|The Art of Sharyn McCrumb
by Dr. Susan Wittig Albert
One of the interesting changes taking place in contemporary American mainstream and popular fiction is the increasing number of regional novels that are published each year. Commercial publishing being what it is, this growth is in part a response to editors and readers preferences. But it also arises out of the desire of writers to resist the McDonaldization of American culture by focusing on the particularities, the individual qualities of a region. Or they may have a compelling wish to preserve the history of a place or a people, or to explore its rich folk literature, now in danger of being eroded by mass market entertainment.
Sharyn McCrumb, whose growing body of word marks her as a writer of emerging significance, turns to the regional novel, I think, because she sees how urgent it is that we recognize what is around us before it has disappeared, eroded by the commercialization of our culture, leveled by Network English, or normalized by “national standards.” In She Walks These Hills, the third book in her “Ballad Series,” she shows us these forces for change in Appalachia, and weighs them against the allure of the tragic past and the enticement of home; that place, the root of the heart, that is most particular, and most unchanged. Writing with a sure, strong sense of place, she initiates us into the deepest mysteries of home and heart and offers us an Appalachian novel that is at once a celebration and a requiem. She does this, I think, from two perspectives: from the objective, “outer” viewpoint of the anthropologist, and from the inner viewpoint of the artist.
The Art of the Anthropologist
From the anthropological references scattered throughout her books, it is clear that McCrumb reads widely in the field of anthropology. In one series of her books, the main character, Elizabeth MacPherson, is a forensic anthropologist. In the dedication of If Ever I Return, Pretty Peggy-O, (the first book in the Ballad Series) she calls herself a bricoleur, a term used by Levi-Strauss to describe someone who cobbles together odds and ends of old things, retaining their forms and their special characteristics while creating something strikingly new, something unique and different. And in She Walks These Hills, (p.251)1, she describes history graduate Jeremy Cobb as being “betwixt and between,” the title of a book by anthropologist Victor Turner that describes the experience of passage. On the same page, she refers to Turners idea of “liminality: an ecstatic condition of mind, ritually induced, in which the individual is particularly susceptible to the mysterious forces of the natural and supernatural worlds.” In all her books, McCrumb demonstrates an anthropologists understanding of myth; we tell ourselves stories to explain who we are and how we got that way.
To describe McCrumbs art, Id like to borrow two concepts from the French structural anthropologist, Claude Levi-Strauss. According to Levi-Strauss, the basic form of prose narrative is linear, or diachronic. A narrative, especially one that is built around a strong plot, moves through time with a compelling forward energy, like a melody, one note following another. The writer may construct multiple plots or use flashbacks, or she may tell the story from different points of view, altering the forward movement. But on the most powerful moments of narrative—perhaps the most powerful movement—is the diachronic pull, tugging the reader through the unfolding story. According to Levi-Strauss, however, there is another kind of structure, most often found in myth, which he calls synchrony. If diachronic patterns are like simple melodies, moving across time, synchronic patterns are like complex harmonies- chord structures produced by multiple, blended voices, none of which are dominant. Myth and folktales, with the repetitions and redundancies, are strongly synchronic. So is lyric poetry; echoing metaphors, rhymes, and rhythms thwart our forward movement through the poem, pulling us back again and again to its central concept, its emotional core. While She Walks These Hills is constructed with a diachronic thrust that compels us forward, through the plot, it is also built synchronically, like a folktale, like a poem, like a ballad.
The Art of the Balladeer
As the term “Ballad Series” suggests, the narrative form of McCrumbs mystery is also the poetic form of a folk ballad. Ballads are long poems built of short stanzas with a great deal of repetition, designed to make sure that the audience cant miss the central idea; if the story is not understood in one way or at one level, it will be understood at another. Ballad stanzas are often organized in units something like the chapters in a book, each of which is built on a particular motif or theme and usually has a common rhyming pattern or pattern of linked words. (This kind of organization is probably related to the oral origins of the ballad. In past centuries, ballad-makers composed their songs aloud, the rhyme may have been a key to holding long segments of story in their memories.)
The structure of She Walks These Hills is very simple, built out of the familiar folktale motifs of the heros escape from captivity and the journey home. But the novel achieves an extraordinary complexity as the writer repeats these motifs in different ways and at different levels in the interwoven stories of seven people, each a hero in his or her own ballad. When we set out the basic outlines of the characters stories, their relationships become clearer and we see how each individual narrative replicates, ballad-fashion, the central statement of the novel: that the fundamental mystery of human life is a journey into the personal past and the past of the community, a “journey of revelations” into the depths of the human heart.
In 1780, pregnant Katie Wyler is captured by Shawnee. She gives birth, then kills her child in order to escape her captivity. She journeys home through the Appalachian wilderness but on her arrival is murdered by the babys father, enraged at her betrayal. Her spirit lingers on as the “woman who walks the hills.”
Graduate student and “seeker of knowledge” Jeremy Cobb plans to earn his Ph.D. with a dissertation on Katie Wyler. He leaves the university to follow her path through the wilderness. The journey is an initiation for this “pasteurized, climate-controlled, mobilized product of a softer era” (62) into the savage mystery of the wilderness, as well as an initiation into his profession as a historian, the teller of other peoples stories.
Teen-aged Sabrina is a Melungeon ("an olive-skinned people of uncertain origin who had lived in the northeast Tennessee mountains for generations.” (79)) who marries a Harkryder boy and finds herself a captive in the Harkryders mountain compound. Like Katie, Sabrina kills her baby in order to escape. “I just had to get away from there...I felt like a prisoner having to stay trapped up there in Painter Cove, missing my own people... I thought if I could just get shut of this kid, things could go back to being like they was before, and Id be free to leave.” (318)
63-year-old Harm Sorley is afflicted with Korsakoffs Syndrome and is “stuck” in memory in the 1960's He escapes from prison and walks 50 miles home through the wilderness, only to rush to his death in his burning former home. The Sorleys are “part of the vivid old days,” as Nora Bonesteel remembers: ‘They sailed through dust on washboard roads in their battered black coupes; co-starred in every court docket posted in the county; and swaggered their way into oblivion, leaving a trail of blood and broken hearts in their wake. Harm was the last of them.... she would hate to see him go.’ (2)
Harms ex-wife Rita leaves the respectability of her prison-like second marriage (“spending her life being grateful and walking a social chalk line,” (324)) to search for Harm. Upon her return to their abandoned trailer home, she is murdered by her second husband, enraged at her faithlessness.
Hank the Yank, a “carpetbagger from Connecticut,” is a radio talk show host who becomes deeply involved with Harms escape and convinced that Harm was unjustly imprisoned and should be redeemed. In his investigation, he goes to Harm and Ritas abandoned trailer home, where he finds Ritas body.
Martha Ayers is a newly-appointed deputy who plans to capture Harm as “her ticket to a permanent position as deputy” and to earn the respect of her lover, Deputy Joe LeDonne. Marthas search, like Jeremys wilderness journey, is an initiation into the mystery of her own nature and into her relationship with her lover, as well as her profession as a law officer.
The journey that each of these characters makes teaches us something about the homeward, backward, inward journey that each of us must make. It is a mythic journey, the stuff of ballads and folktales, that defines us as individuals and as members of the human family. In this journey, we must meet the wilderness as it is, discarding anything that separates us from it. This is part of what Jeremy learns, for instance, as he discards bit by bit pieces of camping equipment he had assembled to make his journey easier: the “burden of over-civilized existence.”
Journeying through the wilderness is perilous enough, but arrival is even more dangerous, and often tragic. As Katie whispers to Harm “You dont want to go home” (203) because she knows death waits there. But later, sadly, she tells him, “I reckon we have to go home.” (241) Home is the point from which all journeys begin and the point where they end. Home is where we learn who we are, and how, and why. Home is where we are born and where we die, birth and death “one with death rising to bloom again,” as in the elegiac poem by James Still that opens the novel. We dont want to go home, but we have to.
The ballad structure of She Walks These Hills is evident not only in the interwoven, replicative plots based on the motif of the homeward journey, but also in the organization of the chapters themselves. Each of the eighteen chapters is divided into sections, like ballad stanzas, each told from a different point of view, using different poetic devices.
One poetic device that McCrumb borrows from the ballad is the stanzaic form. The similarity of her chapter sections to ballad stanzas, built on repeated rhyme, metaphor, and motif, is often quite striking. Chapter Four, for example, is divided into four sections. In the first section, novice policewoman Martha Ayers talks to Sheriff Spencer Arrowood about outfitting herself with a new gun and a Kevlar vest; the sheriff, instructing the novice, tells her that as a beginner she needs to stick to the easy things— serving warrants, escorting funerals, typing reports. In Section Two, Jeremy Cobb goes to a sporting goods store to outfit himself for his hiking trip. The salesclerk, an experienced hiker, tells him that he needs to stick to the “easy beginner trails.” In the third section, Marthas instruction is continued as she learns about outlaws; the sheriff tells her the story of Harms uncle, Dalton Sorely, and handsome renegade outlaw and ballad hero who several times escaped from prison and was caught going home. In the fourth section, Hank the Yank is instructed in the ways of outlaws. Vaguely understanding that Harm Sorely is the “last of something,"” he goes to the local newspaper to research the murder for which Harm was tried in 1968. He finds out the basic elements of Harms story, which closely parallels Dalton Sorelys outlawry. Hanks and Marthas task, and the readers, too, is to learn though Harm something of what he represents: a declining vividness, a kind of lawless wildness that is no longer at home in the tamer world of modern civilization.
Harm added the spice of manageable danger to an increasingly uncivilized segment of mountain wilderness. Sure, we have Japanese restaurants and tanning salons, Johnson City people could tell visitors, but there are still bears and rattlesnakes in the woods and even an escaped mountain man at large: old, but still too tough and wily for the law to catch. (70)
Another poetic device that McCrumb uses to organize her chapters is the chapter headnote, which introduces a major idea or plot element that will be explored in each of the chapters selections. She used this same technique in earlier books in the series, taking the headnotes from a variety of sources. In She Walks These Hills, the headnotes come from hymns. The headnote to Chapter One, for instance lays out the entire chapters essential elements:
My Lord calls me, He calls me by the lightning;
The trumpet sounds within my soul: I have not long to stay here.
Steal away, steal away home.
In the chapters first section, Harm Sorely receives a message from the Lord: “The lightning flashed again, and the rumble of thunder seemed nearer this time. Harm knew it was the Lord, urging him on... And his feet itched. Itching feet mean you are going on a journey.” (9-10) From here on, the revelations dont come in the lightning and thunder, but through more ordinary communication channels. In section two, the sheriffs office receives a fax from the Correctional Center at Mountain City, reporting Harms escape—his effort to “steal away home.” In section three, Hank the Yank, reading the news on WHTN, gets the message of Harms escape off the newswire, along with al the other “boring” news of the day. In section four, Nora Bonesteel gets the news for WHTN, bringing the chapter full circle and home: ‘On Ashe Mountain Nora Bonesteel switched off her radio, and stood staring out at the blue ripple of mountains that stretched away from the edge of her meadow... So Harm was out, and homeward bound. ’(17-18)
The motif of the first chapter headnote is echoed in the last, from Amazing Grace:
Through many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come:
Tis grace has brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.
A third poetic device in this book is the repetition of major ideas, like time and history, which mean different things to different characters. Harm, for instance, suffers from a memory disorder that fixes him in time. In prison, he lives in “zap time” (8); after he escapes, Hank says, hes traveling through “the Twilight Zone.” (191) “You may get this Harm fellow out of the hills,” Dr. Caudill tells Joe LeDonne, “but youll never get him out of the past.” (42) The Hamelin County Record is “like a time capsule,” according to its editor, “but its sundial time: they count no hours but unclouded ones.” (74) Ethnohistorian Jeremy Cobb is obsessed with the time of the eighteenth-century Katie Wylers century: “he had almost willed it to be 1779. Katies time.” (251) Hank the Yank (whose first song in the book is “Tomorrow Never Comes”) sees himself as the “official historian of Harm Sorley,” (36) determined to find out what really happened in 1968, when Harm killed Claib Maggard. The keeper of documents at the county courthouse where he does his research is reading (in one of the marvelous little inside jokes that pepper all McCrumbs books) A Brief History of Time. And Nora Bonesteel, who has seen Katie Wyler running through the hills, knows that her own perception of time and history is remarkably different from other peoples, giving her an ability to live in the past, the present, and the future at once:‘Most folks see only what is here and now, but she (Nora) could see what was and what was going to be. ’(2)
As in a ballad, McCrumb plays out her motifs in both major and minor keys. The ambiguous motif of honor, for instance, underlies much of the book. Honor is almost always coupled with a kind of hyper-masculinity (“macho games,” the sheriff calls it) and with violence. As a woman and as a law officer, Martha Ayers sees the danger in a culture where honor and guns breed death.
Some Southern men seemed to feel that Appomattox was the last insult their manhood would ever suffer. They fought authority at every turn; met every slight with clenched fists; and died to prove how brave they were. Some of them were outlaws, and some of them were cops. But almost all of them were male, and Martha thought that all of them were crazy. Gallant, romantic, quixotic, courageous—maybe all of those things—but doubly dangerous for all that, and no less crazy. (172-173)
Marthas insight into the ambiguity of honor is underscored by the death of Patrick Allen, who shoots himself because he has lost his girlfriend to another boy, wrecked his car while driving drunk, and disappointed his parents expectation of their honor student, Eagle Scout son. It is also understood by Joe LeDonnes masculine reaction to Marthas new job as deputy: ‘“I didnt realize,” he says in a moment of insight, “how much of my ego was tied into being the lawman in the—family.”’ (331) For Martha herself, there is a special kind of honor in doing a job—a job ironically involving guns and violence—that only men have done in the past.
‘Wearing the uniform of a deputy made her feel—taller. Suddenly she looked like someone that people would pay attention to. For the first time in her life, she felt important. Maybe this is what it feels like to be beautiful, she thought. Only I had to find some other way to achieve it. (59)’
There is a great deal of irony in the fact that it is the job of the law to tame the wilderness of those “gallant, romantic, quixotic, courageous” heroes of myth and ballad who fight for honor and individual freedom with guns and violence. As Nora Bonesteel knows, their lives have a significance that must be preserved in the same way that we preserve the wilderness, even though to know it intimately is dangerous, perhaps even fatal.
‘...and she (Nora) would hate to see him (Harm) go, as much as she would hate seeing the last wolf; the last mountain painter (panther); or even the last timber rattler blotted out of existence. It was a diminishing of sorts.’
McCrumb ends her book, appropriately, with a ballad-like epitaph for Harm Sorley, “the last of something.” It is offered by Hank the Yank, who takes it from Stephen Vincent Bentes poem about John Brown, a memorable outlaw who gave his life for a law that was higher than the law of his flawed society:
When the last moonshiner buys his radio,
And the last, lost, wild-rabbit of a girl
Is civilized with a mail-order dress,
Something will pass that was American
And all the movies will not bring it back.
But it is precisely the art of McCrumbs book that does bring it back, that shows us “the last of something,” that teaches us about a swiftly-disappearing way of living and dying. Crafted by a balladeer and an anthropologist, She Walks These Hills is at once a mystery and a tragedy, honoring both the dignity of the outlaw and the necessity of the law. It celebrates the boldness, the admirable outlawry of those who escape from the prison of their ordinary lives and journey homeward, backward, inward, while at the same tie it mourns the inescapable tragedy of their deaths. As readers, it is our task to the complex chords that are struck in this book. If we read it with a full appreciation fro the richness of the artists art, we will become, like Jeremy, Hank, and Martha, seekers of knowledge, witnesses to the journey, and fellow travelers.
Their journey will become our journey, too.
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