When I was in my early twenties living in southwest Virginia, there was a skirmish at the restaurant where I was working. One of the people involved pressed charges, and I was called to the sheriff’s court as a witness.
A remarkable case was presented before ours. Two branches of a family who had lived in one of the hollers and had been feuding for many generations were arguing over land. I think a member of one side of the family had trespassed on the property of the other. A fence may have been broken. A horse may have been stolen or escaped. Maybe a dog had been shot. Or chickens killed. I don’t remember the details, but I do remember struggling to understand the accents of the various family members. I remember the testimony being convoluted. And I remember one of the women running from the courtroom in tears, shouting, ‘He killed my daddy!’
That particular case was dropped, but there was clearly a long fascinating story behind everything I had just heard.
I planned my holiday reading badly for my recent trip to the States. I had brought novels mostly set in Europe, and I just couldn’t get in to any of them. Oh, I finished a few of them, but it was out of determination, not enjoyment. When I got to my parents’ house in northeast Tennessee and looked out at the mountains in the distance, I decided I needed to return to Appalachian literature for my last few days in America. My dad recommended Cataloochee by Wayne Caldwell.
It was perfect.
I read most of it sitting on my parents’ porch, the still hot air occasionally broken by a brief breeze, wind chimes whispering, cardinals flitting around the bird feeder, a haze hiding the mountains from view. Another good portion I read in a rocking chair in the airport in Knoxville, Tennessee, Smoky Mountains behind me, as I waited many, many hours for a delayed flight. I just finished it here, back in Scotland, and only now do I feel I’ve properly left southern Appalachia.
It was one of the best books I have read in a quite a while.
Set in two valleys in the mountains of west North Carolina and spanning the years between the Civil War and the Great Depression, Cataloochee is a story about a murder. At least, that’s how it starts, with six gunshots, shot from two different guns. But like that court case I heard, the history leading up to those gunshots was complicated, generations-old.
And so the novel goes back more than sixty years to the childhood of the young Ezra Banks who leaves home at fourteen to escape his violent father. After a brief stint in the Confederate Army, and a few years of hard living and drinking, thirty year old Ezra comes to Cataloochee looking for a wife and land to plant an orchard. Having written to two of the patriarchs of the Cataloochee settlements who each have daughters of marriageable age and land for him to buy, he comes to survey their goods. And so begins the life of Ezra Banks amongst the people of Big and Little Cataloochee.
The novel follows his marriage to Hannah and the lives of their inlaws, their children and their nieces and nephews. As family and community, they face disputes, natural disasters and the encroaching development and technology of the world beyond their valley.
When news emerges that their settlements may be dismantled when the state decides to turn the area into a National Park (which it now is), tensions which have until now been undercurrents in the community begin to rise to the surface. And it is during this time, nearly fifty years after Ezra moved to Cataloochee, that his brother-in-law Jake hears the shots ring out across the holler. It is only in the last chapters of the book that we return to that day, the sheriff’s investigation and the court case that follows.
This kind of literature can so easy slip into caricature, but Caldwell exhibits a certain tenderness for his characters without being sentimental. Their lives may have a simplicity about them, but they are not simple people. They are loyal to their own and generous to those in need but deeply suspicious of outsiders. They are farmers who respect their land and are almost ruthlessly pragmatic but they have a great affection for the animals that enable their survival. They are wary of change and progress but are not backwards and show a willingness to embrace new technologies which make their work easier. And religion — both Christianity and folk religion — permeates their lives and weaves in and out of the narrative.
In many ways, this book felt like the story I might have heard if I had had the opportunity to sit on the porch drinking moonshine with the people in that sheriff’s court that day nearly fifteen years ago. It was complex, the relationships slightly confusing to an outsider, the values from a world which has all but disappeared from our mountains. I loved it, and if it gets the attention it deserves, it should become a modern classic.
I’ll finish with one of my favourite exchanges between a city man boarding at the house of one of Cataloochee’s residents and the woman of the house:
Thomas started inside and doffed his hat when he saw Rhetta heading for the porch. ‘Evening Mrs, Wright.’
‘About to turn in, are you? I hope you sleep well Mr. Thomas.’
‘Thank you, ma’am. That was a fine dinner.’
She looked at him like there was no hope. ‘How many times do I have to tell you, we ate dinner six hours ago. What you just ate was supper. That’s in the Bible.’
‘It says Jesus and his disciples gathered in the upper room for a meal, right?’
‘Well, don’t it say it was evening?’
‘I believe so.’
‘Well, then. They don’t call that the Lord’s Dinner, do they?’
‘No, Mrs Wright, they don’t. I’ll remember that. And your supper was delicious. Good evening to you.’