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 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)
Justus, May
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.

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:

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. 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 creatures—often wives—who 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 quest—a 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.

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.

Ransom, Candice. Finding Day's Bottom. Minneapolis: Carolrhoda Books, 2006.

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).

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.

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.

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.

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Fiction for Adults

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

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 AppalachianAncient Creek cover 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.

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.

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