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Revisiting the Tatum Family: Regional Books by Ruth and Latrobe Carroll

By Judy A. Teaford

Mountain State University, Beckley, WV

Presented at 1998 Virginia Humanities Conference, Ferrum College
(with slides)


See also bibliography:  Ruth and Latrobe Carroll's Mid-Twentieth-Century Picture Books: The Tatum Family Series.


Historically, Appalachians have been depicted as backward, ignorant, violent, and lazy. Earlier writers, mostly outsiders, often used the idea of the noble savage when referring to Appalachians. The images presented of the region and its people were seldom accurate and often full of negative stereotypes. Though there were very few picture books before the 1950s, between the early fifties and late seventies, Ruth and Latrobe Carroll, natives of New York, were committed to writing and illustrating Appalachian picture books as accurately as possible. They were notably successful, especially with the Tatum family series. My research for this work in progress is based on interviews and materials loaned to me by Irene and Joan Moser, family friends of the Carrolls.

The seven books in the Tatum family series were written between 1953 and 1963. The family consists of Pa Tatum, Ma Tatum, Buck, Serena, Irby, Annie Mae, and Beanie, the protagonists of the books, along with his constant companion and friend, his new puppy, Tough Enough. At the time of their publication, these books received many honors. Unfortunately, the books have received little attention in the late twentieth century, probably because they are no longer in print. Regionally specific illustrations and text keep the Tatum family series from being stereotypical. Individualized characters, adventurous plots, and a zoo of animals are aspects of the books that universalize this series. Additionally, the Carrolls were ahead of their time in their treatment of Appalachians, particularly in regard to Appalachians’ desire for education and their acceptance of difference and change.

The Carrolls’ love of the Great Smokies was such that in 1950 they moved permanently to Asheville, North Carolina. Ruth and Latrobe Carroll, shown in the "Literary Note" section of the Asheville Citizen (18 Sep. 1958) surrounded by students of Asheville County Day School, always sought the help of native Appalachians in the writing and illustrating of their books. The students in this photo acted as critics and models for one of their books. Ruth illustrated all of their books; however, both she and her husband shared the responsibility of writing the books. Introduced to native Asheville, North Carolina, residents Mabel Young-Moser and Artus Monroe Moser, Sr., the Carrolls also availed themselves of their expertise. The Mosers were instrumental in offering advice concerning this series of books, so much so that the first book in the series, Beanie, is dedicated to the Moser family. Ruth corresponded with the Mosers often, writing many notes of appreciation to the family for their help.  (See Wednesday, August 27 Letter From Ruth Carroll to Artus Moser and Mabel Young-Moser, written sometime before the publication of the first book of the Tatum family series.) According to Joan Moser, daughter of Mabel and Artus, her mother would comment on the books readability for children while her father would look at the books from the standpoint of whether or not they portrayed mountain people and customs accurately (Interview).

Accurately illustrating the mountainous region of North Carolina was extremely important to the Carrolls. Ruth and her husband spent hours trekking "into little-visited valleys, into thickets roofed over with blossoming rhododendron, into the cabins of mountain folk, up to the tops of lonely peaks" (From the Appalachians 4).The Shadow Pool All except the last of the Tatum family series books are illustrated in "lead pencil and pen and ink. They [are] reproduced in duotone: black and a soft shade of blue, to suggest the misty gray-blues of the Great Smokies" (From the Appalachians 4). The last book of the series, Runaway Pony, Runaway Dog, is illustrated in full color using pastel pencils. Ruth’s attention to detail is clearly revealed in the drawing titled "The Shadow Pool." (See The Shadow Pool at right, and larger image at this link.) Most of the illustrations are composites. For example, in the drawing titled "The Cabin in the Smokies," from the book Beanie, Ruth "borrow[s] a roof from a very real cabin more than a hundred years old, a chimney from another cabin, a row of blossom-containing cans from still another, and a white oak tree from a yard many miles from any of [these] cabins" (From the Appalachians 5). (See The Cabin in the Smokies) "The Cove," a drawing from Tough Enough, is "based originally on a series of rough sketches that Ruth made near Soco Gap, about fifty miles from Asheville" (From the Appalachians 6). Another drawing for Tough Enough, "Winter Trees in the Great Smokies," is a blending of "sketches, photographs and memories," all from the Smoky Mountains (From the Appalachians 7). Because of Ruth’s attention to detail, her desire to depict the region of North Carolina as authentically as possible, this series is a pictorial history of the region.

The Carrolls’ desire to accurately represent the people, culture, and language of North Carolina through detailed observation was also an important area of concern. The text of each book complements the illustrations, mentioning native flora and fauna, and describing in detail the seasons and landscape of the North Carolina mountains. In Tough Enough and Sassy the Carrolls emphasize the native crafts, called "wood pretties," made by the Tatum family. The attention to craft making is also seen in the work of the Cherokee Indians in Tough Enough and the Indians. In Beanie the Carrolls incorporate a traditional song, which parallels the plot of the story. During his adventurous journey, Beanie sings the song as his emotions range from relief to wariness and hunger to unbridled happiness at being home once again. The song is one taught him by his grandmother. The first line of each stanza reads: "Old bug he eats the leaf . . . Old blue jay eats the bug . . . Old fox he eats the jay . . . Old bobcat eats the fox . . . Old bear he eats the cat . . . Old man he eats the bear." The addition of these regionally specific details –the description of the mountains, the native crafts, and the traditional song–demonstrate authentic cultural practices of the Appalachian region.

Beginning with the first book of the series, Beanie, and continuing through to the last book of the series, Runaway Pony, Runaway Dog, the Carrolls accomplish their commitment to present, as accurately as possible, the culture and people of Appalachia. In the introduction of From the Appalachians: A Portfolio of Drawings and Paintings by Ruth Carroll, her husband writes, "We found fine people: unassuming, shy at first, outwardly serious, inwardly humorous, deeply religious. We watched them tilling their steep acres, listened to their ballads, danced to their square dances, even went on a bear hunt with them. Their talk was rich in Elizabethan words, for here was walled-away country where such words lingered" (4-5). The Carrolls incorporated their observations of native dialect in the Tatum family series. In Tough Enough’s Trip, entering their first city, Buck remarks, "Folks in that city live just as close together as kernels on a corncob. No good air left to breathe–it’s been breathed up and smoked up and gasolined up. No woods or creeks for huntin’ and fishin’ and berryin’ and traipsin’ all around" (12). In Tough Enough’s Indians, Beanie, aware of his own special dialect, says, "These Injuns, they talk like a teacher woman, not like us Tatums a-tall" (52). This comes as a direct result of Mr. Climbing Bear’s account of sending Jim, his son, off in the night to find a telephone in order to let someone know the Tatum children are with them. Beanie is right. The language of Mr. Climbing Bear is nothing like that of the Tatums. Mr. Climbing Bear tells Beanie, "Jim told the neighbor about you and your brothers and sisters. The neighbor said he would ask the Superintendent of the Cherokee Reservation to get word to your father and mother, so they would know where all of you were" (51). Never overdone, the language in each and every book demonstrates realistic examples of Appalachian dialect.

The adventures of childhood, the love for a special pet–these are universal elements that all children can identify with. Each book in the Tatum family series, while accurately demonstrating the love, strength, and culture of an Appalachian family, also interweaves adventure and animal stories. In Beanie, the adventure takes the young protagonist and his new puppy, Tough Enough, deep into the Smoky Mountains in search of bears. While trying to escape the danger of the bear, Beanie and Tough Enough fall over the edge of a cliff. The second book, Tough Enough, features Beanie, his sister, Annie Mae, and Tough Enough. The children and Tough Enough are trapped in a mountain flood. Taking refuge in a cabin, Tough Enough senses danger and convinces the children to leave the cabin, saving their lives just before the flood waters crash in on the cabin.

In Tough Enough’s Trip, the third book of the series, adventure comes in the form of change–traveling to the ocean to visit their great-grandparents–and in Beanie’s collection of zoo animals, starting with the hideaway Tough Enough. When Beanie finds a kitten, which he names Bobcat Bob, his Ma tells him that he must find a home for it. Looking for a home for the kitten leads to the accumulation of many other animals. The zoo eventually includes the kitten, a raccoon named Fat Stuff, a box turtle named Biscuit, a crow named Midnight, and a skunk named Sweetie Pie. While traveling, the family truck is first saved from fire as Tough Enough warns Beanie of danger and next disabled because of a broken fuel pump.

Sassy, the pony in the next adventure, is found nearly dead and nursed back to life in Tough Enough’s Pony. Beanie’s Pa tells him he cannot take the pony back to their farm in the Smokies. However, Sassy swims after the shrimp boat and earns his right to membership in the family. Tough Enough and Sassy is the fifth book of the series. This is a bittersweet, yet highly entertaining story of a family experiencing hard times. The adventures in this story come one after another–from childhood adventures of fun crossing a hanging wooden bridge and swimming in a clear pond below a saw mill to being chased by a wild boar during which time Sassy runs away in fear. The family finds Sassy trapped in a mica mine. After the pony is rescued, Beanie looks at the pieces of mica he has gathered from the mine. To him they look like animals. The Tatum family adds eyes and creative details that accentuate the animal-like appearance of the small pieces of mica. They sell their treasures as Christmas ornaments at the local tourist shop. The adventures come to an end, and the family enjoys plenty. Of special interest is that fact that this book was "chosen by the English Speaking Union for inclusion among the books selected to serve as ‘across-the-sea Ambassador Books for young people representing the background, lives and interests of young Americans’" ("Literary Note").

Caught in a wild fire in Tough Enough’s Indians, the children of the Tatum family escape certain death by standing on a small ledge under a waterfall. Afterwards, as Tough Enough leads them to the home of a Cherokee family, they discover even more adventure and ultimately safety. The main emphasis in Runaway Pony, Runaway Dog, the last book of the series, is on Beanie’s pets, Sassy and Tough Enough. Their adventure is compelling. Sassy has pulled a leg muscle and must be taken to the local vet to recuperate. Tough Enough stays with Sassy and begins looking for a way home. The two escape from the vet and begin their long and difficult journey home. Joan Moser told me that she knew the books as Appalachian children’s literature, but not exclusively. She felt they had universal appeal and characterized the books as "children’s literature that very artfully avoids stereotypes" (Interview). Stories of adventure, stories teaming with animals, these are elements that all children can identify with and enjoy. They are details that universalize the Carrolls’ books.

The people who populate the Tatum family series are not stereotypical Appalachians. They possess distinct personalities, exhibit a range of emotions, and demonstrate traits common to all humans. Ma Tatum is not a one-dimensional female character who remains hidden in the background of the story. She voices her opinions whether or not they are popular. It is Ma Tatum who insists that Beanie find homes for his growing zoo of animals. When Beanie brings back three more critters, Pa Tatum, an easy-going, fun-loving man, laughs out loud. However, Ma Tatum responds through tight lips, "Well, we’re stuck with ‘em now . . . Stuck until we can find homes for ‘em" (35). Yet by the end of the story, Ma Tatum allows Beanie to keep his zoo of animals, changing and growing with life’s little challenges. In Runaway Pony, Runaway Dog, the reader gets the most interesting insight into the complex nature of Pa Tatum. An astute judge of character, Pa Tatum clenches his fists as he insists that Will Bumgarner continue on with his story about how he came to be in possession of Sassy and Tough Enough. Full of hatred for the man who has stolen Beanie’s pets, Pa remarks, "Reckon you’re nothin’ but a low-down thief" (49). Pa Tatum is not a flat character, but a realistic person whose emotions run deep.

The children of the Tatum family also display distinct characteristics. They, like their Ma and Pa, demonstrate depth of character. They play together, tease one another, and rally in times of trouble. While playing at Indians, Beanie says to his sisters, "Buck and Irby and me, we’re real good-hearted to let you ole squaws dance with us a-tall." And in Tough Enough’s Trip Irby tells Beanie, "My dog Wizz would have been a real watchdog on this trip. Call that dog of yours a watchdog? Why, he’s not much bigger than a rat. Not even a squirrel’s afeard of him. He’s nothing but a jumpety flibbety-jibbet" (author’s emphasis 10). Yet in both books the children band together when they find themselves working as one to save their lives from the encroaching fire, ending up in unfamiliar territory, and having to depend on an Indian family. Together the children take care of the zoo of animals, supporting Beanie’s wish to keep them all. These books move beyond simple regional books. They are books of adventure, animals, and realistic characters.

Appalachians have historically been referred to as illiterate, backward people who care little for education or the pursuit of knowledge. However, the Carrolls were ahead of their time in their positive treatment of education in the Appalachian region. In Tough Enough the Carrolls include text and illustrations of a bookmobile. "This was a truck with shelves built into its sides. Rows and rows and rows of books stood on those shelves . . . . The Tatums and other mountain people would borrow books and keep them till the next time the bookmobile came." In this same book there is a picture of a classroom full of students square dancing, children riding the bus to school, and a classroom setting. Beanie reads about Blackbeard to his sister Sassy and Tough Enough in Tough Enough’s Pony. And in Tough Enough’s Indians, Beanie learns about early Cherokee Indians though reading, playing, and observation. The Tatum children call themselves the Eagle Clan. "Beanie had learned [an eagle dance] for a school play," which he teaches to his brothers and sisters (5). Colored pictures in a schoolbook help Beanie design an authentic mask for his role as medicine man. He works at making an authentic Indian peace pipe, as well as a bow and arrows. The children make costumes and a small teepee. "They had painted pictures on [the teepee]–pictures of buffaloes and mountain lions and wolves, creatures that had roamed the Great Smoky Mountains many, many years before. The young Tatums had learned about them in school" (9). Using a bookmobile library book about Indian picture writing as a guide, Beanie keeps a notebook of the Eagle Clans’ observations and activities. The Carrolls present the Tatum children, a typical Appalachian family living deep in the mountains, as children who seek knowledge, who are neither stagnant nor satisfied with less.

The message of acceptance is also very clear in the Carroll’s books. In this same book, the children meet a real Indian family. Initially, they are uneasy with these new and different people. Part of their uneasiness comes from accounts of Indian scalpings and war parties. However, the Tatum children soon learn that the Indian family is much like their own. Upon waking the morning after staying with the Indian family, Beanie remarks that their home, "looks kind o’ like our cabin" (47). Soon all of the children find similarities between themselves and the Indian family–breakfast food that "smells like our breakfast at home," carved wooden animals "[l]ike our grandpappy makes" (47). They also learn about traditional Cherokee tools like a ka-no-na, a wooden beater used to make corn meal. Mrs. Cucumber teaches the children how her grandmother baked corn bread, spreading oak leaves on the hot stones of the fireplace, placing the corn meal on the leaves, covering it with more oak leaves, and finally hot ashes. The children visit the Cherokee reservation’s tourist village, set up to resemble life two hundred years earlier. Here they see "women making pottery and baskets" and men "chiseling a long dugout canoe out of a tulip-tree log" (61). The message is clear. By showing the Tatum children learning to accept others, along with their differences and similarities, the Carrolls are also asking that Appalachians be accepted, along with their differences and similarities.

Appalachians have also been historically represented as people who fear change. Not so in the Carroll books. Two of their books, Tough Enough’s Trip and Tough Enough’s Pony, focus on travel and change. On their way to visit their great-grandparents on Harker’s Island in North Carolina, the Tatum family passes though a large city full of tall buildings, cars, and people. They pass "villages and towns . . . [and] factories and farms" (Trip 30). They stop at a small lake for lunch and find a roadside stand very common in the Appalachian region. They see cotton fields, tobacco fields, trains, and finally the ocean. At their great-grandparent’s home, they see "[t]he tremendous sky of burning blue . . . The tremendous stretch of beach . . . The tremendous ocean" (Pony 28). Beanie’s great-grandfather, Captain Piggott, owns his own shrimp boat, which the Tatum family takes to and from Shackleford Bank. They learn about the Banker ponies that run wild on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, the wonders of the ocean, and shrimping. Education and knowledge are important to the Carrolls as well as the Appalachian family they write about. Change often results in the acceptance of difference, not only of other people and places, but of Appalachians as well.

Ruth and Latrobe Carroll’s attention to authenticity and their desire to make the series accessible to all children are certainly details that keep the books from being stereotypical accounts of backward Appalachian mountaineers. In these respects the Carrolls were well ahead of their time. Each of the seven books in the Tatum family series recounts the remote lives of a mountain family living high in the Great Smoky Mountains. Each book accurately recounts the history of Appalachian life in the early fifties to the early sixties. Additionally, because these stories contain realistic characters and focus on childhood adventures and animals, these books also have universal appeal. Zena Sutherland discusses childhood needs in Children & Books—the need for security, the need to love and to be loved, the need to belong, the need to achieve, the need for change, the need to know, and the need for beauty and order (15-21). All of these needs are meet in the Tatum family series. Though contemporary Appalachian picture books are numerous, with the renewed interest in effective depictions of the region, nostalgic or otherwise, the reintroduction of the Carroll books would be a welcome addition. Because of their warmth and their accuracy, both culturally and geographically, these books deserve to be read and enjoyed by contemporary readers.

Works Cited

Primary Sources

Carroll, Ruth, and Latrobe Carroll. Beanie. Illus. Ruth Carroll. New York: Oxford UP, 1953.

Carroll, Ruth, and Latrobe Carroll. Runaway Pony, Runaway Dog. Illus. Ruth Carroll. New York: Henry A. Walck, 1963.

Carroll, Ruth, and Latrobe Carroll. Tough Enough. Illus. Ruth Carroll. New York: Oxford UP, 1954.

Carroll, Ruth, and Latrobe Carroll. Tough Enough and Sassy. Illus. Ruth Carroll. New York: Henry A. Walck, 1958.

Carroll, Ruth, and Latrobe Carroll. Tough Enough’s Indians. Illus. Ruth Carroll. New York: Henry A. Walck, 1960.

Carroll, Ruth, and Latrobe Carroll. Tough Enough’s Pony. Illus. Ruth Carroll. New York: Oxford UP, 1957.

Carroll, Ruth, and Latrobe Carroll. Tough Enough’s Trip. Illus. Ruth Carroll. New York: Oxford UP, 1956.

Secondary Sources

Carroll, Ruth. From the Appalachians: A Portfolio of Drawings and Paintings. New York: Henry A. Walck, 1964.

Carroll, Latrobe. Introduction. From the Appalachians: A Portfolio of Drawings and Paintings. New York: Henry A. Walck, 1964. 1-10.

"Literary Note." Asheville Citizen 18 Sep. 1958.

Moser, Joan. Telephone interview. 8 Jan. 1998.

Sutherland, Zena. Children & Books. New York: Longman, 1997.

Links to Related Pages in AppLit

Bibliography: Ruth and Latrobe Carroll's Mid-Twentieth-Century Picture Books: The Tatum Family Series

E-mail Messages from Richard Berrow, British Columbia, Re: Tatum Family Series

Wednesday, August 27 Letter From Ruth Carroll to Artus Moser and Mabel Young-Moser

September 4 Letter (Handwritten) From Ruth Carroll to Artus Moser and Mabel Young-Moser

October 2, 1953 Postcard From Ruth and Toby Carroll to Artus Moser and Mabel Young-Moser

The Shadow Pool, illustration from Runaway Pony, Runaway Dog

The Cabin in the Smokies, illustration from Beanie


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