A portrait of an Appalachia upbringing
For those of you who don’t know her, Julia Nunnally Duncan is an award-winning freelance writer and author of 11 books of nonfiction, fiction and poetry who is a native of Western North Carolina whose hometown is Marion.
I have known her for years through her work in literary magazines and, of course, her books.
In her new book of essays “All We Have Loved,” which is inspired by her childhood, her family and her hometown and dedicated to her recently deceased mother and brother, we get a vulnerable and detailed slice of smalltown Southern life. Everything from a mother’s offering of snow cream after a rare blizzard, her husband’s training of a red-tailed hawk, her great-grandmother’s wedding ring that conceals a troubled marriage, and a rural life filled with crows, copperheads, hornets, horses, and even a lynx. But all these storied themes and more are offered by Duncan to bring forward the universal themes of family love and the attachment to a place. In this sense, “All We Have Loved” is an intimate portrait of a woman’s life spent in Western North Carolina, with its unique culture and traditions.
Written like a conversation with friends and family members in a quiet cafe over cappuccinos or spiced chai, Duncan’s stories bring back memories of my own life growing up in small rural towns here in the Smokies with our outhouses and woodstoves. Memories that also include sharpening a pocketknife with a whetstone that I always carried around with me, as did her father until recently, but like her father still keeping it handy. And her stories about her grandmother’s vegetable garden and the one that Julia grows now every year, reminding me of almost 50 years of my own vegetable gardens. “Today when I work in my roses or plant my vegetable garden, I think about Mama Davis and hope I can live up to the legacy she has left me,” she writes.
One of my favorite chapters — “The Years Flow By” — takes me back to my younger years and my love for the writing of Thomas Wolfe. Duncan takes us on a trip to Asheville and to Wolfe’s Old Kentucky Home on North Market Street, and then to the Montford Historic District and Wolfe’s burial site at Riverside Cemetery, after which we’re treated to “An Evening of Poetry and Music” at St. John’s Episcopal Church and ending the day with an open mike event over coffee and hot chocolate at Malaprop’s Bookstore & Cafe. She also writes about another local author, John Parris, who wrote a column in the Asheville Citizen-Times for many years.
“Every Sunday, my father and I sat together and read the Asheville Citizen-Times. After we perused the funnies, we found John Parris’ column ‘Roaming the Mountains’ that told of the mountain people and their traditions,” she writes.
On other trips to Asheville and environs, she visits the Old Fort Cemetery in Old Fort and the large statue of the marble angel that’s referenced in Wolfe’s novel “Look Homeward, Angel” and, then, to the historic Battery Park Hotel in downtown Asheville.
Another favorite chapter for me was the one she writes about Cherokee, reminding me of my boyhood years in Graham County and my Cherokee friends who lived on the Snowbird Reservation there:
“When I was a girl, my parents and I would drive two hours to Cherokee in the mountains for a summer weekend getaway. This was the 1960s, offering a main drag of small gift shops that sold deerskin and elkskin moccasins, feathered headdresses, toy bow and arrow sets and Oconaluftee Indian Village crafts.”
Duncan also takes us on a visually descriptive ride along the Blue Ridge Parkway before taking us back home in the chapter “Those Golden Years,” where she reminisces about her youthful years and describes her homeplace thusly:
“Mountains surround the McDowell County home that my husband, Steve, and I share with our daughter, Annie. The woods are dense with oaks, poplars, dogwoods, and pines, and the air is pungent with the scent of galax. Evening comes early here in the shadows of the trees, and even on summer days, the breeze off the creek in front of our house is cool. I often think back on those golden years of good friends, blue skies, colorful autumn leaves, and a cool nip in the air.”
But there are many more specifically detailed and engaging stories in Julia Nunnally Duncan’s new book, especially if you are not from here and are looking for a picture of rural Appalachia over the years. Or as Duncan writes in the Introduction to the book: “The memories of all we have loved — a place, family, and lifelong experiences — are never dead. And, I, too, believe it is worth our while to gather these memories and treasure them. I hope the reader will find my gathering of such memories enjoyable and compelling.”
(Thomas Rain Crowe is an internationally published author, editor and translator of more than 30 books, including the multi-award winning nonfiction nature memoir “Zoro’s Field: My Life in the Appalachian Woods” (2005). He lives in the rural enclave of Tuckasegee in Jackson County.)