Folklore Themes in Longer Appalachian Fiction
Compiled by Tina L. Hanlon
|Fiction for Children and Young Adults||Fiction for Adults||Back to Folktale Bibliography Index||AppLit Home|
Note: This was a new bibliography in April 2002. Many other books could be added to this bibliography. Send your suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. The main focus here is the use of folktales in longer fiction, but some references to songs, folk medicine and other types of folklore are included. A newer bibliography on Music in Appalachian Literature lists many other books that contain folk music. Most links on folktale titles below are to pages in AppLit's Annotated Index of Folktales.
Some of these books were discussed in a session on Folkways in Appalachian Children's Literature at the Appalachian Studies Conference, 2003. See Abstracts in AppLit.
Fiction for Children and Young Adults
Novel-length retellings of stories
about folklore heroes are listed on the following Applit pages: Tony
Beaver, John Henry, Davy Crockett.
Cornelissen, Cornelia. Soft Rain: A Story of the Cherokee Trail of Tears
Dulemba, Elizabeth O. A Bird on Water Street
Ellington, Charlotte Jane. Dancing Leaf.
Fauster, Ted. Fauster's Supernatural Survival Guide
Hamilton, Virginia. The Magical Adventures of Pretty Pearl (and other books on Hamilton page)
Keehn, Sally M. Gnat Stokes and Magpie Gabbard
Lyon, George Ella. Gina. Jamie. Father. Bear
Markle, Sandra. The Fledglings
Partridge, Elizabeth. Clara and the Hoodoo Man
Ransom, Candice. Finding Day's Bottom
Smibert, Angie. The Jelly Jar (short story)
Still, James. Sporty Creek
Vaughn, Sherry T. Melvin's Melons & Grandpa's Eyes
White, Ruth, Belle Prater's Boy
Yep, Laurence. The Star Fisher and Dream Soul
See also Salsi, Lynn. Young Ray Hicks Learns the Jack Tales. Illus. James Young. Montville Press, 2005. A biographical novel about the youth of Ray Hicks, the famous storyteller from Beech Mountain, NC
Cornelissen, Cornelia. Soft Rain: A Story of the Cherokee Trail of Tears. New York: Bantam, 1998. Nine-year-old Soft Rain loves hearing stories daily from her grandmother, until her family is separated during the forced removal of their people from North Carolina to Oklahoma, and the blind grandmother has to be left behind. The book contains background and a bibliography of fiction and nonfiction for all ages on Cherokee legends and history. See much more on this novel in Celebrating Diversity in Appalachia! Exploring Social Issues Through Appalachian Children's Literature.
In an early chapter called "The Little People," Grandmother describes Cherokee beliefs in attractive, child-sized people who "were kind to lost ones, especially children" (p. 11). She tells of a brother and sister who were cared for by Little People when they were lost, and later in life could hear the distant drums of Little People. On the Trail of Tears, when Old Roving Man disappears (a friend who had exchanged stories with Grandmother), Soft Rain hopes Little People will protect him.
Aunt Kee describes the uktena, a "huge snake that has shining scales and horns on its head" and "lurks in deep river pools and dark mountain passes" (p. 52). She tells of a hunter that saves a man by killing the uktena, is given a burned scale from the dead creature, and has good hunting ever after. These tales make Soft Rain afraid to cross rivers on their difficult journey. Aunt Kee says once that maybe these are only stories, while Soft Rain's mother says later that the uktena is said to live in calmer waters (p. 71). For writer Gary Carden's account of the Uktena, see http://tannerywhistle.com/ukt.html.
After Soft Rain's cousin dies, the adults refuse to talk of those who have gone on to the Nightland. Soft Rain tries to remember a story of "how the Sun's daughter was turned into a red bird after she was brought back from the Nightland, but she had forgotten most of it" (p. 54). See The Little People page for references to tales of the Sun's daughter.
Dulemba, Elizabeth O. A Bird on Water Street. San Francisco: Little Pickle Press, 2013. "A Bird on Water Street is a coming-of-age story about Jack, a boy growing up in a Southern Appalachian town environmentally devastated by a century of poor copper-mining practices and pollution. Jack is opposed to the mine where so many of his relatives have died, but how can he tell that to his Dad who wants him to follow in the family trade? Jack just wants his Dad safe and the land returned to its pre-mining glory with trees, birds, frogs, and nature--like he's learning about in school. After Jack's uncle is killed in a mining accident and the Company implements a massive layoff, the union organizes and the miners go on strike. It seems Jack's wish is coming true. But the cost may be the ruin of his home and everything he loves." The book includes photos of Copperhill, Tennessee and the surrounding mining area, and historical background on the story. The protagonist Jack Hicks is named after the hero of the Jack Tales and the famous storyteller Ray Hicks; Jack's mother is related to the Harmon branch of the Beech mountain storytelling family, and the novel contains some discussion and depiction of the family storytelling tradition. The author's web site contains additional background, reviews, and awards.
Ellington, Charlotte Jane. Dancing Leaf. Johnson City, Tenn: Overmountain Press, 2007. A novel in which "authentic Cherokee legends begin each chapter and are woven into the adventures of Dancing Leaf, a character based on the adopted daughter of Cherokee chieftainess Nancy Ward" (Worldcat). She pursues a journey of self-discovery while away from the man she loves, Blue Lake. Chapter titles (available with other excerpts in Google Book Search) indicate the legends retold in this book. They include one about how the possum got a bare tail, "The Uktena," "Why Turtle's Shell is Scarred," "The Legend of the Strawberries," "The Daughter of the Sun," and others. See AppLit's list of Folktale Collections Indexed in AppLit.
Fauster, Ted. Fauster's Supernatural Survival Guide: For the Appalachian Region. Parsons, WV: McClain Printing, 1997. 92 pp. This book is set up as a manual with information on ecology, danger level, and sightings of each mythical creature, such as Ramp Grubs, giant Crawlfish in the New River, Yard Witches, Pond Scum, Foot Fairies, evil Bricabracs that prey on grazing animals, eccentric Bottle Spooks around old glass bottles, Crypt Dust, Porch People that haunt homes after traumatic events, Trestle Slicks on railroad tracks that make railroad workers insane and devour trains, Meadow Dragons that can turn victims to stone after making eye contact and eat their brains, Ice Trolls, Gilded Frog, Blue Devils or Snow Demons, and Roving Trees that eat forest animals. The book is arranged by seasons since "most supernatural creatures are seasonal by nature" ("From the Author). Fauster theorizes that these creatures enter the earth through a "gate or portal, a rip in the fabric of the universe that allows these creatures access to our world," possibly in Fayette County, WV, and they spread throughout the world. A group of unique, deadly individuals is discussed at the end, such as Herman the Hermit of Kentucky. The book does not indicate whether they are based on older folklore.
Hamilton, Virginia. The Magical Adventures of Pretty Pearl (on a separate page)
Justus, May. Most of Justus' books of mid-twentieth-century fiction for children combine realistic stories with Smoky Mountain folklore she had known all her life. Characters sing many traditional songs, often with the words and sometimes with a score included. Few of her stories, even those labeled as American Folk Tales, contain magic, but some of them resemble traditional wonder tales or tall tales. In AppLit's Bibliography of Books by May Justus, see, in particular:
It Happened in No-End Hollow and Tales from Near-Side and Far. Garrard Publishing's American Folk Tale books are introduced as follows: "American Folk Tales are colorful tales of regional origin full of the local flavor and grass roots humor of special people and places. Coming from all areas of the United States, these stories provide entertaining reading and material as well as insight into the customs and backgrounds of the regions from which they spring).
Mr. Songcatcher and Company and Sammy contain stories about ballad collectors. Illustration at right by Jean Tamburine from "Mr. Songcatcher Comes By," a chapter reprinted in Smoky Mountain Sampler, 1962.
Eben and the Rattlesnake and The Right House for Rowdy both contain retellings of the tall tale "The Snake-Bit Hoe Handle."
Jumping Johnny and Skedaddle gives a song about Johnny and refers to Smoky Mountain tall tales about him, but there is just mild exaggeration in the stories about a boy and mule who can both jump high. One chapter has an episode (found elsewhere in oral traditions?) about a big family in a one-room cabin propping their children up against the wall after each one falls asleep in their one bed.
Banjo Billy and Peter Pocket books are about orphans who play and sing a variety of folk songs in their stories.
For a story in which the folksong "I Wish I Was an Apple" helps an African American child fit into a white community, see New Boy in School and discussion in the AppLit article A Greater Fairness: May Justus as Popular Educator (see part 2).
Keehn, Sally M. Gnat Stokes and the Foggy Bottom Swamp Queen. New York: Philomel Books,
2005. In an adaptation of the Scottish ballad "Tam Lin"
or "Tamlane" set in Eastern Tennessee, twelve-year-old Gnat narrates
her attempts to rescue Goodlow Pryce, kidnapped seven
years earlier by Zelda the Swamp Queen. Hope for personal and regional
reconciliation after the Civil War are themes in this novel.
Keehn, Sally M. Gnat Stokes and the Foggy Bottom Swamp Queen. New York: Philomel Books, 2005. In an adaptation of the Scottish ballad "Tam Lin" or "Tamlane" set in Eastern Tennessee, twelve-year-old Gnat narrates her attempts to rescue Goodlow Pryce, kidnapped seven years earlier by Zelda the Swamp Queen. Hope for personal and regional reconciliation after the Civil War are themes in this novel.
Gnat's unknown mother left her in a basket and her father is an exile from their community, which remained loyal to the Union, because he sided with the Confederacy in the recent Civil War. The town's church and school were obliterated by war, but the baptismal pool called Hallelujah Pond helps work miraculous transformations, in a comic adaptation of the use of holy water to rescue Tam Lin from the faerie queen. The lover who waits for Goodlow to return is Penelope (the name of Odysseus' wife waiting for him to return from the ancient Trojan Wars.)
Gnat, a wild but good-hearted heroine, is raised by her grandfather, who is jailed occasionally for making moonshine, and a wonderful granny woman in their neighborhood. Some of Granny Hart's second sight and methods for healing, delivering babies, and other nurturing ways are described. She has three sermons in her that she repeats while giving Gnat her infrequent and painful baths. One sermon is about different kinds of love being like the sides of a crystal.
This is a fantastic story about a magical cat, a locket that makes Gnat fall in love instantly with the missing boy, magic rings, and the legendary swamp queen who can turn herself into a panther and has an army of dangerous creatures called swamp warriors. As in "Tam Lin," the underworld queen parades with her supernatural followers through the land on All Hallow's Eve, when the chance must be seized to rescue the stolen boy, who changes into a series of dangerous forms when humans try to hold him in their world. In this novel, the ensuing struggles between mortality and evil involve the necessity of having a heart, aging, and child-rearing.
When the Swamp Cat asks Gnat for a special love song, she sings a favorite in Mary's Cove, "Sourwood Mountain," which her father had played on his fiddle. She also has to make up bad poems to escape from evil creatures and she and her friends recite Scottish poems by Robert Burns. Their only other book is Ten Nights in a Bar-room, which Gnat reads to younger neighbor children at night because they have no other books of adventures, but the new teacher they so desperately need comes to town in the form of Miss Hope, who owns books on all subjects. By the end, the children start school and get to borrow Miss Hope's coveted copy of Little Women (which was a new novel in 1869), in which Laurie's need to learn that "time and nature work their will in spite of us" provides inspiration for Gnat's future.
Keehn, Sally M. Magpie Gabbard and the Quest for the Buried Moon. New York: Philomel Books, 2007. 208 pp. Original tall tale about a nineteenth-century thirteen-year-old girl in eastern KY who fulfills a prophecy and achieves incredible feats such as returning her brother's chopped-off toe, ending a feud, and rescuing the moon that was trapped by goblins. Inspired partially by the sight of a magpie in Maine, "a little-known English tale about the moon coming to earth as a beautiful woman" and a visit to Settlement on Kentucky's Brush Mountain, where she set the story. A native of Maryland, Keehn learned Appalachian language from West Virginians around her when she grew up and from listening to storytellers and visiting Appalachia.
Lyon, George Ella. Gina. Jamie. Father. Bear. New York: Atheneum/Richard Jackson, 2002. This novel's short chapters alternate between two points of view. Gina is a contemporary high school girl in Shaker Heights, Ohio whose mother leaves the family to live with a man in the mountains of North Carolina. Jamie is a boy who lives with his two sisters and father in another dimension, in an ancient or timeless world of folktales such as Whitebear Whittington. In both families there are three children, but not three sisters as in "Whitebear Whittington" and so many other fairy tales. Both mothers have left because they could not thrive in the world of their husbands, but they do not return as wives do in "Whitebear Whittington" and other Beauty and the Beast tales. Selkie folklore (about sea creaturesoften wiveswho live with humans but ultimately return to their own kind) and other tales of transformation are evoked as the story unfolds. The novel focuses on the quests of Gina, Jamie, and the fathers, not on a wife's virtues or quest to recover her husband after she has broken her promise to him. The children and fathers seek individual healing and family unity. Both fathers need to reveal secrets from their past and share more of themselves with their children who can help make them fully human by day and night. When Jamie's father tells their family history, there is an interesting explanation for the curse placed on the man-bear of folklore. Gina has a ring from her mother's family and two female helpers in her questa Japanese-American school friend and a psychic, both linked with her mother who is a yoga teacher, just as folktale heroines often have magic helpers linked with their departed mothers. Cars, workers at McDonalds, and telephones with caller ID help characters mysteriously find each other in the modern world. In the end Gina's psychic experiences have a profound effect on both families, leaving her to ponder the unfathomable relations between past and present, life and death, the worlds of dreams and everyday consciousness.
Markle, Sandra. The Fledglings. Honesdale, PA: Boyds Mill Press, 1992. After she runs away from Atlanta to find the grandfather she didn't know she had on Snowbird Mountain (near Cherokee, NC), Kate (age 14) learns the language and customs of the Tsa la ki (Cherokee) from him. See more on this book in Celebrating Diversity in Appalachia! Exploring Social Issues Through Appalachian Children's Literature.
When Kate first meets her new friend Dorothy Standingdeer, Dorothy is tending her tso: la ka yv: liancient wild tobacco that is used to work magic. She explains the procedures for tending the tobacco secretly that will make a boy she loves notice and remember her at the Green Corn Festival. Kate's grandfather Tsan knows the old spells for the tobacco love potion and other magic traditions (pp. 89-90).
Kate and Tsan have dangerous adventures fighting off poachers who steal predatory birds from the woods. They rescue a fledgling eagle and name it Tla nu wa, after a great mythical hawk whom Tsan says "would inspire the young bird's spirit." But they also call the young bird Baby (p. 102).
Tsan tells Kate and Dorothy the story of the First Fire, to pass on traditional tales to the younger generation and their descendants. This tale in which the ingenious water spider fetches fire from an island sycamore tree, after other animals get singed in the attempt, foreshadows the climactic crisis when they are attacked by poachers and must use their strength and wits to survive (pp. 104-107). Baby flies for the first time just after the story.
Partridge, Elizabeth. Clara and the Hoodoo Man. New York: Puffin Books, 1996. The novel tells of everyday experiences of a young girl on Red Owl Mountain, Tenn. in 1900, growing up in mountain traditions of raising and storing food, ginseng gathering, home births with midwives, and healing illnesses with herbs. Partridge, a California acupuncturist and writer, did historical research and interviews to fill in the background of Clara's story after her death. When Clara Raglan was over 90 in California, she told Partridge the stories of her life. The Author's Note explains this history and the willow bark healing used all over the world, later synthesized as aspirin.
Claras family celebrates the Juneteenth holiday, observed in many African American communities as the day that word of emancipation got to slaves in Georgiamonths after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued in January 1863. Clara think about her grandmother's stories and visits every year for this holiday.
Clara's father, who is away doing leatherwork for farmers during most of the plot, tells the family stories at night. He tells a short one about an encounter between a pig and rabbit, using the traditional story ending "Stepped on a pin/pin bent/That's the way/the story went."
Clara meets the hoodoo man who lives near them during her successful search for ginseng; after she accidentally breaks her mother's crock, she will trade ginseng to the barterman for a new crock.
Clara is afraid of "haunts" at several points in the story, but her mother's fear of hoodoo contributes most to the climax of the novel. Her mother wears a dime around her neck that is supposed to tarnish if the family is in danger. She reveals that when she was young, she thought her mother's death was caused by a "fixin'" put on her by a hoodoo man.
A Euro-American doctor provides assistance beyond the traditional healing practices of Claras family and neighbors; however, it is mountain tradition of the African American Hoodoo Man which helps most when Claras sister needs healing. Clara's mother has to overcome negative stereotypes of this outcast man to accept his cure of a willow bark bath for her feverish child (notes by Susan V. Mead and Tina L. Hanlon). See more on this book in Celebrating Diversity in Appalachia! Exploring Social Issues Through Appalachian Children's Literature.
Ransom, Candice. Finding Day's Bottom. Minneapolis: Carolrhoda Books, 2006.
The protagonist, Jane-Ery, is grieving for her father, who sang her "Froggie Went a-Courtin'" and called her Miss Mousie after the mouse in the song.
Other folk traditions, such as eating ramps and "telling the bees," are also woven into this Virginia story about Jane-Ery's search for the mythical place her grandfather tells her about in order to help her accept her father's accidental death..
Smibert, Angie. "The Jelly Jar." Cicada 15.4 (2013): 18+. Full text of story available through library services such as MasterFILE Premier (accessed July 17, 2014). An excerpt is available on the Cicada web site (Cricket's magazine for teens), as well as "Behind the Scenes: Designing 'The Jelly Jar'" by designer Melanie Galloway, about creating art for the magazine's iPad version to reflect the setting in a deep mine. This young adult short story, set in a southwestern VA mining community during World War II, contains some magic realism. Will is a young man who lost his voice when he was five and his father was killed in a mine cave-in. with magic realism. As Will begins his work in the mine, the work conditions are described, and especially the lunch that his mother prepares in the bucket his father had used. The magic jelly jar in the lunch bucket leads the story to its intriguing climax and conclusion. Bone, a young woman named after the rock left when the coal is gone, is Will's friend who speaks for him and tells Jack tales and other stories.
Still, James. Sporty Creek. 1977. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 1999. See James Still's Books for and about Children: Bibliography and Study Guide for additional details and references to Still's folklore books. River of Earth, Still's 1940 novel for adults, has a similar child narrator and a similar father who moves the family from their country homes to mining towns (Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 1996).
In Still's intensely realistic fiction, elements of folklore appear as part of the cultural lives of the characters in rural Kentucky. Some characters and events also resemble those found in folk narratives. For example, Uncle Jolly is known as a trickster and a witty. The main character likes to read "Jack and the Giants" at school, and it is interesting to compare and contrast his story with Jack in Still's Jack and the Wonder Beans.
In "Simon Brawl," the first chapter in Sporty Creek (also appearing as a chapter in River of Earth and the short story "The Ploughing"), Uncle Jolly sings a folk song about a stubborn mule. A funny rhyme about a wayward mule named Simon Brawl also appears in Still's book of folklore, The Wolfpen Rusties.
"Locust Summer" tells of folk beliefs related to locusts: the mother's belief that berries in this season are poisonous makes the narrator hungry.
Vaughn, Sherry T. Grandpa's Eyes. Illus. Ernie Ross. Johnson City, TN: Overmountain Press, 1996. Continues the Mountain Magik series about young characters and Wee'uns (see below). See cover and description at Overmountain Press.
Vaughn, Sherry T. Melvin's Melons. Illus. Ernie Ross. Johnson City, TN: Overmountain Press, 1995. A short novel combining realism and folklore, in which twelve-year-old Melvin meets small friendly creatures called Wee'uns, who introduce him to watermelons. Includes a glossary on folklore and dialect. See cover and description at Overmountain Press. Also available on cassette tape. See also AppLit folktale index page on Cherokee Little People.
White, Ruth. Belle Prater's Boy. New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell/Yearling, 1996. This novel is a youth book in the Roanoke Valley Reads program in Fall 2013, along with Jack Outwits the Giants by Paul Brett Johnson.
This is a realistic novel with more details from American popular culture (television, advertising, comic books, movies) than Appalachian folklore.
Belle Prater's sudden disappearance on Oct. 11, 1953 is so mysterious that that someone in the southwestern Virginia town makes up a song about her and sings it with a bluegrass band "in Coal Station's main honky-tonk," illustrating how regional folk songs about legendary people and events get started. The narrator, Gypsy, says her aunt Belle "became a kind of folk heroine, like Rose Conley in the song 'Down in the Willow Gardens'" (p. 5; this is a murder ballad that is often called "Rose Conley").
Blind Benny's role as the town sin eater is based on traditional beliefs (found in parts of Europe as well as Appalachia) about having someone (usually a person perceived as poor and hopeless) eat food that is laid out when someone dies, to take in the sins of the dead person.
Blind Benny, who wanders the town streets at night, sings traditional American folk and gospel songs such as "Tramp on the Street" (lyrics in Gospel Music Archive at this link) and "Red River Valley" (lyrics and Great Plains background in Plains Folk web site at this link). He also sings "When the Moon Comes over the Mountain," which was Gypsy's father's favorite song. Jennifer Smith's article "The Music of Appalachian Children's Literature" discusses Blind Benny and the origins of "Red River Valley" in Appalachian New York, in the Mohawk Valley in the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains. [Children and Libraries 5 (Winter 2007): pp. 32-33.]
Woodrow, Belle's son and Gypsy's cousin, is a talented teller of jokes and stories, concocting some fantastic stories on short notice to win friends, outsmart unkind people, and cope with his conflicting feelings about his mother's disappearance. He tells a dramatic ghost story about his Aunt Millie being rescued after being buried alive.
Gypsy, at age 11, thinks of herself as Rapunzel, imprisoned behind the beautiful long blonde hair that her mother refuses to cut. The hair plays an important role in Gypsy's struggle to understand her father's death and deal with her feelings about herself and her family. Her name—Gypsy Arbutus Leemaster, sometimes called Beauty—also suggests a fairy tale character.
Gypsy learns about her father's arrival in the town "riding over Cold Mountain on a black horse. . . . Dark and rugged as the hills," unlike anyone else in their town. Her grandmother says "he was like a knight in shining armor," telling Gypsy about the conflict between her mother and aunt over this irresistible man they both loved (p. 19).
In the sequel,
The Search for Belle Prater (
York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2005), Benny makes a brief appearance. A new
girl, Cassie, explains that she was born with a caul and has extraordinary
gifts, such as second sight. When the children travel to Bluefield on a bus
that Cassie's father drives, a country band that gets on the bus at night
plays some songs and sings.
The Search for Belle Prater (
York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2005), Benny makes a brief appearance. A new
girl, Cassie, explains that she was born with a caul and has extraordinary
gifts, such as second sight. When the children travel to Bluefield on a bus
that Cassie's father drives, a country band that gets on the bus at night
plays some songs and sings.
New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2005), Benny makes a brief appearance. A new girl, Cassie, explains that she was born with a caul and has extraordinary gifts, such as second sight. When the children travel to Bluefield on a bus that Cassie's father drives, a country band that gets on the bus at night plays some songs and sings.
Yep, Laurence. The Star Fisher. New York: Morrow Junior Books, 1991. A Chinese family brings their traditions with them when they move from Ohio to Clarksburg, WV in the 1920s. See more on this book in Celebrating Diversity in Appalachia! Exploring Social Issues Through Appalachian Children's Literature.
In chapter 4, after the two sisters have been frightened by bigoted townspeople, the narrator helps her younger sister and herself fall sleep by telling a familiar story their mother had told them. The magical Star Fisher and her daughter are outsiders in the world of a farmer who forced the beautiful woman to marry him. Eventually the daughter helps her mother trick her father into revealing where he had hidden the cloak he took from the woman on the night that her singing and dancing with her sisters seduced him. Recovering her golden cloak of feathers, the woman returns to her place in the sky as a golden kingfisher and later her daughter joins her. Yep identifies his main source of the tale as de Groot's Religious Systems of China (Leyden: E. J. Brill, 1892-1910).
This tale full of romantic images of the night and wind and stars is similar to many animal bride or groom tales in other cultures, such as Celtic selkie stories about creatures that are half-human and half-seal, who live on the land for a while but must return to the sea. Their spouses who want to keep them in the human world represent a mixture of guilt and love.
There are parallels in the star fisher tale and the fate of the Lee family in a new, unwelcoming place, as fifteen-year-old Joan feels trapped and lonely, longs for escape, and recognizes the frailties and strengths of her mother. At the end of chap. 6, Joan "couldn't help remembering the story from last night. I wondered if the star fisher's daughter had felt just as lonely in her village" (p. 66).
As she begins to understand her mother's own lifelong struggles, such as being married young to a poetic, impractical man who provided only a meager income for the family, Joan imagines in chap. 10 that "it almost seemed as if there were a soft, golden glow about Mama's shoulders; and I thought that if I half closed my eyes I might see a feather cloak." Realizing there are no other Chinese women within a hundred miles, Joan thinks, "All Mama had was me and Emily, and we were half-alien to her. In her own way, Mama must have felt as cut off as the star fisher" (p. 99). But Mama's plan to return to China one day also frightens Emily. "And I wondered how her daughter had felt when the star fisher told her they were both going back to the skyback to that strange world that was their birthright and yet was so mysterious and frightening" (p. 100). When she asks if China will be magical, it is clear that Joan has her father's poetic nature while her practical mother with strong arms cannot understand her questions.
By the end of the novel Joan feels affection for the valley where the setting sun makes the windows twinkle like stars in a green sea. She remembers how the star fishers "had shone as they had gathered the stars. And I wondered what it would be like to glide back and forth in the sky, shining like a comet. Suddenly the town didn't scare me anymore because it was like a sea that was all mine to explore. 'So maybe I'll fish for a few stars'" (p. 147).
Yep, Laurence. Dream Soul. New York: Harper Trophy, 2000. This sequel to The Star Fisher takes place in 1927, with the focus on Joan's struggles to understand her strict father. See also notes in AppLit's Christmas Book Bibliography. Yep includes notes about his mother's family history living in West Virginia, and the real woman who inspired the character Miss Lucy.
In the midst of conflicts between the Lee children's desire to celebrate Christmas with Miss Lucy and the rest of the town, and their parents' insistence on remaining Chinese, Mr. Lee says there is plenty of magic in Chinese culture. He tells a Chinese story about a girl who is mistreated by a mean stepmother (like Cinderella or Yeh-Shen characters) after her father dies. The girl's soul splits in two (according to Chinese beliefs that our second soul travels when we sleep), leaving her abused body behind. The girl encounters a sobbing star, wishes that her stepmother could be happy, and puts the star's tears in her mouth. Later they turn to diamonds that the girl sells and she lives happily ever after. When the greedy stepmother wants diamonds, she pretends to be an orphan and takes as many of the star's tears as she can, but she disregards warnings about the sun rising, stays too long, and is burned up. Other Western tales with similar motifs are "Toads and Diamonds" and "Daedalus and Icarus," except that here it is the stepmother, rather than envious sisters or a disobedient son, who does herself in.
A realistic cautionary tale about a greedy, short-sighted parent unfolds in the novel when a seemingly rich man who moves to town, charming everyone and pampering his daughter Victoria, appears like the ideal father to Joan. When it comes out that he is broke and Joan watches them leave town after cheating her landlady and friend out of money, Joan pities the daughter, realizing her father's hard work is a better way of showing love for his family. Joan identifies with Victoria's wishes and dreams about having a more normal family and community life.
Like many downtrodden folktale characters, Joan and her siblings feel mistreated because they have to work harder than other children. Their father agrees to let them celebrate Christmas only if they are good until then, but conflicting loyalties, the temptations of American childhood, and accidents make it impossible for them to stay out of trouble long enough.
In the tale, a wisewoman of the village helps the unfeeling stepmother recall the girl's soul using a piece of her clothing. The kind, elderly neighbor Miss Lucy is the old wisewoman next door to the Lees. She not only shares her family heirlooms and lifelong memories of West Virginia Christmases with them, but she helps solve the mystery of Mr. Lee's illness by searching through her grandfather's medical journals.
Joan's dreams in a couple episodes involve the pressures she feels as the oldest child of strict parents, and her worries about her parents. When her father grows ill, she dreams that their snowwoman buries her until their bodies are one and her souls freeze—a contrast to the ending of the Chinese story. However, playing in the snow develops through the novel from something that horrifies the parents (from a tropical climate) and upsets the town's and Joan's social relations (when Joan dares to sled face-down and fast like the boys and dents the newcomers' expensive car) to a joyous example of family fun.
When her scholarly father is most seriously ill, Joan discovers that he interrogates them so harshly about their school lessons daily because he works at learning along with them but is too proud to admit it. While tidying his desk, Joan feels a breeze and fears one of her father's souls is escaping, so she chases it outside, holding his writing brush, and believes she catches it. Her loyal American friends stick by her even though her behavior when chasing the soul seems crazy. Just as Joan has felt that she switches roles with her parents when they depend on her to deal with Americans, she takes on the role of the older women in the Chinese story, trying to retrieve the lost soul, except that her motives now are based purely on love.
After the father recovers and the parents allow the Christmas celebration that Miss Lucy longs to share with them, Mr. Lee admits that Master Kung (Confucius) might "be a bit too dry for the young ones," promising to send for more Chinese stories like the one about the star's tears (p. 221).
The younger child Emily pleases her father by making him a bookmark for Christmas shaped like the star's tears. He is so happy they remember his story, and Miss Lucy is so curious, that Mr. Lee insists Joan would be good at retelling the story to their friend.
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Coberly, Lenore McComas. The Handywoman Stories. Athens, OH: Swallow Press/Ohio University Press, 2002. In this collection of compelling West Virginia short stories spanning most of the twentieth century, "Sweet Shrub" ends with an offer from the governor's wife to sell Ruby Louise's dried sweet shrub flowers at the state cultural center. Ruby thanks her but never sends the flowers to Charleston because "it was Mother's bush and mine to hand on" (p. 75). She gives bags of the dried flowers to her neighbors and the smell of sweet shrub permeates her reminiscences about her family and life with her neighbors. "Night-Blooming Cereus" tells of the local custom of gathering for food and admiration late at night when a neighbor's cereus blooms once a year. When the bloom is open, "it was easy to believe there was a light coming from it and we could see, just for an hour, the mother and child" (p. 40). Ruby Louise spends this evening with her sweetheart just before he goes to war and dies. Ruby Louise is the "handywoman" who mentions various recipes and folkways in the stories about her. Her friend's secret recipe for dried fruit cake is revealed in the last story. In "The Evidence of Things Not Seen," a woman decides to exploit her grandfather's reputation for storytelling and tells one of his old funny stories about neighbors and a spitoon to help convince some of the townspeople to back the proposal for a consolidated high school.
Conley, Robert J. Mountain Windsong: A Novel of the Trail of Tears. Norman: U of OK Press, 1995. The author, "a member of the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokees. . . makes use of song, legend, and historical documents to weave the rich texture of this love story that brings to life the suffering and endurance of the Cherokee people" (back cover). A grandfather in the Smoky Mountains of NC, while listening to the wind, says he hears an old love song and tells his grandson the story of the legendary lovers Oconeechee and Waguli, or Whippoorwill, on the Trail of Tears.
Danvers, Dennis. All the Snake Handlers I Know Are Dead. Tor Books, 2013. 24 pp. A "dark, magical realism tale about a lone woman building a cabin in the mountains of Appalachia and the strange man she encounters there."
Ehle, John. The Winter People. For comparisons with mythic archetypes such as Demeter, Persephone, and Hades, see AppLit Article "The Altar of Patriarchy in John Ehle's The Winter People" by M. Katherine Grimes.
Keel, John A. The Mothman Prophecies. New York: Tor, 1975. In Point Pleasant, West Virginia in 1966, a journalist investigates strange events, including sightings of a winged creature known as the Mothman. The Afterword tells of the author's experiences in Point Pleasant in the 1960s. Made into a feature film in 2001. See http://www.spe.sony.com/movies/mothman.
McCrumb, Sharyn. The Ballad series of novels. Links on titles below are to McCrumb's web site The Ballad Novels, with pictures and background on each book. The novels are based on research on McCrumb's own family history and the folklore, music, natural history, and social history of Appalachia.
McCrumb, Sharyn. The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter. Onyx Books, 1992. Second in McCrumb's Ballad series. Wise woman Nora Bonesteel sews a funeral quilt with six graves on it; the graves are filled by murder victims and other characters whose lives are intertwined in the novel. One dies from carcinogenic pollution caused by a paper company. McCrumb describes the novel's subject as Appalachia in the liminal state of a borderland between past and present, east and west, wholesome and polluted places, life and death. Kirkus called the novel "compelling, in the manner of a folk tale" (1992).
McCrumb, Sharyn. If Ever I Return, Pretty Peggy-O. Ballantine, 1991. First in McCrumb's Ballad series. Intrigued by a big white house near Wilson, North Carolina, McCrumb made up a legend about a modern folksinger who might live in such a house in Tennessee. The singer named Margaret (Peggy Muryan) is haunted by the tragic story in the Childe ballad "Little Margaret." Sheriff Spencer Arrowood, who helps Peggy after she receives a threatening note alluding to the death of Margaret in the ballad, becomes a continuing character in the later Ballad novels. The loss of traditional folkways, with old ballads replaced by 1960s pop music, is a theme of this novel. McCrumb's web page on this book explains how she developed soundtracks for herself of songs that relate to each ballad novel.
McCrumb, Sharyn. The Legend of Frankie Silver. Dutton, 1999. Fifth of McCrumb's Ballad series novels. Sheriff Spencer Arrowood, reconsidering the conviction of a death row inmate, recalls the story of Frankie Silver, the first woman to be hanged in NC, for the murder of her husband in 1831. McCrumb constructs a narrative of the Silver case framed by the present-day story. Based on extensive research (notes by Lana A. Whited. See her Frankie Silver Resources in AppLit, which includes references to ballads about Frankie Silver).
McCrumb, Sharyn. The Rosewood Casket. New York: Penguin, 1996. Fourth in McCrumb's Ballad series. Wise woman Nora Bonesteel becomes the center of a mystery when she tells the family of her former sweetheart that a box must be buried with him, and the box contains the bones of a child. Clayt, the youngest son, is a naturalist and Daniel Boone re-enactor who loves the family farm and wants to save the land "from a real estate developer bent on despoiling the mountain." Traditions and techniques relating to making the father's coffin out of rosewood according to his instructions cause some conflict and difficulty for the Stargill sons, one of whom is a Nashville musician. The father's dreams and visions during his last long illness reveal events and emotions of the past. The narration alternates between past and present plot lines with interwoven themes. The opening refers to several ancient Cherokee legends.
McCrumb, Sharyn. She Walks These Hills. Signet, 1994. Third in McCrumb's Ballad series. Katie Wyler, who escaped from her Shawnee kidnappers in the late eighteenth century and then died after traveling hundreds of miles home, is still a ghost wandering the wilderness, seen by wise woman Nora Bonesteel. Modern characters are tracing her path, including a historian, a rural woman trapped in a bad marriage, and a police deputy who finds parallels between her life and Katie's. Hiram (Harm) Sorley, who has lost his memory and seeks his 1967 home, becomes a folk hero as an escapee from a Tennessee prison. McCrumb calls him "an Appalachian Don Quixote" and "the last moonshiner." Hiram's daughter is a scholar tracing Appalachia's geological history up through Nova Scotia and over to western Scotland.
McCrumb, Sharyn. The Songcatcher. Dutton, 2001. Sixth in McCrumb's Ballad series. A successful modern folksinger, Lark McCourry, traces the history of a song that was passed down through generations of her family until she learned it from her North Carolina relatives as a child. The story of young Malcolm MacQuarry,who was kidnapped in eighteenth-century Scotland and brought to America, is based on McCrumb's ancestor. The British ballad collector Cecil Sharpe is part of the story in the early twentieth century. Excerpt from this novel in Listen Here: Women Writing in Appalachia. Eds. Sandra L. Ballard and Patricia L. Hudson. Lexington: Univ. Press of KY, 2003. See Thematic Table of Contents for Listen Here in AppLit.
Norman, Gurney. Ancient Creek: A Folktale. Lexington, Ky: Old Cove Press, 2012. 136 pp. Summary: "Norman's novella-length folktale tells the story of resistance among the folks against an evil King. Using the Appalachian region as a model, the tale describes a mythic hill domain that has been exploited by the forces of a colonizing empire. The hero Jack, familiar from the Jack tale tradition, is the fugitive leader of the people's revolt and the nemesis of the King. Wounded survivors of the revolution find solace and healing on Ancient Creek where old Aunt Haze is the guiding spirit.... Told in mock-heroic language, Ancient Creek employs satire, comic irony, regional speech and the voice of a storyteller as it moves toward its hopeful conclusion. 'Ancient Creek is an idea as well as a physical place in the Hill Domain that has not been spoiled by humans,' says Norman. 'It is so pure, so far back in the mountains, it does not appear on the King's maps. Ancient Creek refers to the old stream. It's an actual stream but also a river of words, a stream of consciousness that bears the old legends and lore and the old wisdom. There are forces in the world that want to destroy that river, to destroy all native and natural life, bring it under control for whatever profit that may be in it. That is what the resistance is about.' First recorded as a spoken-word album by Appalshop in 1975, Ancient Creek appears in book form for the first time in this Old Cove Press edition. In addition to Norman's original tale, the book includes essays about the story. A digitally remastered CD of the 1975 reading is being published concurrently with the book by June Appal Recordings, a division of Appalshop. The book and CD feature cover art by noted Kentucky artist Pam Oldfield Meade, who painted her vision of Ancient Creek." Additional contents: "Living into the Land" by Jim Wayne Miller, "I'm Jack!" by Kevin I. Eeyster, "Reading Ancient Creek" by Annalucia Accardo, "October 30, 1975" by Dee Davis, and "The story of Ancient Creek" by Gurney Norman.
Smith, Lee. Fair and Tender Ladies. New York: Ballantine, 1988. At the end of the novel Smith lists written and oral sources of the "Appalachian legends, history, songs, and tales" she used, including Richard Chase's Grandfather Tales (p. 319). The novel records the life of Ivy Rowe, through letters she writes to various people. She lives in a town for a while as a girl but spends most of her life in her native mountains.
Early in the book, Ivy Rowe hears old women in the mountains tell folktales that she thinks of periodically throughout her life. The Cline sisters, two "maiden ladys," come down from Hell Mountain to visit Ivy's father just before he dies. Ivy says that people take them food just to hear their stories, but "I think myself they live on storys, they do not need much food" (p. 25).
They tell Old Dry Fry, Ivy's father's favorite funny story about a preacher who eats himself to death and then is passed from person to person because everyone fears being accused of murder if they are found with the body, since "everybody knowed Old Dry Fry" (pp. 26-27).
Ivy's sister Silvaney, who thinks it must be Old Christmas (Jan. 5) because that is when the Cline sisters usually visited, asks them to tell Mutsmag. Ivy gives a brief version that begins like Chase's Mutsmag, but has a very unusual ending: the giant eats the mean sisters, Poll and Betts, and then turns into a prince who takes Mutsmag to a faraway country to be Queen. Ivy writes, "I loved that one" (p. 28). When she was asked in 2001 where she got this version, Lee Smith wrote that it was probably from Chase, but she apparently forget how she came up with the ending (e-mail to Tina Hanlon). In a later conversation (June 14, 2004), Smith said that she heard "Mutsmag" in her childhood.
After the younger children go to sleep and Ivy wonders, looking at her dying father, whether anything will last, the sisters tell Whitebear Whittington for Ivy, "in a whisper so low it was like it was toled in my very own head" (p. 28). Ivy records this one in detail, with its romantic symbols of white roses and three drops of blood, and the woman who "walked the mountain for seven long years" to recover her husband and break the enchantment that had made him a white bear in the daytime. "I think this is the bestest story I have ever heerd." After the sisters disappear into the snowy mountains like flying fairies or waterbugs, Ivy thinks she sees Whitebear Whittington "walking into the dark trees," with three drops of blood on his back (pp. 28-32).
When her favorite poem is "Young Lochinvar," Ivy says it reminds her of Whitebear Whittington (p. 48).
After her brother Danny dies and the family is moving, Ivy writes to her dead Daddy about all she has lost, her memories, and the stories he used to tell before he got sick. "I think I still see Whitebear Whittington laying under the tree" (p. 75).
When Ivy meets coal company owners from Detroit who hunt deer on Hell Mountain and take the carcasses home, although a deer could feed a mountain family for months, she imagines they have seen Whitebear Whittington. But she is afraid to ask if the bear that "outsharped them" was white because she does "not want to know, if it was NOT" (p. 85).
When Ivy goes to school in town and a missionary asks her to go to Boston, she thinks of the old lady sisters who told stories and Whitebear Whittington, and all the beautifully bound books she could read in Boston (but she does not go) (p. 101).
At the hour of her death in old age, when many fragmentary allusions from folklore and literature run through her last letter to Silvaney, Ivy thinks of Whitebear Whittington as a "wild, wild" bear running at night up on Hell Mountain (p. 316).
When her daughter Joli is visiting, Ivy feels like a girl again and tells the stories of Mutsmag, Old Dry Fry, and "how Jack fooled the smart red fox" (possibly referring to a variant of The Three Little Pigs and the Fox). Of the old stories she says, "It's funny how clear I can recall them" (p. 199).
Ivy writes to her granddaughter about how they both love the old family stories, telling "Chunk of Meat," which scared her when she was a child. "I loved stories like that, when I was your age. I liked to get real scared" (pp. 310-11). See Chase's Grandfather Tales for this tale.
Ivy also likes to read poetry from a young age and often alludes to nursery rhymes and other poems and literary classics. When Ivy's brother Babe is shot dead by his lover's husband and Ivy rides to get help, she imagines herself like the highwayman from the traditional poem, "riding up to the old inn door. . . [with] terrible news" (p. 63).
When she is forty and lives on a mountain for a while with Honey Breeding, a roaming man, he sings songs that make Ivy laugh and cry. She repeats several sad lines from "Poor Wayfaring Stranger" (p. 235).
Still, James. River of Earth. 1940. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 1996. See notes above on Still's children's novel Sporty Creek, also narrated by a boy who is a cousin of the narrator in River of Earth. See also James Still bibliography and study guide.
Taliaferro, Harden E. Fisher's River (North Carolina): Scenes and Characters by "Skitt [pseud.], Who was Raised Thar." New York: Harper & Brothers, 1859. Rpt. New York: Arno Press, 1977. See articles listed at Background Resources on Appalachian Folktales, including Hathaway, Paula. "Folktales in the Literary Work of Harden E. Taliaferro: A View of Southern Appalachian Life in the Early Nineteenth Century." North Carolina Folklore Journal, vol. 31 (Fall-Winter 1983): pp. 65-75. Hathaway discusses the novel's fictional storytellers, their hunting and fishing tales, and an African American sermon, "The Origin of the Whites." "The Ride in the Peach-Tree" is one of the hunting tales told by Uncle Davy.
This page created 4/20/02 | Top of Page | Last update 07/01/2008
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