Lynette Ford. Beyond the Briar Patch: Affrilachian Folktales, Food and Folklore. Parkhurst Brothers: Marion, MI. 2014. Print.
Please welcome guest reviewer Joshua Salmans. Salmans has lived in the Upstate of South Carolina for 17 years. He’s a quirky, librarian type who feels comfortable in the foothills of Appalachia, but has found adventure traveling and being a cultural exchange agent in this little blueberry of a planet. Currently, he has returned to Greenville to teach Adult Basic Education courses and contribute to Appalachianhistory.net and The Dictionary of Literary Biography.
If you’re like me, you are probably tired of the recent inundation of political attack ads on TV featuring politicians who did or didn’t vote for this or that. November during an election year often betrays the chasms of polarizing political thought that we usually keep tucked away —at least at the dinner table. My mom used to say that if you wanted to have a happy family, it doesn’t behoove you to talk about religion, politics or love. Sometimes, my mom’s insight makes me wonder whose idea it was to have elections so near to the holidays.
Lyn Ford, a nationally recognized Affrilachian storyteller, has a remedy to transcend such rifts between us. Through African-influenced stories and folktales from Appalachia, she reminds us of our common humanity: for “when [we] share one another’s stories, [we] can’t stay enemies.” (1) Ford recently published her second book of tales, Beyond the Briar Patch, in which she intimately retells her own interpretations of what she refers to as ‘home-fried’ tales from her childhood.
Home-fried tales are organic, from the grit of our familial habitation: “from childhood summers shared with storytelling with my father…and my maternal grandfather, Pop-Pop[s]…and bedtime-story readings with my mother….” They are stewed in the pot of hardscrabble living—its humor, its wit, its cleverness, its lessons, its trickeries and its sophistications. Home-fried tales are from the thorny briar patch, the dense and tangled thicket of life many are born into. These tales are informed from all aspects of culture: life, history, racial tensions, romance, music, food, laughter, death and so much more. Most importantly, they are universal tales with full-bodied flavors that all of us are familiar with no matter where we call home.
This spirit of universality, however, does not detract from Ford’s sly ability to blend broad readability with sprinkles of Appalachian vernacular like wampus, clabbered, slumgullion, slew, seransifyin’, and piddlin’—words that will revive nostalgic memories of papaw and nana’s porch stories, yet appeal to the curiosity of those new to Appalachian/Affrilachian culture. Her clever and delicate balance between these two aspects allows her stories to betray the earthy sophistication and intelligence of their origins. Not to worry, she includes a glossary for those of us who might not be familiar with some of her terms’ use and application.
Each tale in Beyond the Briar Patch has truths in it, but be aware that “some [are] true, some almost true, [and] some purely fiction (about which my Pop-pops said, ‘If it ain’t true, it should be’).” Ford encourages her readers to decide for themselves which of her tales are true, partly true, or just plain made up. Like her Pop-Pops insists, there is more to these tales than the mere historical account. Made-up stories originate from common truths that are learned just from livin’ on this blueberry planet—our briar patch.
With a conviction that storytelling should be a shared family experience, Ford selects stories for children and adults. She wastes no time in sweeping us off into an adventure in the first section of critter tales, replete with heroic trickery. Before you know it, we’re in the briar patch with the rabbit from whom the bear could learn a thing or two. But lest the rabbit’s head should get too large, the turtles have their own lesson to teach the rabbit, if only the rabbit would slow down a little to notice details. The lazy monkey thinks he can keep taking advantage of papa turtle, but community turns out to a greater force to be reckoned with.
That inclination towards fantasy doesn’t mean that Ford retreats from some of the harsh realities of our socio-cultural history. In this volume, she includes several candid narratives of slave John as well as some others from the 1800s.(2) For these characters, their situations are grim and authentic; however, their cleverness, humor and wit are noteworthy examples of the tenacity of the human spirit. Though her selections possess serious and poignant elements, they also demonstrate how clever wit or cathartic humor can elicit, even between the oppressed and the oppressor, lucid moments of shared humanity.
For those who enjoy spooks and haints, Ford’s last section features a clever blacksmith who might have a few tricks up his sleeve when dealing with the Devil, a war veteran whose mother sends him on a journey to regain his fear, and a young man looking for work who finds more than he bargained for when he agrees to work a haunted field for a farmer. While not the most frightening of stories, these three selections are humorous reminders of the universality of humanity’s sojourn on this planet.
Sharing is Ford’s most valuable ingredient in her recipe for healing humanity’s ills with one another. Her home-fried stories warmly resonate with the human spirit on a multi-cultural and universal level. Our political institutions may still continue to exude the darker side of human interactions during election cycles, but Ford’s stories gently guide us back to our more primal connections with each other. Truly, when we share our stories—along with grandma’s scrumptious corn fritters—fearful animosity fades away and we realize we’re cookin’ in the same kitchen.
1 I recently came across a video that featured Ford telling a story at the St. Louis Festival in 2011. I wanted to pass this along to my readers as I found it the night of the elections—I loved how the video countered all the negative feelings being spewed out. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1-M6KRj4ceo
2 Be sure to check out Ford’s Q&A section in the back of the book, especially if you’re in a small book club. She talks about her decision to put children and adult stories in the same volume, select stories that have overt socio-cultural narratives, and many more insights into the development of the book.