James Still (1906–2001) has cast a long shadow. A diverse canon of ‘Appalachian’ literature has emerged in recent decades, and many authors, including Ron Rash, Lee Smith, and Silas House, have acknowledged River of Earth as the book that inspired them to write about their home region. Some writers from outside Appalachia, such as Wendell Berry, have similarly cited Still as a formative influence.
Still, were he here today, would undoubtedly not claim credit for founding a regional literary movement. He dearly loved the region to which he moved when a young college student (after growing up in Alabama). Yet, Still often told interviewers and friends that he thought of himself as a Southern writer and that he yearned to be considered in the company of William Faulkner, Katherine Anne Porter, and Flannery O’Connor.
Summing up the scene Virginia Unionists faced at the end of March, 1861, “So March ended in Richmond with the Unionists remaining in solid control of the Virginia State Convention – and with public support in the state solidly in their favor. Ominously for the peace of the nation, March ended in the nation’s capital with the president, his cabinet, the military high command and all their subordinates in a state of extreme turmoil and confusion. It was a scene from a tragic-comic opera, as the first days of April will attest.”
Referring to the defeat of the first Ordinance of Secession, “In a stunning victory for the Unionists, Harvie’s Ordinance of Secession was defeated by a vote of ninety to forty-five. Of the forty-five votes for the Ordinance of Secession, 70 per cent came from the black belt counties of the Piedmont and Tidewater regions of the state (representing the Slave Power), a handful came from heavily enslaved pockets in the Southwest Region and, as previously noted, three votes came from the Northwest region, where those three delegates were clearly not representing the wishes of their constituents.”
Finally, a summary comment regarding these men who risked their political careers, indeed for some their lives, to save the nation from war, “In hindsight, it is easy to see the reasoning of many Virginians in relation to their Unionism. In mid-April 1861, looking forward, and not knowing that war would soon envelope them, these men were loyal, patriotic Americans who believed the leadership of the country would not desert them. In the end, the heroic Unionists of Virginia were betrayed by the politicians in Washington – and be the aristocrats in their very own state.”
To their enduring credit, “The Unionists of Virginia felt there was a better way than that of total war.”
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.” 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.
Dad grew from child to adolescent while living in Draper. These were the years of the Great Depression (though Dad’s running joke was “I never could figure out what was so great about it!”). The Depression years were hard for Dad. He would often say, “The Democrats blamed Hoover and the Republicans blamed Roosevelt. I don’t know who it was, but somebody liked to starved me to death!”
3D Book Cover-Virtue
Necessity brought creativity, and Dad found a way to get a little money in his pocket while a Depression-era boy in Draper. A neighbor woman would frequently give Dad money to go to the store and buy her fifty cents worth of new potatoes. Dad would pocket the fifty cents and go to a nearby potato patch a man owned and stealthily dig up roughly fifty cents worth of new potatoes.
He would clean them good, put them in a “poke” and take them to the neighbor, fifty cents the richer!
She got very excited then, and said “CHILD, Cecil had AnnaBelle in a bear hug behind da stove, gitting it ON!”
Thea-Thea said, “Oh Lawd!”
Aunt Cellie flopped down in a kitchen chair and said disgustedly, “He gotta have a burn on his ass, cause he fell back on da stovepipe, as he bent over to pull up his pants!” Thea-Thea covered her mouth and groaned as Aunt Cellie continued.
“AnnaBelle was hysterical. I was apologizing dat I hadn’t knocked ‘stead of busting in,” Aunt Cellie screeched. “But then I got mad—I mean I was ticked! The of ‘em standing there looking like they had done been caught wit they hand in da cookie jar.
“I started in on Cecil. ‘YOU!’ I screamed.
“He ran like a scaled dog. AnnaBelle was standing there trembling…like a wilted flower, begging and pleading for me not to tell, saying she needed to buy some food, and Cecil was her undercover sugar daddy, and he was da way dat she had extra money to buy groceries.