Children of the Great Smoky Mountains by May Justus

Summary by Tina L. Hanlon

Back to main Bibliography of Books by May Justus

See also AppLit Article "May Justus as Popular Educator."

Children of the Great Smoky Mountains. Illus. Robert Henneberger. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1952. Sixteen stories about children, many of them characters who appear in other Justus books. Mountain folkways are included in each story, especially folk songs and ballads (some with music) but also riddles, quilting, holiday traditions, food, farming, and folk beliefs. Each story contains a black and white drawing of the children and/or their environment. (The schoolhouse illustration shown below is opposite the title page.) Most of the folk songs are from the author's own collections.


"Play, Sammy, Play." During a much-longed for trip to Far Beyant, the county seat "five miles over the mountain," Sammy Pennybacker plays and sings "The Merry Man," about singing for a loved one but not for money (music and lyric included). Sammy's music helps get the attention of busy folk who then buy his huckleberries and Old Doc's medicine. Sammy is able to buy his pappy a hat and his mammy a dress, reversing the bad luck they had all been having earlier. See also the picture book Sammy.

"Letty Ann's Name Quilt." When a friend asks for a scrap from Letty Ann's pretty new blue gingham Sunday dress, Letty Ann learns about making a traditional name quilt with scraps of cloth collected from friends who sew on their names. After her mother falls down and can't visit her aunt, Letty Ann takes healing herb tea to rheumatic Aunt Sally. Revived by the herbs and good company, Sally gives Letty Ann the unfinished name quilt from her mother's childhood. Letty Ann learns that making the quilt will take a long time and that her friend Meg is planning a quilting and play party to finish her quilt.

"Christmas on Wheels." Twins Davy and Jimmy need a wagon to carry wood and produce five miles to Far Beyant, to make money for their family. Uncle Bildad Cooley kindly offers to sell them his old wagon for a down payment of $5. The boys and their grandparents pool their resources, giving up the money they were saving for Christmas treats. The lucky penny that the boys take turns carrying provides the last cent needed to get the wagon.

"Lizzie Lends a Hand." When ragged Lem Harris arrives to help dig potatoes, Lizzie and her grandfather can tell he's hungry. His mother is dead and his father is laid up with a bad back. Lizzie helps him go back to school by sharing books and lunch. After they arrive early and start up the fire, Lem gets a much-needed job doing that every day for 25 cents. Lem teaches Lizzie "a silly old singsong": "Diller-diller-dollar! Danny is a scholar! Now they say his head's too big/To poke it through his collar" (music included, p. 48). They wonder if there was a real Danny, and Lizzie proves the song can be sung about Lem in the end.

"The Rescue of Gadabout's Calf." Jerry Jake and his friend Tommy have an exciting tale to tell Jerry's grandparents at dinner. After Grandmammy Huckaby's cow Gadabout and calf Spotty wandered off through a broken fence, the boys have to figure out how to rig up a harness to pull Spotty out of a well by an empty cabin. See also Hurrah for Jerry Jake, Step Along and Jerry Jake, and Jerry Jake Carries On.

"When Signs You See." "Miss O'Dear, the teacher down at the mission, says it's pure foolishment to believe in signs." But Tillie Thompson's family know signs they believe in: a redbird in morning, a rooster crowing at the door, and a dropped dishcloth mean company is coming. "When signs you see,/Attentive be,/When signs you hear,/Then lend an ear" (pp. 61-62). Finally, after Tillie gets impatient through several meals with saving a tempting dried-apple pie for company, Aunt Tillie comes to the door. Tillie laughs when she realizes Aunt Tillie always comes, signs or no signs, before Big Meeting Day, when the Circuit Rider comes for a picnic.

"Mary Ellen and the Outlander." Mary Ellen and Granny Allen take in a stranger who has hurt his foot. Granny can't believe he is hiking in the mountains just for fun. Mary Ellen thinks he looks familiar. Mr. Mike teaches her a two-verse song, "Remember September" (lyrics included). When the sheriff thinks he is the escaped convict they are seeking, Mary Ellen realizes he is the children's poet in her reader, so her identification prevents him from being arrested.

"Millie Makes Friends." Millie Messer is shy about going to a new school, but her parents moved from Far Side so that she could go to school through the winter. She drops all her things and tears her shoe on the way to school, but when Susie exchanges favors with her by taking Millie's shoe home at lunch for her father to repair, Millie learns that her mother was right about being friendly to make a friend. Millie has made a friend by repairing Susie's torn dress with thorns. At the end Millie teaches the class a new singing game for their rainy day recess (words and music on pp. 88-89). For a similar story by Justus not set in the mountains, see New Boy at School.

"The Boy From Far Side." Billy O'Dear encounters a new boy from the family known as "that trifling Terry tribe" from Far Side. Tom Terry is the youngest, the first to be sent to school. Billy helps him overcome his fears and defends Tom when the other children call him The Queer One because he is a shy older boy just starting to learn to read. When a visitor from Nashville buys Tom's basket and says the class could sell others that good, Tom forgets about running away and makes plans for helping all the others craft better baskets.Fiddle Away cover

"Fiddle Away." While her mother is away in town, Honey Jane uses her birthday money, sent by Grandmother Miller for a new dress, to buy her cousin Joe John a new fiddle from a catalog, after he breaks his in a fall. Joe John collects tunes from everyone and remembers them all. Honey Jane hasn't been successful in learning to play but sings along with Joe John and helps him remember all 13 verses to "The Swapping Song" (music and lyrics within the story). When Joe John wins the fiddling match at Uncle Billy Martin's because he knows the most tunes on Thunder Mountain, Honey Jane "felt like any good fairy who has helped to make somebody's dream come true" (p. 108). Presumably this is the same story in the picture book Fiddle Away (cover at left). Honey Jane is a novel about the same characters.

"Use Your Head, Hildy." While she is in charge of the family, Hildy makes a bargain with a neighbor for some spareribs and chases away a varmint in the chimney by making thick smoke. After her parents return late and find her sleeping in a chair by the fire, they enjoy her tale and are grateful that she has used her head during her mother's long absence. See the longer story with the same title in the main bibliography.

"A Christmas Eve Guest." The Allisons will have few Christmas treats because they have bought their cabin a glass window for Christmas. Mammy and Grandy scare Matt, 10, and his younger sister Glory by teasing them about being too old for Santa Claus. When they sing carols, the words and music for an old one from Mammy's childhood, "The Friendly Beast," are given. The peddler Step-Along suddenly comes to the door. He has been delayed by high water and lost his pack, which contained gifts for his boy and girl. Matt and Glory are happy after they give him some of their gifts to take home.

"The Singing Bird." Danny O'Dell begins school at age 7 when his family moves to Near Side of Little Twin Mountain to be near a school, but he doesn't like it because he doesn't know how to relate to others. He doesn't plan to recite or sing at Visiting Day, until Andy Prater hears him singing one of his father's prize-winning fiddle-jigs, "The Singing Bird" (words and music included). Visitors from all around Little Twin admire Danny's new song at the end of the program.

"A Flag for the School." When Miss Penny announces that the Governor will visit the school, she takes suggestions from the children for spreading the news, sprucing up the school, and singing two patriotic songs. They decide to make a real flag to replace the magazine picture they've had, but the scraps of cloth they bring from home don't match. After Dovie Ray's mother dyes Dovie's and Glory's old dresses blue and red, the girls bring dyed feed sacks from which the class makes a new flag, which waves proudly when the Governor gives his speech to a big crowd outside the school. While sewing, the children sing a tragic old ballad, well-known in the Tennessee mountains: "The Two Sisters (Or The Mill-dam of Binnorie)" is about a girl near the Northern Sea who is murdered by her jealous sister and a miller, who takes the gold rings her lover gave her and pushes her back in the water. The sister and miller are hanged (words and music included).

"Henry has a Notion." Henry Hunter, age 12, and Sue, age 10, are good at doing the chores themselves, with help from neighbors, when their father is in the hospital after a sawmill accident. Unlike their parents, the children can read the letters sent by the Welfare Woman. When their father needs an operation in Johnson City that will keep the parents away another month or more, Henry thinks of a solution that will prevent their having to leave home. Granny Carr, who picks berries and herbs for a living and has no family, needs a place to stay after a storm damages her cabin so she will stay with the children.

"The Riddle Party." When Jimmy and Davy Carr have to stay home from school on a rainy day, their grandparents on Little Twin Mountain decide to keep them occupied with a riddle party and popcorn. They hope to introduce riddle parties to their teacher who shares stories, songs, and new games on rainy days. Signs and sayings about rain are included as well as several riddles.

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