Book Review: ‘Tales from the Hills and Hollows of East Tennessee’

Posted by | February 11, 2013

“There are no second acts in American lives,” claimed novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald. Clearly, he never anticipated the likes of Bonnie Heiskell Peters, Union County Tennessee Historian. Ms. Peters retired from her first act in intergovernmental relations for the TVA in 1990. Fortunately for us she hasn’t been content to rest on her laurels.

Since being appointed Union County Historian in 1994 she has published a steady stream of books on notable people, places and things in this corner of East Tennessee. She’s just released her seventh, ‘Tales from the Hills and Hollows of East Tennessee.’

Ms. Peters’ new book is a compilation from her ongoing multi-year columns for the Scripps newspaper Union County Shopper-News. Because they’ve been professionally edited for the general newspaper reader, they’re as entertaining as they are educational. Ms. Peters has clearly forged a voice that’s her own, thanks to the discipline of a long standing column and its accompanying reader feedback.

“Fine and dandy if you’re a Union County resident who’s interested in history,” you may be saying to yourself right about now. “But why would I want to read this if I live elsewhere?” A fair question.

Ms. Peters, through her relentless focus on Union County, has drawn a thoughtful road map for historians, archivists, teachers, and genealogists in other regions on how to approach the process of gathering and preserving history. Like the best historians in every time and place, she has made the local universal.

“I’m by no means an expert genealogist/researcher, but I’m surely an experienced one!” says Ms. Peters in a piece titled ‘Finding Grandpa.’ And so she is: her sense of the pragmatic in both this article, and throughout the book, fairly leaps off the page. Yes, she can point you to Census and court records along with the best of them. Then, like one of those ingenious ‘Hints from Heloise’ columns that offers up the simplest, but most surprisingly useful tips, she’ll remind her reader, “Use a pencil—ballpoint pen will be illegible in less than 50 years.”

But you needn’t fear being lectured here. Ms. Peters is a native of Union County, and her love of it, and of its inhabitants, shines through clearly in the many personal anecdotes she’s included. “One school day I decided it must be close to time to go home,” she recounts of a first grade incident. “So I made my way to the cloak room to begin putting on my snow suit and boots. Soon another classmate and another and another came in until the whole class was in the cloak room getting ready to go home. Miss Hazel waited until we all got in the cloak room, then came with her paddle. She told us to get our coats off and get back in our seat. She gave each person a few licks on the hand as we left the room.”

She then lists the names of the 26 students Miss Hazel paddled.

“To those who were there, I apologize—52 years late—for having gotten you in trouble with Miss Hazel’s paddle.”

‘Tales’ is no mere gauzy trip down memory lane, however. Ms. Peters has served on the board of the East Tennessee Historical Society, been a featured author at the Museum of Appalachia, and worked with the East Tennessee Preservation Alliance. She’s out on the front lines. “I have been asked to help with the Tennessee Paper Scrip Project,” she opens one article, and proceeds to tell her readers how they can join in. And, “A new web site will soon be online for Maynardville. I was asked to write the history piece for this site.” And, “Last fall, all of us working on the restoration of the historic Oak Grove School in Sharps Chapel were caught off guard by the early snows.”

Readers expecting solidly researched history pieces from this volume will not be disappointed. The book includes such gems as “Tennesseans Who Died at the Alamo and the Union County Connection to the Bloody Event,” and “George Washington —Was he or Wasn’t he our First President,” and “Our Early Silkworm Industry.”

Finally, Ms. Peters is aware of the need to celebrate the love of history in the hearts of the young. Her article ‘Simply Sarah,’ about teenage dulcimer player Sarah Morgan, fairly bursts with delight over this budding player’s talent.

The portrait of Bonnie Heiskell Peters that emerges from these pages is one of a knowledgeable, experienced researcher and historian who uses her gifts to help her peers remember how Union County once was, and just as importantly, to mentor the generations behind her. Instead of telling you why Union County’s history is interesting, she shows you detail by detail why it has such a hold on her. She leads by example; you can’t help but be drawn in.

Copies of ‘Tales from the Hills and Hollows of East Tennessee’ may be ordered directly from the author. Cost is $20 (includes shipping). Email her at: bhpeters@att.net

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