Although Americans are known for their wandering ways, traveling to California in Conestoga wagons, taking the train to find a place in Broadway’s spotlight, many also retain in their hearts a deep affection for a particular place. Whether that place is a Chicago parish or Mayberry RFD is immaterial. It is this beloved place to which we compare all the other cities and landscapes of our lives, this place which haunts, for better or worse, our memories, this place whose very name is a tsunami, a massive wave swamping us in a thousand names, faces, and events from a past as much imagined as it is real.
Boonville in the Yadkin Valley of Piedmont, North Carolina is my place. Though I only lived in that small town of 600 souls for less than eight years (by comparison I have lived four times as long in these mountains), it is the Boonville of my childhood which haunts my memories, which irrevocably stamped my personality. Say the word home, and the word Boonville floats up in my mind like one of those eight-ball answers.
Allen Paul Speer’s From Banner Elk to Boonville: The Voices Trilogy: Part III (Overmountain Press, 2010, ISBN 978-1-57072-329-2, $14.95) recreates the beauty and the enchantment of Boonville and the Yadkin Valley for the general reader (A caveat and a confession: Allen Speer was my friend during my Boonville adolescence, and remains a dear friend today). Comparing favorably Boonville and its environs to Tolkien’s Shire, Speer writes that “here are some of the words that best describe Yadkinians: practical, helpful, God-fearing, industrious, static, suspicious, confident, and reluctant to stir things up.”
By virtue of example rather than by such definitions, Speer also makes it clear that Yadkinians — a word of Speer’s creation, I suspect — also love storytelling. From Banner Elk to Boonville as well as the earlier two books in this trilogy — Voices From Cemetery Hill, which tells the story of Boonville’s Civil War era, and Sisters of Providence, which also tells that story from the viewpoint of the well-educated Speer women — revel in telling stories. There, for example, is the tale of the Halloween prank when a tractor was mysteriously gotten into the lobby of Boonville school (I was there, and saw it, and to this day marvel at the high school boys who pulled this one off); the stories of various Speer ancestors and townspeople; the coming of the Stammettis, owners of the Astoria Braid Mill who considerably livened up Boonville’s party life; the antics of people with nicknames like Nut, Roach, Marron, and Mouse.
Not all of From Banner Elk to Boonville is sunshine and roses. Speer shares the details of his battle against leukemia, a slow-acting lupus which he has fought for many years now. He also shows us the effect of the deaths of his grandfather and father on his spiritual and mental life. As a boy, he shared a room with his grandfather for several years, and found that after his grandfather’s death, he could no longer sleep in that room. His father, too, he deeply loved, in spite of Red’s fierce temper, and once again that death shattered him, casting him into a deep melancholy from which he took years to recover.
After college, unable to find work, Speer returned to Boonville, earned a little money painting houses, and eventually suffered a mental breakdown. His description of this psychotic episode, which he calls his “meltdown,” lies in some ways at the heart of the book as a defining, perhaps the defining, moment in Speer’s life. His crackup culminated in his attempt to walk from Boonville to Boone, some 60 miles away. He ended his journey only a few miles outside of Boonville, collapsed in a farmer’s yard. Here is a brief but harrowing account of a soul at odds with itself, and of a young man lost even in a place which had always afforded him comfort and respite.
One fine feature of this autobiography is Speer’s sense of humor, his eye for the ridiculous, the absurd, the offbeat, the unconventional. Here, for example, in telling us where he got his love for the theater, he describes a conversation he had with his Aunt Mary about her brother, Speer’s grandfather, whom Speer called Papa:
“’Did you say Papa never finished high school?’
‘No, when he stopped high school, he was still taking freshman English, but he kept on going to school so he could play baseball and be in school plays, and he was in every play they had.’
‘How many years did he go to high school?’
‘He went to high school for six years?’
“Yes, he just kept on going ‘til they encouraged him to stop.’”
Speer has organized From Banner Elk to Boonville in chapters named after the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church. Given Speer’s Quaker, Presbyterian, and Baptist roots, this device seems at first ill-fitted to the narrative and may even seem strained to some readers. Those who read carefully, however, soon see that Speer is recounting here the spiritual journey of a lifetime. He offers numerous reflections on God and mortality, and uses stories and dreams to consider both the nature of God and the place of God in his own life. Readers will be delighted to find that in these ruminations, Speer’s sense of humor does not desert him.
Allen Speer, a professor at Lees-McRae College in Banner Elk, has given readers a grand treat of a book — an affectionate and loving memoir of a place, a time, a man, and his people.
From Banner Elk to Boonville: The Voices Trilogy: Part III by Paul Speer. Overmountain Press, 2010.