, “It makes you want to cross your arms to stop the machines.” And her first book, here, is a reflection of her commitment to the rural landscape and lifestyle to which she is wed — from the striking head-on view of horses plowing on the front cover to the poems inside that are sparse and present on the page.

In essence, the 45 poems in this book are love poems. In some ways, it’s a book of love poems to nature, rural farm life, and to some lucky man. With a stern matter-of-fact tenderness, these poems, at times, take your breath away.

As if writing on old wormy chestnut boards rather than paper, in the poem “Poet” McLarney compares a poet to a dog with cataracts. Similarly, and in much the same way as her image of “buffalo stabbing their horns into rolls of hay,” McLarney addresses her subject matter — crafting her metaphors with stabbingly rich, romantic detail. Always referencing her own life experience and the places and people she knows best, McLarney conjures lines such as these from the poem “Covenant:” I’ll choose a love, as I choose my home,/an old white farmhouse, not far from where I grew up.  

From my own life lived here in these same mountains, I recognize much of what she describes. Yet her lithe and facile descriptions are better than my memory. But it’s not enough to just generalize or pontificate about this young poet’s proficiency. McLarney is a young poet who is not, like so many of her peers, a master of the obvious, but who is a miner of cleverly coy emotions disguised as words. Here, amongst high hills, hellbenders and heartbreak, is a woman emerging — like Venus from a shell — into the physical world of work which is poetry.

 

NEGATIVE

When the calf dies, he buries it

with the tractor. He is sorry,

but there are vultures.

Afterward, the mother

bellows at the tractor,

suspicious of the steel bucket

that brings her hay.

And I think most of how I love him

when I sleep alone, and lie awake,

imagining how tractors overturn,

and animals are angered –

what could keep him away.

What’s most noted are the cold body,

the cold machine, and the place left empty,

though the field is daily filled

with a herd of thousand-pound animals

seeking shade from the sun under willows

and steaming in the rain.  [pg.26]

 

In this poem and in the one titled “Where I Will Live,” nowhere is McLarney more on target regarding the love poem theme in this collection. Again, here in the final stanzas of the poem, she reminds me of Wendell Berry.

 

So people could try to grow

on the good land, he says, they built

in the hardest places.

I bought the farm. I’m moving in

to the house, beyond the barn,

on stonier ground. He’s come to help me

feel at home.  

 

But McLarney is not a one-dimensional writer. She has many tricks up her sleeve, and many voices. In the long three-section, five-poem poem “Before Me,” she takes on the voice of an old mountain woman from previous generations who is living secluded in a hollow on a mountain farm. In looking back on these past generations, she returns to her own voice in heartfelt humility in the poem “Disclaimer” to say:

 

It’s the talk of people past

I continue,

though I am an inexact student, unfaithful

to the details.

I think they would forgive me

for what I do with words,

like a new girl, who can only

sign her name with an X. 

 

In what may be her signature poem in this collection (“Epilogue”) and like the wise old women in that poem, I truly enjoyed “setting a spell” with these poems that “make a magic of slowness” [pg.70] here amidst “the always broken plates of mountains.”

Rose McLarney will be at City Lights Bookstore in Sylva on Friday, April 13 at 7 p.m. to read from her new collection The Always Broken Plates of Mountains.

The Always Broken Plates of Mountains by Rose McLarney. Four Way Books, 2012. 70 pages.

Thomas Crowe is the author of the non-fiction books Zoro’s Field: My Life in the Appalachian Woods and The End of Eden: Writings of an Environmental Activist, and a recent collection of poems placed in the Southern Appalachian mountains titled Crack Light. He lives along the Tuckasegee River in Western North Carolina.

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Just when we all thought that Ron Rash had taken his Southern Appalachian noir novels to the limit with Serena, he comes back with not only a topper, but creates a new fiction genre in the process. Rash’s new novel, The Cove, like his previous fiction, is set in the mountains of Western North Carolina. In this case, he’s taking his readers over the mountain from Haywood County to Madison County in and around the town of Mars Hill. While this story is a “mountain mystery” and a page-turner in the vein of his latest novel and his recent short stories, it is written in a softer tone, a slower pace. In fact, it’s a love story that is all about timing and the intricate details from which a good yarn is spun.

In a book where the saying  “timing is everything,” proves to be providential,  Rash has written a lovely, sensitive tale. Who would have thought that on the tails of Serena, the Duke of Dark Tales would have, could have gone in this direction? In The Cove his “new” tone of language and the storyline are consistent throughout, including the symbolically imaginative Hawthorne-like naming of his characters: Laurel Shelton (a reversal of Shelton Laurel), Ledbetter, Weatherbee, Bettingfield, Lingefelt, Lusk. And first names: Doak, Slidell, Tillman, Boyce, Jubel. This is an Appalachian chorus line of characters who add their own patinas to this portrait/landscape painting of a World War I version of Romeo & Juliet.

A young woman (Laurel) isolated in a remote cove that is “nothing but shadow land” on the outskirts of Mars Hill who is considered by local townsfolk to be a witch — due largely to the cove’s history as being “cursed” and because of a peculiar birthmark on her skin — comes across a drifter camped out on the family land. With a haunting flute melody, like the birdsong of a Carolina parakeet, wafting through the woods from up along a rock outcropping above the family farm, she goes to search out the music’s source. (Rash later describes the stranger’s flute music: “It wasn’t so much a soaring sound but something on the song’s surface, like a water strider skimming over a creek pool.”)

While Rash drags out the meeting of the two main characters with a tantalizingly deft touch, when the two finally do meet it is love at first sight — at least for Laurel, whose prospects for marriage and a helpmate to keep up the old mountain farm are near to nonexistent. The drifter turns out to be an escapee from a World War I internment camp for German prisoners in Hot Springs, which is something that Laurel and her brother don’t find out until the end of the book when Rash shifts gears — after a long courtship between Laurel and the flute-playing stranger —and the book becomes “a mountain western” complete with a local saloon, posses and search parties, lawmen and lunkheads, and of course the corn liquor.

In the telling of The Cove’s story, Rash’s language is purer, more poetic. His “touch” is softer, more finely honed. Using local language and a lusciously restrained libido, Rash’s telling is reminiscently Shakespearean. “He’s already tallied my gone hand against me,” Laurel’s brother Hank says, explaining to himself his future father-in-law’s attitude concerning his upcoming marriage. “I’d as lief not have him beading its barrel on me,” says Hank later in the book, referring to the stranger who has been brought from the woods into their cabin after nearly being stung to death by yellow jackets with “the welts on his neck and chest arguing at least as much poison as a copperhead bite.” “I need to get the daubing off you. They’ve drawn what poison they will. Besides, like Hank said, you don’t want to be mistook for a bobcat,” Laurel says to the stranger when he finally comes to consciousness and finds himself inside the Shelton cabin.

When it is revealed that the stranger is mute, Laurel remarks: “Not being able to talk … I’d think it could make you feel a lavish of aloneness.” In this literary-littered telling of a familiar tale, there’s even a lovely nod to our local-boy-made-good Thomas Wolfe when Rash slips Wolfe’s father into the storyline. One of the book’s main characters, Chauncey Feith, wanders into Wolfe’s tombstone and monument business building and carries on a conversation where reality and fiction overlap like parallel universes.

 

… as he walked toward Grant’s Pharmacy, Chauncey noticed the two-story brick building with W.O. Wolfe Tombstones and Monuments painted on the storefront … Someone coughed inside the shop and a few moments later an old man, tall and gaunt, stooped through the open doorway, his hands and leather apron smudged with white dust. “W.O. Wolfe at your service, sir,” the stonecutter said, and made a slight bow. “How may I assist you?” “Do you make monuments of real people?” “I do,” the older man replied, “although, as you can see, more often creatures of the celestial realm.” “And why is that?” Chauncey asked. “Perhaps they wish an image of what they aspire to be instead of what they are,” the stonecutter replied. “The better angels of our nature, corporal as well as spiritual. I can assure you, young squire, from my own humbling experience, that as we grow infirm and life’s pleasures pale we long to free ourselves from these sad declining vessels. But enough of such dispiriting parlance. An old man’s morbid reckonings are not usually the concerns of youth, nor should they be.” The stonecutter paused, licked the tip of his thumb and rubbed it on his apron, allowed a wan smile. 

 

In the book’s suspenseful and nail-biting conclusion, the timing in actions and events in the last 20 pages give new meaning to the word “irony” with the Romeo and Juliet-like Shakespearean ending stretching minutes into what seem like hours and with mere seconds making all the difference in the world. Ron Rash, in this book and with this ending, has become a master clock-maker. With impeccable timing, meticulous craftsmanship, and flawless design, he has given us yet another mountain classic. One which, to the squeamish, will be much more palatable, perhaps, than previous books. One can only imagine what Ron Rash will come up with next as part of the traveling magic show that he conjures with each new book.  

Thomas Crowe is the author of Zoro’s Field: My Life in the Appalachian Woods, an award-winning non-fiction memoir published by the Univ. of Georgia Press. He can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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In a tale set to the tune of Johnny Ace’s “Never Let Me Go” that’s told as if shown through a vintage Bell & Howell movie projector and with an odor of McCallum’s scotch from a previous century on a Roadhouse floor, Charles Frazier is back. At just the right time of year — when goldenrod and Joe Pye weed are in full bloom here in the North Carolina mountains, just as it is in the book — one wonders if the scheduled (Sept. 27) autumn release of Nightwoods is some kind of publishing coincidence or something planned. Timing is everything.

In what can only be called a dark trip down memory lane reminiscent of Tim Winton’s Dirt Music, or Ron Rash’s Serena, complete with rape, murder, incest, crime and cursing, it might seem callous or insensitively strange to say that reading Nightwoods was “fun,” but it was. And it must have been fun for Charles Frazier to write, as well — going back and dragging up the past of his mountain boyhood — just a ridgeline or two over from where I, too, was growing up at the same time. Reading his descriptions and references sent me straight back to my own boyhood. All the memorable 1950s and 60s references are there: old Nash Ramblers, Cheerwine and moon-pies, bootleggers, illegal bars in dry counties, summer vacations at Myrtle Beach, hand-cranked ice cream, no TV reception, two and three digit phone numbers, The Pied Piper, Jack and the Beanstalk, Royal Crown pomade, rabbit-foot key chains, vast national forests, Hurst shifters with an eight-ball, drive-ins, dowsing sticks, Cherokee fish weirs, Indian trails marked with stone cairns and trail marker trees, swimming holes and swinging bridges, The Stroll, fist fights and drunken brawls, Butternick patterns, “the usual afternoon temperate-rain-forest showers,”  radio stations you couldn’t pick up until dark, The Ventures, Oldsmobile Rocket 88s, straight razors and thick oiled strops, histrionic hairdos …. This book’s characters and props — as strange as they may seem to outsiders — are believable to anyone who grew up in the rural Southern Appalachian North Carolina hills in the early to mid-1960s.

Written in a new voice which is markedly different from his previous two novels — a combination of a foul-mouthed narrator and god-like all-knowing omniscient observer — this book puts Frazier somewhere in the background completing his own sentences. In Frazier’s night woods, “every day is its own apocalypse.” With “dread filling the pages like floodwater rising,” we follow Luce and her dead sister’s two kids, who rarely speak and prefer bread and butter pickles and ketchup to anything resembling a full and well-balanced meal. To say that these two kids are “picky eaters” would be a gross understatement. Frazier’s tale, here, is a kind of Billy Goats Gruff played out in cornfields turned into Brer Rabbit briar patches, full of “big swellings and recedings upturned and downturned sweeps linked in slow rhythms.”

“Living at the ass-end of nowhere” on the backside of a lake (that could be Fontana Lake over in Graham County) in an abandoned and aging old resort lodge (that could be Snowbird Mountain Lodge), we find the story’s central character, Luce, merely “hanging in there, like a hair in a biscuit” and living out a bit of old mountain wisdom that professes to “keep out of sight from the bullshit of everyday commerce and use money as little as possible.”   

What I want mostly, Luce said, is the ability to whistle the song of every bird in the area. Imagine holding every bit of it in your head at one time, this whole place, down to what the salamanders are doing every month of the four seasons.

But her reclusive lifestyle and anti-social philosophies quickly change when she is charged with the care of her young nephew and niece, who have been haunted into a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) by their past. As Luce becomes more omnipresent and outgoing, so do the story’s background plots darken — like “a shade of superman black that never grew out of any earthling’s head.”

Like bumblebees take to basil, Frazier is focused on driving this plot-line forward — in an old Ford pickup truck with sideboards — through “weedy pastures in need of cows” and “sad times when heroes pay high money to bootleggers,”  all to the foreboding background music of Jimmy Rogers’ “TB Blues.” As the plot builds and the sky literally darkens overhead, and with everyone in the story pursuing each other (yet running in different directions while often lost), and with the “past looming,” Frazier, out of concern for his characters, wonders “when you’re on the wrong road, don’t you turn around and go back?”  

But there’s no turning back in this tale and the story weaves its way to the end, where it becomes a kind of backwoods version of Stephen King’s The Shining, where “even Jesus, meek and mild, might give payback a passing thought.” Yet, in the book‘s final pages, Frazier writes a scene of an all-male hunting party on the mountain that is so realistic and so Red Skelton funny in its gallows humor that it offers the reader a timely and much-needed reprieve from the deadly plotline, while creating its own denouement.

Somebody says, I never did confidence your blue tick much. Jones says, Can we keep the local-color shit to a bare minimum?

The talk swirls back around to shared memories and other useless bullshit. Baseball games back shortly after World War I, how somebody dropped a fly ball or hit a home run in the ninth inning. Ridicule and glory. Men who weren’t in those particular games doze off sitting up, then come back to consciousness. Deep in the night, the snow thins down to just a wet flake or two falling into the circle of light and melting away.

In this and in other unrelated instances Nightwoods has some surprising, if lovely, Shakespearean moments “where new love’s bells jangled like in a fire engine.” Lovely in the sense of unexpected moments that are show-stoppers, stopping time in its tracks and calling attention to itself. In a similar way, Frazier entertains us with his skill as a craftsman and with language and lines that might be better served as country songs. Lines like “Might as well be carrying a dead body through the aftermath of a flooded henhouse” and “It’s so nasty most of the time at my place, I wouldn’t even eat a walnut that rolled across the floor.”

The person who gave me the advance copy of Nightwoods I read in order to write this review, said it was a “fast read.” I wondered at the time what he meant by that. Now I know. A “fast read” is a good read. It ends too soon. Nightwoods ended too soon … Snip, snap, snout. This tale’s told out.

Nightwoods by Charles Frazier. Random House, 2011. 272 pages.

(Crowe is the author of Zoro’s Field: My Life in the Appalachian Woods (non-fiction) and Crack Light (poems). He is Associate Editor for the Tuckasegee Reader and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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In an expanding spotlight of regional and national acclaim, three of Western North Carolina’s own have distinguished themselves by penning novels that have shed new literary light on our region. In what must be an unprecedented literary flourish of recent novels all set in the environs of a single western county, Charles Frazier, Ron Rash and Wayne Caldwell have, as the saying goes, “done Haywood County proud.”

Multiple literary award winners all, Frazier, Rash and Caldwell have put place at the center of their fiction writing and have brought national attention to these mountains in such a way not seen since the first half of the 20th century when Thomas Wolfe, a native son of Asheville, took the United States by storm with his brilliant novel, Look Homeward, Angel.

The old post-Civil War adage of “the South shall rise again” has, at the turn of this new millennium, proven to be something of a twice-told tale in the mountains of Western North Carolina. In their novels Cold Mountain (Frazier), Serena (Rash) and Cataloochee (Caldwell), these writers have brought not only accolades and high praise, but world-class fiction to our doorsteps and into our homes here in Haywood and Jackson counties. And what is maybe most remarkable is that in writing about this place, all three are “from here.” Not outsiders who have moved to these mountains from somewhere else, as is usually the scenario concerning literary success and subject matter, but all three of these writers have family roots deep in Western North Carolina soil. In that sense we can all be proud and can truly say that these are “local boys who have made good.”

While, individually, each one of these authors and their books are wonderfully unique, they do all share some common ground. All three of these stories are set in rural landscapes, and in fact are centered, specifically, in Haywood County. All three have to do with the theme of outsiders coming into the mountains and bringing with them the destruction of both place and culture, and in this sense are more epic tellings of the “Beauty and the Beast” story. All three are tragedies in their own way. And all three draw on longstanding classic literary traditions and authors to tell their respective tales.

In the case of Cold Mountain, Frazier’s “beast” is the Civil War and primarily the “northern invaders” who have wreaked havoc upon the hinterlands and homesteads of these hills. In Serena, Rash’s beast is manifested in the large timber companies from the North that have come into the mountains to claim, consolidate and clearcut the land and lives of their inhabitants. And in Caldwell’s wide-sweeping and to-be-extended epic Cataloochee, we are early in the book introduced to the “iron beast” of the railroad, which is symbolic for what is to come and what that “beast” will bring into Western North Carolina from the outside in the form of the federal government and the National Park system, which will, ultimately, uproot and displace hundreds of local families and communities.

As to literary lineage and classics we can connect and compare them to, each of our three authors comes from good stock. In Cold Mountain, Frazier has taken Homer’s Odyssey and re-set it in 19th century Western North Carolina to tell his tale of an epic journey. Rash has gone to the shelves of Shakespeare and found a copy of Macbeth and has written his tale in the genre of tragic drama. And Caldwell has chosen to emulate none other than Tolstoy with his wide sweep of history and characters, his train, and the over-riding theme of social inequities and defense of the local peasantry. All three writers see the local through the same lens as did Homer, Shakespeare and Tolstoy.

In general, we can say of these local-boys-made-good that each of them is a major writer with major New York publishers (Atlantic Monthly, HarperCollins and Random House), and each has written a best-selling book on the world stage. These writers know their fictional characters intimately from the inside out, having heard the essences of their stories from family members, passed down through the generations — all three coming from strong oral history backgrounds and cultures here in the mountains. As I said, and I can’t emphasize this enough: they are from here.

Serena is the most recent of the three books placed in Haywood County to appear on the radar screens of local readers, having been published this fall, while Cataloochee was first released in 2007 and Cold Mountain came out in 1997 (which doesn’t seem that long ago). I can remember talking with Ron Rash after a reading he gave at City Lights Bookstore in Sylva about a year and a half ago — when he was still writing Serena — and asking him where he’d gotten the seed idea for the novel from which he had just read a section to a full house.

“It was when I was up at the Highlands Biological Center in Highlands giving a talk a year or so ago, and I had noticed a cross-section of a large chestnut tree that had been varnished and was on display there. This tree, I was told, had been cut during the big timber boom in the first half of the last century. This made an impression on me, and I immediately began doing some research and reading about the logging industry here in Western North Carolina in order to learn more about it.

“It wasn’t long after that, I was driving through Haywood County in the neighborhood of where my novel would eventually take place, and I had a vision of this woman on a white horse up along a nearby ridgeline. This experience was profound and almost immediately I knew that the woman on the white horse was the central character for my book on the logging industry here in the mountains during the Great Depression.”

Unlike any of his previous three novels, all set in the Southern Appalachian region and borrowing from more traditional Southern writing styles, Serena takes a huge about-face and moves more in the direction of a book parented by the unlikely union of Cormac McCarthy and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. In a tale as dark and unforgiving as anything McCarthy has entrusted to paper (with the possible exception of his recent post-apocalyptic novel The Road), Rash, in a style which is as much film script and libretto as literary prose, tells the story of an unsympathetic heroine (who is not from here), a “Lady Macbeth,” whose ambition for wealth and power cuts a large swath of death and destruction through the western North Carolina landscape. In telling this tragic tale, Rash draws not only from some great characters and scenes from Shakespeare’s plays, but from his earlier life where he had earned a regional reputation as a poet. The metaphors and similes are literally oozing from Serena’s pages:

He drank again and finished off the bottle. He sat in one of the Coxwell chairs and closed his eyes, waited for the whiskey to take hold. Pemberton hoped the half-quart was enough and tried to help it along. He imagined the thoughts seeking connection in his head were like dozens of wires plugged into a switch-board, wires the whiskey would begin pulling free until not a single connection was possible.

In a few minutes, Pemberton felt the alcohol expanding in his skull, the wires pulling free, one at a time, the chatter lessening until there was no chatter at all, just a glowing hum. He closed his eyes and let himself sink deeper into the chair.

Along with the clinically cold Lady Macbeth-like heroine of Serena, Rash juxtaposes his haunting story against lighter scenes reminiscent of Shakespeare’s servants and shepherds, rogues and ruffians, fools and heralds meant to entertain the locals in the pit of the old theaters. In Serena these scenes are played by members of a logging crew up along the ridges of Cove Creek that is overseen by a man we only know as Snipes, who is a kind of Appalachian Falstaff. Instead of the streets and taverns of London, Rash’s scenes take place in a steep slash-and-burn landscape on Shanty Mountain. We are entertained by exchanges of Appalachian Mountain dialect and wit that Rash surely must have heard from his kith and kin growing up. They are as real and as true to form as anything I heard growing up over in Graham County in the 1950s. These plot-line “asides” by Rash’s band of brigands — Snipes, Ross, Henryson and McIntyre — lend a much-needed levity to an otherwise relentlessly dark tale. Likewise, Rash’s injections of haute language (les mots etranger), a la Christopher Camuto’s Another Country, not only raises the bar in terms of the quality of the writing but lends a bit of spice to the overall taste of the work. Here, Snipes is talking about McIntyre from Chapter 19 in the book:

“Maybe that’s what’s wrong with Preacher McIntyre,” he said. “He growed up in the most way-back holler in this country. He told me once it was so darksome in there they had to use a crowbar to get any light in.”

Similar to Rash’s “creation myth” for Serena, I recall Charles Frazier telling me one evening in the Captain’s Bookshelf in Asheville that his second novel, 13 Moons, set over in Swain and Jackson counties and published in 2006, came from a supposedly true story he had heard about Will Thomas. (The model for the book’s central character of Will Cooper is the historically real person of Will Thomas, who was once-upon-a-time Chief of the Cherokee Eastern Band). They say Will Thomas used to sit on his front porch over near Whittier and take pot-shots at tourists as they rode by on the train. (The symbolic train motif, again.) Similarly, Frazier had fashioned Cold Mountain from stories and pictures envisioned from tales he had heard from or about members of his own family and distant relations. While not quite the dark “runaway train” that is Rash’s Serena, Frazier’s Cold Mountain, placed in a setting at the end of the Civil War, is also full of shadowy characters and harsh realities taken from the pages of bygone days here in the Smoky Mountains of the Blue Ridge. Yet Frazier’s American brand of magic realism is couched in a cushion of poetic lyricism that gives the book a more fluid feeling than Rash’s staccato and more theatrical style. Both work marvelously, yet in their own uniquely individual ways.

 

From Cold Mountain:

An owl hooted from the trees beyond the creek. Ada counted off the rhythm of the five-beat phrase as if scanning the lines of poetry: a long, two shorts, two longs. Death bird, people said of the owl, though Ada could see no reason why. The call was so soft and lovely in the slaty light, like a dove’s cry but with more substance to it. Waldo bawled at the gate, impatient, needin — as so much did in the cove — the things Ada was learning to do, so she took her hands from the ground and stood.

Cataloochee, Wayne Caldwell told me recently over dinner in Asheville, is a long historical work, many years in the making and covering a time span of four generations from 1864-1928.

“It’s the historic prelude that led up to the government’s confiscation of land in Madison and Haywood counties — by hook, crook and eminent domain and displacing hundreds of mountain families, including some of my own people,” he said. “This story runs in my blood, I guess you could say. And it’s a part of regional and national history, like the removal of the Native peoples, that has been largely ignored, forgotten, and I felt was begging (me) to be told. The sequel to Cataloochee, which I‘m working on now, will get more into the politics and the actual displacement of mountain people.”

While Caldwell’s Cataloochee is more realism than the magic realism that the other books are built on, and is dominated primarily by a sense of social history, it is really driven by the language, by dialogue and dialect. This is a language Caldwell knows well, being Western North Carolina born and bred. Caldwell’s is a prose that lingers. Lingers through a clearer picture of everyday domestic family life. In this sense, it is more about detail than high drama. A much kinder, gentler Haywood County than is portrayed by his two contemporary literary cohorts. And the Carter/Banks family, which we follow through four generations, speaks to us through a story of human-scale realities and experiences that is almost timeless in its sense of rootedness and place.

If Caldwell hasn’t lived much of what he writes in Cataloochee, then he surely was paying attention to the stories and the speech he grew up around. Such prodigious passages as this one permeate the 349-page book:

Jack Carter was far from dark-minded, but had inherited a streak of what his mother called “worriment,” along with her conviction that while a body ought not hunt for trouble, nonetheless he should be watchful, for woe walks up and down in the world. It was 1928, the first day of October, the time of year yellow jackets turn ill. Nearly ready for winter — apples and beef cattle sold, firewood stacked in the dry — yet weather too warm to kill hogs. The in-between, a time when man thinks he deserves some rest, but woman knows none awaits.

In many ways, the biblical “Garden of Eden” theme runs through each of these three great books. Each one comes at it from a different angle and perspective. In the end, it’s about what has been lost, what has been taken from these mountains. “Blood crying from the ground,” as Caldwell puts it. Reading the books written by these three authors and set in our mountains of Western North Carolina gives one pause, gives one reason to contemplate (“to study” as one of their characters might say) what has been the price of so-called “progress” during the various invasions that have taken place in these hills in the last two centuries. It began with the invasion of the Europeans and the displacement of the Indian peoples, followed by the Civil War (and the invasion of the Union armies) and the invasion of the “Yankee” logging companies coupled with the incorporation of the National Park System in the Smokies in the first half of the 20th century, and continuing on to today with the recent invasion of large developers and their gated communities for second homes. All the while, as Caldwell’s character Preacher Noland says at the end of Cataloochee, “It’s brother against brother and father against son,” as those of us who remain here, with our great writers Frazier, Rash and Caldwell in our midst, work hard to hold on to what little bit of “Eden” still remains.

(Thomas Crowe is a poet and writer who lives in the Tuckasegee community of Jackson County. His latest book is The End of Eden: Writings of an Environmental Activist published this fall by Wind Publications. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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There are books that get your attention, and then there are books that GRAB your attention. The new book by Bill McKibben (author of The End of Nature and founder of the 350 Movement) is of the latter variety. Not only does it grab your attention, but it keeps it there. It takes possession of all your faculties from the first paragraph: “Imagine we live on a planet. Not our cozy, taken-for-granted earth, but a planet, a real one, with melting poles and dying forests and a heaving, corrosive sea, raked by winds, strafed by storms, scorched by heat. An inhospitable place.” To the last: “Eaarth represents the deepest of human failures. But we still must live on the world we’ve created — lightly, carefully, gracefully.” And even then, the contents linger, like the moisture of a heavy dew on a late spring morning.

Part naturalist and part science geek, McKibben’s book The End of Nature, published in 1990, was one of the first on the subject of global warming and was a warning for what might be in store for the planet. Now he is back, looking in hindsight and with scientific evidence to verify his former predictions and to confront us all with the implications for life on this planet for the indefinite future.

Eaarth, McKibben’s new name for the old planet Earth, is comprised of four chapters. The first two chapters delineate the problems we have created for ourselves as a result of our negligence in protecting our environment and in our mad rush towards progress at the hands of unregulated free-trade capitalism. The final two chapters outline and address ideas and methods that might see us through this myopic tunnel we’ve created for ourselves.

The first half of the book is staggering in its onslaught of facts and figures and substantiated scenarios, all of which are too real to be deflated with any sort of self-protective denial. Yet, McKibben’s writing style is casual, friendly, and even soothing, so as to allow the almost overwhelming deluge of damning information to mix gradually into one’s consciousness and become (un)comfortably part of one’s own personal organic perspective.

The whole of the book Eaarth revolves around the number and metaphor 350. 350 being the number of parts-per-million of carbon that can sustain, barely, life as we know it. In the first chapter, McKibben reminds us again and again that we have exceeded that plateau by a fairly large margin and are still moving in a destructive direction that may lead toward possible extinction.

He takes serious issue with the ideals of free-trade capitalism, free (meaning unchecked) enterprise and big corporate conglomerates. He is emphatic that bigger is not better. He cites extreme weather, rambling spills and deluges, crops withered and washed away. In parallel and for satirical effect, in chapter four he references herbicides with telltale names like Warrior, Extreme, Prowl and genetically engineered grain crops named Reactor, HeatShield, RayFighter. He points an accusatory finger at Big Oil and Big Coal, saying that the days of cheap gas, cheap energy and cheap food are over, and that we better be prepared to hunker down and start conserving all of the above — which will be considered almost luxury items and will be harder to come by on the new planet Eaarth.

In chapter two McKibben gets into the areas of growth, overpopulation and sea rise. He says that in the last century growth and expansion were the prevalent ideological model for almost everyone. Now, he says, we have expanded to maximum capacity of what the planet can carry and so our mindsets must change. He says that in the overpopulated world we now live in we must start thinking about conserving rather than compiling.

He is certain that bailouts, such as the one recently instituted by the Obama administration to counter the economic crisis, are not going to fix our future problems.

Rather, “I think the system has met its match. It is going to take a concerted effort to change our perspective, our habits, and our goals for living on our new Eaarth.” He gives specific examples as to where we are over-indulging and what we can do to cut back.

After a hundred pages of “bad news,” McKibben, in chapter three, starts building his ideological bridge toward what is at least a semi-sustainable future. Like the Pied Piper, he takes us into uncharted territory. “Slow down,” he says. Think local. Think small. Think steady. “Better to have solar panels than a power plant. Better to have a Fortune 500,000 than a Fortune 500.” For McKibben, “maintenance” is the mantra we need to take into the future — “like a man who grows old and begins to alter the color of his hair.” Think: clean air, clean water. Think: “peahens not peacocks.”

In chapter four McKibben takes his new intellectual prototype and plants it firmly and literally into the earth. He spends many pages debunking the myth of the advantages of corporate farming and agri-business while advocating decentralizaton. McKibben offers readers a strategy for a future that replaces rampant lethargy with community work specific to place. He speaks of work comprised of fresh knowledge and old wisdom, referring to the social dynamics of the future.

“Diversity,” he proclaims, “not all our eggs in one basket. Leave room for eggplants, too.” “Work horses, not race horses,” he cries, as he lobbies for an ethic that embraces a focus on steadiness and stability, not youth. “Hunker down,” he calmly rants. “Dig in.” Think edible gardens. Think: a potato on every plate.

Finally, Bill McKibben comes ’round to his idea of how the future will look in terms of the human network. Embracing the technology of the computer as a means for global communication and sharing of ideas, meaningful skills and shared work, he imagines Wa-el in Beirut, Samantha in Johannesburg, Ely in the Congo, Govind in Delhi, Able in Malaysia, all in conversation as part of a process working to stabilize the destructive aspects of our cultures and industries. This, he says, is the architecture for a new world. “We are, and will be, fighting similar battles. We need to be focusing on that which can survive. All that’s green. Keep fighting. Limit the damage. There is hope. But, go lightly, carefully, gracefully.”

At the back of McKibben’s Eaarth there is a 30-page bibliography. This is critical reference material for the future, if we are to continue our ride on this bucking bronco of a planet. Enough reading for a lifetime. What that ‘lifetime’ for the human race will be will be determined by how seriously we embrace the challenge of a changed planet. Eaarth is a must-read for Ecophobes and Ecophiles alike, and a book for everyone with enough compassion to want what is best for their grandchildren and many generations to come.

Thomas Crowe is the author of Zoro’s Field: My Life in the Appalachian Woods (Univ. of Georgia Press) and The End of Eden: Writings of an Environmental Activist (WindPublications) He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet by Bill McKibben. Henry Holt & Co., 2010.

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