Monday, June 1, 2015

Mrs. Book Doctor Strikes Again: Reading NC

Wanda wrote:

Our girls’ night out group started reading books for book club night.  It went over so well that we want to read a North Carolina "destination" book.  That means any fiction or non-fiction book about NC.  We want to read it then visit the place the book was written. I hope that makes sense. I'd like your input on some titles.   

My (extensive) reply:

After living in North Carolina for twenty years now, I realize that most of my favorite books set in the state take place in Western North Carolina.  At risk of insulting some of my dear friends (and all teenage girls in general), I don’t read Nicholas Sparks.  One was enough.  I get it.  If I want to cry, I’ll do so on my own terms.  If you just want an excuse to go to the beach, then that’s up to you.  This is my disclaimer.

I know Ann River Siddons has many novels set on the coast.  It’s probably been more than fifteen years since I read one though.  I read mountain books.

One of the first North Carolina writers I discovered—and whose books I devoured—is Clyde Edgerton. Raney would be such a fun book for starters—and part of it takes place at the NC beach.  You will love the main character.  I also love Walking Across Egypt.  Its opening scene, in which the woman forgets she’s had her chairs re-caned and gets her rear end stuck through the seat of her rocking chair until the dog catcher arrives, is priceless. Mattie Rigsbee is one of the most hilarious and compassionate characters on any page of any book.

I know Ann River Siddons has many novels set on the coast.  It’s probably been more than fifteen years since I read one though.  I read mountain books.

Hands down, my all time favorite is Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain. I read it in China the week it came out, on recommendation from another writer from North Carolina author Donald Secreast.  I went on to teach the novel to my APP and then AP high school seniors for several years, and I’ve never enjoyed teaching a novel more.  Some people find the first two chapters slow going, but they are introducing the two alternating main characters (and weaving some threads you can trace throughout this beautiful crafted book.) 

One year, my students and I decided to find Cold Mountain and climb it.  Several of us met and drove west, picking our way as best we could. We finally stopped at a convenience store near Canton and asked how to get there. It’s not on a tourist route, believe me.  We ended up parked near a house with a three-legged dog straight out of the novel. The same house had cages of roosters in the yard “for sale.”  These birds looked like they might know a little something about obscure rural sporting events, but the statute of limitations is probably up by now.

The climb was arduous and beautiful.  I remember one student remarking, “No wonder it took Inman so long to get home.”  The plant life reminded us of the copy of Bartram’s Travels Inman kept in his haversack.  We flushed grouse along the path.  On our way back, we found the sign marking the elevation of Cold Mountain and took a group photo I still keep on my bookshelf.

A couple of years later,   the AP Calculus and AP Biology teachers and I took a busload of students, leaving the day after my students (many of whom were in the other two classes as well) had just finished the novel.  They had conflicting emotions and the usual questions.  As planned, when we stopped halfway up the mountain by a stream for lunch, my students read favorite passages from the novel they felt most appropriate for the setting. Then the calculus students used fishing line, measuring tapes and ping pong balls to estimate the population that could be serve by the water supply. The biology students tested the water quality and contrasted it to that of the stream behind our school campus.

The trip to Cold Mountain may not be the usual girl trip, though, unless you’re all hikers. Since the book starts in Raleigh and makes way through Happy Valley in Caldwell County and up to Grandfather Mountain (where Inman meets my favorite minor character, the goat woman), the book opportunities can be cultivated. I have a map showing the places visited during the book.

I also enjoy Sheila Kay Adams’ My Own True Love , which bears comparison to Lee Smith’s Fair and Tender Ladies set in Appalachian Virginia. Adams’ book is set near “Bloody Madison” County.  The Civil War history of this particular little wedge of Western NC is worth looking into.  As you may know, many in the mountains of Western North Carolina didn’t support the Confederacy, for a number of reasons. First, they felt a close tie to the union (the country, not the army) because of their own part in military history.  Just as significant, these were small farmers, not wealthy slave-owning planters.  They didn’t think it was their fight.  Sheila Kay is a storyteller, ballad singer, and National Heritage Award winner.

Ron Rash is a favorite author who sets his novels in this part of the state too. The World Made Straight is also set in Madison County and moves back and forth between the present and the Civil War past.  This one has been made into a movie, which, though lower budget than Serena, is supposed to be excellent.  Personally, I read everything Rash writes—poetry, novels, and short stories. Check out his first  novel One Foot in Eden.

Wayne Caldwell’s Cataloochee and its sequel Requiem by Fire are also set in the Great Smoky Mountains in the early part of the twentieth century.

If you want a wicked little satire, Lookaway, Lookaway by William Barnhardt absolutely skewers Charlotte society focusing on several members of a wealthy society family. You have fraternity-sorority clashes between Carolina and NC State, Civil War Re-enactments, Country Club under-the-table real estate deals, an aging author who, despite his financial success, never lived up to his literary promise, and a daughter who “accidentally” shoots her new husband with one of her father’s pistols.

Author Tony Earley grew up in Rutherfordton, NC, and now teaches at Vanderbilt University.  His novel Jim the Boy is simply and beautiful. It’s the story of a boy whose father dies when he’s a baby. The mother’s bachelor brothers step in to help her raise him.  There are scenes from the book that are imprinted on my memory.  I don’t know what you’d do on a road trip to Rutherfordton—except maybe keep driving to Asheville. He also has a great collection of essays entitled Somehow Form a Family, about growing up when we did (and I use “we” loosely.)

Speaking of Asheville, that’s where Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald (F. Scott’s wife) burned to death in a mental hospital. Her husband spent time there as well (staying at the Grove Park Inn). I really loved Therese Fowler’s novel about her, Z.  Edith Wharton and Greensboro’s own O. Henry, best known for “The Gift of the Magi” also spent time in Asheville. The city has a little literary walk highlighting some of the authors—not to forget Thomas Wolfe, whose home should be open for tours.

I also love Allan Gurganus’ novels.  The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All takes a while to read, but it’s monumental. He also has some collections of interlocking short stories set in his fictional town Falls, NC (including Local Souls.)  You can’t visit a fictional town, but Hillsborough, where he lives, is also home to Lee Smith and her husband Hal Crowther, and a number of other writers. It’s a charming town with tea rooms , antique and gift shops.

I loved Jill McCorkle’s recent novel Life after Life, but it’s set in a nursing home next to a cemetery. Not exactly a road trip.   For a short trip, and a really good cheeseburger, read Shari Smith’s I Am a Town, mostly set in Claremont, NC.  It’s a book with a perfect sense of place. 

Your best option might be to pick where you want to go, and then let me match a book to it.  If you want to visit the mountains, I think I can give you an exhaustive list.  In fact, I could probably come up with another list tomorrow.


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