A stirring story of America’s push west

Sometimes we open a book, slip into its pages, and find ourselves the recipients of three wonderful gifts: information and enlightenment, lively prose, and a great story.

The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West (Simon & Schuster, 2019, 330 pages) grants all three gifts to its readers.

A few good books about old times

In 1960, when I was in elementary school, the pop group Dante & the Evergreens rocked my young ears with two hit songs on the radio: “Alley Oop” and a little later, “Time Machine.” (Both songs are available on YouTube. Have some fun and give them a listen.) In “Time Machine,” a young man sees a picture of Cleopatra in a book, falls in love with her, and vows to build a time traveling “thingamajig.” Here is the song’s refrain:”

Trying to define Appalachia and the South

Who speaks for Appalachia?

That is the question implicit in Appalachian Reckoning: A Region Responds to Hillbilly Elegy (West Virginia University Press, 2019, 421 pages). In this collection of essays, brief memoirs, and poems, editors Anthony Harkins and Meredith McCarroll bring together writers to address J.D. Vance’s bestselling memoir, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. Some of these writers attack Vance for acting as a spokesman for Appalachian America, a title Vance doesn’t claim, some defend him, and a few seem aggrieved or jealous because he has earned a big name and big bucks from his memoir. 

Book examines stark example of racism

On February 12, 1946, just hours after his discharge from the Army, Sergeant Isaac Woodard got into an argument with the driver of the Greyhound bus he was taking to his home in Georgia. In the small town of Batesburg, South Carolina, the driver parked the bus, found Lynwood Shull, the local police chief, and asked Woodard to step from the to speak to Shull. Within minutes, following an altercation with Shull, Woodward lay in the Batesburg jail, permanently blinded by the beating he took from Schull’s black jack.

Writing to heal the wounds of war

June 2019 marks the twentieth anniversary of The Smoky Mountain News. At the party celebrating this landmark in the paper’s history, Tom Baker introduced himself to me. Tom is the author of The Hawk and the Dove, historical fiction covering military conflicts from the time of the Vikings to the Vietnam War. As Tom, his wife, and I visited, they told me about a writing therapy program for veterans, particularly those with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Books helps us understand our own history

“We need to know what kind of firm ground other men, belonging to generations before us, have found to stand on. In spite of changing conditions of life they were not very different from ourselves, their thoughts were the grandfathers of our thoughts, they managed to meet situations as difficult as those we have to face, to meet them sometimes lightheartedly, and in some measure to make their hopes prevail. We need to know how they did it.”

— John Dos Passos, cited in the epigraph for Wilfred M. McClay’s Land Of Hope

Loving every word of it, all 630,000

Let’s start with some basic mathematics.

For 20 years, I have reviewed books for The Smoky Mountain News. For some of those years, I shared the position of reviewer with that fine storyteller and playwright, Gary Carden. Occasionally, too, others like writer and poet Thomas Rain Crowe have published reviews in this space.

Sense of place is crucial to Hewson’s novels

Some novelists display a real talent for capturing a place in words and then bringing that “little postage stamp of native soil,” as William Faulkner called it, to their readers.

Pat Conroy’s Charleston novels evoked that historic city’s streets and buildings, the odor of its tidewater marshes and estuaries, the sounds of the city’s church bells, the ferocious heat of its summers, the taste of oysters and shrimp. In his Dave Robicheaux suspense novels, James Lee Burke takes us into the heart of Louisiana, its bayous and cotton fields, its music, its mix of Catholicism and age-old superstitions, its cool dawns and blazing noondays, the mingled smells of brackish water, boiled crawfish and wild flowers. In The Yearling, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings writes of the backwoods of Florida in its pre-tourism days, of green pastures, of scruffy pines and magnolia, of fetter-bush and sparkleberry, of sunrise “like a vast copper skillet being drawn to hang among the branches.”

A story of people becoming real

“Only connect.”

Though that line from E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End refers to human love and passion, his words also seem to describe the vital link between author and reader. “Only connect” is the goal of any novelist seeking an audience.

Deserving books that may pique your interest

On the red wooden chair near my desk, 14 inches high, is a mound of books waiting for review. Three or four of them have taken up residence on that red chair for months, clamoring for attention. Others are more newly arrived. 

Smokey Mountain News Logo
Go to top
Payment Information


At our inception 20 years ago, we chose to be different. Unlike other news organizations, we made the decision to provide in-depth, regional reporting free to anyone who wanted access to it. We don’t plan to change that model. Support from our readers will help us maintain and strengthen the editorial independence that is crucial to our mission to help make Western North Carolina a better place to call home. If you are able, please support The Smoky Mountain News.

The Smoky Mountain News is a wholly private corporation. Reader contributions support the journalistic mission of SMN to remain independent. Your support of SMN does not constitute a charitable donation. If you have a question about contributing to SMN, please contact us.