Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Guest-Blogger Katie Pickard Fawcett on 5 Favorite Books of Appalachia

Guest-blogging today is Katie Pickard Fawcett, author of the just-published novel for young readers (ages 9 - 12), To Come and Go Like Magic, about 12 year-old Chili Mahoney, who feels cramped in her small Appalachian town and yearns to see the world. Fawcett herself grew up in the hills of Eastern Kentucky, though she now lives in McLean, a suburb of Washington DC and certainly, she has seen the world: she writes often about her travels in Mexico and elsewhere on her blog, Kite Dreams.

About Appalachia, and her novel, which is set in 1975, Fawcett notess, "In the early 1960s this region was still one of the most isolated areas in the country. As far as mountain people were concerned, the much-talked-about '60s' happened primarily on television. Riots and demonstrations and parading 'flower children' were seen only on the six o'clock news. But the decade of the 70s brought VISTA workers and a variety of social welfare programs to the hills, opening a door to the world and bringing the world to Appalachian doorsteps. Mountain people had always been suspicious of strangers, so the great influx of 'outsiders' during this period created tension in communities and across economic groups, sometimes causing clashes with long-held beliefs and traditions."

I've been a great admirer of some of the extraordinary fiction out of Appalachia, such as the stories of Bobbie Anne Mason and Chris Offut, so it's a special treat to learn about Fawcett's recommendations.

Five Favorite Books of Appalachia

Many people have written about Appalachia, but I've found that the stories and essays and poetry from the region's own sons and daughters are the most authentic. Here are five favorites, representing a variety of genres, places, and times.

1. Hunter's Horn by Harriette Arnow
A bestselling novel about a Kentucky hill farmer and his efforts to catch a sly red fox he calls King Devil. (Many people are familiar with Ms. Arnow's most popular novel -- The Dollmaker. Made into a TV movie in 1983 starring Jane Fonda, it told the story of a Kentucky family's difficult move from their farm to a Detroit housing project.) It was Hunter's Horn, however, that first brought Ms. Arnow national fame, and the book finished that year close to William Faulkner's A Fable for the Pulitzer Prize. Joyce Carol Oates has called this novel "our most unpretentious American masterpiece."

2. The Best-Loved Short Stories of Jesse Stuart, selected and edited by H. Edward Richardson
Jesse Stuart published almost 500 stories in his lifetime. The thirty-four in this collection reveal a wide range of characters and life experiences. The collection begins with the mischief of young boys in "Saving the Bees," and includes the author's most popular story, "Split Cherry Tree" (a teen's moral dilemma, written while Stuart was on a Guggenheim Fellowship in Scotland and feeling the emotional tug of his mountain home); it ends with "This is the Place," a story about the immortality of those who love the land. The theme that runs through all of Jesse Stuart's stories is the strength of mountain people and their seemingly invincible positive view of life.

3. Far Appalachia: Following the New River North by Noah Adams
The author takes the reader with him on a river journey through the Appalachians, sharing memories and stories about the history, the people, and the legends of this area. There are musicians and preachers and white-water rafters, general stores and train depots and universities, mountain trails and mills and canyons to explore. Sometimes Mr. Adams follows the gospel notes of a guitar to see where it leads, or he garners a story by asking a young woman where she bought her "handsome old fiddle," or he stops to hear a band playing favorites from his own youth -- "Mustang Sally," "Rikki Don't Lose That Number," or an old Gram Parsons song about "the truckers and the kickers and the cowboy angels." (Noah Adams is a native of Kentucky and was a long-time co-host of National Public Radio's "All Things Considered.")

4. Appalachia by Charles Wright
Wright is considered one of America's most honored poets. In this, his 13th collection of poems, he again grapples with the big issues: life, death, time, identity. "Give me the names for things, just give me their real names,/Not what we call them, but what/They call themselves when no one's listening --" he says, in "The Writing Life." His imagery is vivid -- "Lightening bugs lifting heavily out of the dry grass" or the "Whunk of a ball being kicked" or "Darkness beginning to sift like coffee grains" (from "American Twilight"). Most book lovers will appreciate the way Wright ends the poem, "The Appalachian Book of the Dead VI" -- "I hear that the right word will take your breath away." In this collection, on many occasions, Mr. Wright has found just the right word.

5. Shiloh and Other Stories by Bobbie Ann Mason
Miss Mason's Kentucky people are caught in the great flood of change that first hit the area in the 1970s. They juggle the old and the new, trying to hold onto rural traditions while coping with shopping malls, TV evangelists, and women's lib. Mason's women learn to cook strange new dishes, sign up for college courses for the first time, or take up a musical instrument. In one story a preacher's wife gets hooked on video games; in another a bus driver dreams of being a New-Wave disc jockey. The dialogue, details, and insight in this collection give a rich and authentic portrait of a place, a time, and a people.

Any list of Appalachian writers, long or short, has to mention Thomas Wolfe. My favorite of his books is Look Homeward, Angel, but perhaps the most popular -- and certainly the most oft quoted -- is You Can't Go Home Again. The title comes from the book's finale when the protagonist realizes that you can never go back to your childhood, "back home to the escapes of Time and Memory." As someone born and bred in the hills, however, I'm happy to say that reading the stories and poems and memoirs of these wonderful authors makes time travel almost possible.

--- Katie Pickard Fawcett

---> For the archive of Madam Mayo guest-blog posts, click here.