Foxfire Story: Oral Tradition in Southern Appalachia ed. by T. J. Smith

Decades of carefully collected oral storytelling and local lore from Southern Appalachian culture offer a singular perspective.

Since 1966, Foxfire has been educating and working to preserve local heritage in Georgia’s Rabun County. The organization has published the Foxfire magazine for over 50 years, and more than 20 books. But Foxfire’s archives are still rich and deep enough to furnish mostly never-before-published material in Foxfire Story: Oral Tradition in Southern Appalachia, a collection of folktales, stories, mountain speech, pranks, jests and much more gathered over the decades.

Editor T.J. Smith–Georgia mountain native, Ph.D, folklorist and Foxfire’s executive director–groups these materials into categories: anecdotes come from personal experience and often contain a punch line; folk beliefs connect us to cultural or religious communities and are sometimes known by the pejorative “superstition.” Proverbs and sayin’s include colloquial comparisons: sharp as a tack, a needle, a briar, a pegging awl. Legends include ghost stories and tales of treasure hunts. In a second, shorter section, Smith organizes additional storytelling by the teller. Here, Ronda Reno recounts the tradition in her family of the “granny witch,” or herbalist/midwife/community healer. Cherokee storyteller Lloyd Arneach describes his art form and how it grew, almost by accident, into a career.

The legends, folktales, songs and stories in this collection are often unsophisticated, portraying ways of life that are dying out or already gone. They shed light on endangered occupations, economies and ecological niches. With Smith’s commentary, these unaffected narratives and usages (git-fiddle: “term for guitar in the context of old-time string music”) offer a glimpse of a world otherwise unavailable to many readers.


This review originally ran in the May 1, 2020 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 5 panthers.

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

This retelling of the Trojan War by one of the women on the side of defeat is essential, and essentially human.

The Iliad is the story of the Trojan War told by the victors, and by men. At long last, another perspective is offered, in Booker Prize-winner Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls. Briseis was queen of a city near Troy and, after it fell to the Greeks, she was given as prize of honor to Achilles. After Apollo compelled him to forfeit a concubine, Agamemnon took Briseis for his own. This indignity inspires Achilles’s famous sulk, which begins the Iliad.

In the tradition of Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad, The Silence of the Girls is a much-needed retelling. Where men sing of honor and glory, women experience a different war. They are controlled by men: by their fathers and husbands, and then by their captors. Briseis is beautiful and royal; she hates her new status as concubine, but sees the far worse treatment of the “common women” who sleep under the Greeks’ huts, with their dogs, and are used by any man who pleases. She is clever and gives nuanced portraits of many characters in the Greek encampment below Troy’s walls. She is proud, angered by the indignities of slavery. One of the book’s themes is the question of authorship: she knows that it is Achilles’s story that the world will hear, but she searches for her own within narratives of men and war.

Strong, beautiful Achilles is cold, but stops short of cruelty. Gentle Patroclus eventually befriends Briseis. Ajax, Agamemnon, Odysseus and Nestor are profiled; but equally important are the other slave women. Briseis has friends, allies and antagonists among them, but always considers their struggles. For example, Ajax’s concubine is one of several women who recommend pregnancy above all other strategies. Briseis does not love her captors. But one of her revelations involves how the Trojans will survive, in the end: the sons of the Greeks will remember the Trojan lullabies their captive mothers sang to them.

The Silence of the Girls, like the classic it’s modeled on, is an epic. Briseis’s uncertain situation brings tension and momentum. At just 300 pages, this novel feels much bigger than it is, but is never heavy. Even with the atrocities, violence and loss it portrays, the protagonist’s thoughtful, compassionate point of view emphasizes humanity. It would be too much to say she weighs both sides of an issue evenly; she is loyal to her family and angry with her captors, but she also sees the tragedy in ranks of young Greek boys killed.

This mature, reflective narrative manages the cataloging of Homer’s telling (how many tripods offered, how many bowls of wine mixed), but with a grace and an interest in individual people that is fresh and novel. Barker uses metaphor and animal imagery deftly. Her prose flows easily, like storytelling between friends. It’s an absolute pleasure to read for any devoted fan of the Iliad, but equally accessible to those new to the Trojan story; indeed, The Silence of the Girls might make the perfect entry.


This review originally ran in the August 9, 2018 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 waves.

The Way to Rainy Mountain by N. Scott Momaday, illus. by Al Momaday

I was first told these stories by my father when I was a child. I do not know how long they had existed before I heard them. They seem to proceed from a place of origin as old as the earth.

A short book, recommended to me by Kim Dana Kupperman as a way of considering an oral tradition. N. Scott Momaday is a Kiowa Indian, born in Oklahoma but raised on reservations in the southwest. He travels home to Rainy Mountain in Oklahoma to visit his grandmother’s grave, and this book reflects his journey as well as the original one the Kiowas made, from Yellowstone through the Black Hills, and south to the Wichita Mountains. This book is a record of the legends, the orally passed-down traditional narrative of a tribe and a culture now passed on. It is told in three voices. The first is the ancestral voice of the oral tradition (“the voice of my father,” Al Momaday, who also illustrates the book); the second, a historical commentary; and the third, Momaday’s own voice “of personal reminiscence.” Each short section separates these voices from each other visually:

It is a spare, slim book, under 100 pages and with lots of white space as in the spread above, and with illustrations to space things out further. It is therefore just a sketching (no pun intended) of a history, and somehow this feels right, since as Momaday points out, “the golden age of the Kiowas had been short-lived, ninety or a hundred years, say, from about 1740. The culture would persist for a while in decline, until about 1875, but then it would be gone…” His ability to piece these stories together is a rare one, and the record is necessarily scanty. But the scraps that we do have here are wise and hold a certain dignity.

They also hold a sense of place. I loved lines like, “Houses are like sentinels in the plain, old keepers of the weather watch.” It somehow makes sense to me that Momaday would have so much to say about a place he feels tied to without actually inhabiting; that it’s an ancestral belonging.

Once in his life a man ought to concentrate his mind upon the remembered earth, I believe. He ought to give himself up to a particular landscape in his experience, to look at it from as many angles as he can, to wonder about it, to dwell upon it. He ought to imagine that he touches it with his hands at every season and listens to the sounds that are made upon it. He ought to imagine the creatures there and all the faintest motions of the wind. He ought to recollect the glare of noon and all the colors of the dawn and dusk.

In terms of the oral tradition, I noticed that the storytelling style in those parts was simple, and often involved shifts that we are unaccustomed to in the written stories; but when read aloud, they sound more like the way we still tell stories today. “Bad women are thrown away. Once there was a handsome young man…”

Simply told, easy to read, but thoughtful and thought-provoking, and a way into stories that we don’t have much access to. As Momaday writes himself in the preface to this edition, twenty-five years after the first: “One should not be surprised, I suppose, that it has remained vital, and immediate, for that is the nature of story. And this is particularly true of the oral tradition, which exists in a dimension of timelessness.”


Rating: 7 black-eared horses.

Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir ed. by William Zinsser

I don’t remember when I got this book; I’ve had it for quite some time. (I also have Zinsser’s How to Write a Memoir waiting for me on the massive and daunting to-be-read shelf.) I finally opened Inventing the Truth to read Annie Dillard’s essay, “To Fashion a Text,” that Kim Kupperman assigned me; but I found I couldn’t put it down. I went back to the beginning and read the whole thing through, and I think it’s an excellent collection.

Zinsser approaches “the age of the memoir” beginning with a series of craft talks in 1986. These talks, transcribed, are joined by later additions to form this collection of nine craft essays, all originally delivered orally (whether to an audience or in interview format with Zinsser) by nine writers including Dillard, Toni Morrison, Frank McCourt and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. They talk about what they want to talk about, so the subjects vary somewhat but all address how to write memoir from very different angles. Their delivery, perhaps because originally oral, is consistently enjoyable, and the content is very useful, practical, nuts-and-bolts; it also offers insights into the writing of masterpieces like Beloved. Not to be outdone, Zinsser’s introduction is a lovely piece of prose in itself, and presents a nearly perfect review of what the book in turn contains.

I made a bunch of notes, and am interested in particular in reading Alfred Kazin’s A Walker in the City. A few details that especially fascinated me: that Toni Morrison considers the work of her fiction to be “trying to fill in the blanks that the slave narratives left.” And then the concept that when the straightened Mississippi River “floods” its old path, it’s not really flooding at all, but remembering: where have I heard this before? Lovely! I wonder if these essays–all of them!–struck me so nicely because they were originally delivered orally. I have always been interested in the idea of oral histories or oral storytelling.

This was a deeply enjoyable book, obviously recommended for anyone struggling with the writing of memoir, but actually it should be appealing to general readers, too, especially those impressed by the work of Dillard, Morrison, et al. Perfectly pleasant reading.


Rating: 8 Rorschachs.

Ithaca: A Novel of Homer’s Odyssey by Patrick Dillon

This retelling of the Odyssey gives Telemachus more voice than ever before.

ithaca

Homer’s Odyssey recounts Odysseus’s 10-year journey home from the Trojan War, to where his wife and son await him. His adventures along the way take center stage. Ithaca, Patrick Dillon’s retelling, resets that center to the son. With substantially more insight into Telemachus than readers have had before, this version also offers a more fallible Odysseus, with all the drama and yearning of the original.

Dillon remains true to Homer’s setting, but the novel is told in Telemachus’s voice, and the weighty absence of a father he never met defines his existence. At 16, he worries over his role and responsibilities, and his inability to protect his mother: he has no one to teach him how to fight. These interior workings bring Odysseus’s iconic son to light as a nuanced and fully formed character. When the wise warrior Nestor assigns his daughter to be Telemachus’s traveling companion, the story gets an appealing twist: Polycaste is headstrong and capable, and her friendship has much to offer Telemachus. The gods are less present this time around; Telemachus is openly dubious. Veterans of the Trojan War roam Greece as bandits and vagabonds.

Though only slight details are changed, Ithaca is a vibrant and fresh revival; Telemachus’s struggles are illuminated through the use of his own voice. The well-loved classic is present: Penelope is beautiful, determined, fading; the suitors are shocking; Menelaus and Helen fight bitterly; the aging Nestor tries to guide Telemachus true. Dillon’s achievement is in characterization while retaining the heart and passion of Homer.


This review originally ran in the July 8, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 8 arrows.

Joe Gould’s Teeth by Jill Lepore

This story of a missing manuscript and its darkly unhinged author has momentum and beauty.

joe gould's teeth

Joe Gould is best known through two profile pieces Joseph Mitchell wrote for the New Yorker. In 1942, Mitchell introduced a harmless eccentric engrossed in writing “The Oral History of Our Time”–at some nine million words, supposedly the longest unpublished work in history. In the second piece, in 1964, Gould (then deceased) is a dirty, sinister man, and Mitchell asserts that there had never been any such manuscript. Jill Lepore (a staff writer at the New Yorker and author of numerous works of nonfiction), like so many before her, was intrigued. Was there an oral history, or wasn’t there? Who was Gould, really?

Joe Gould’s Teeth is a biography of Gould, a study of the record he left behind and the story of Lepore’s search. Gould was a graphomaniac; his written legacy includes letters, diaries, essays, ramblings but rather little oral history. Lepore seeks the mythical manuscript, but finds the mystery of a man. She describes herself as stumbling, falling into the “chasm” of Gould, who claimed to be “left-handed in both hands” and whose thinking was “sticky” with details. She follows him through archives and memories, and into his obsession with African-American sculptor Augusta Savage. Savage, as a secondary character, is more sympathetic (and sane), and possibly more enigmatic than Gould.

Lepore’s contribution to this undeniably riveting story lies in her research, but even more in her wise, nuanced telling. Joe Gould was a genius, a madman, destitute, beloved of e.e. cummings and Ezra Pound, by turns likable and malicious. Joe Gould’s Teeth is an astonishing, wide-ranging and thoroughly enthralling work of history.


This review originally ran in the May 31, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 9 notebooks.

War Music: An Account of Homer’s Iliad by Christopher Logue

This epic retelling in verse of Homer’s Iliad is worthy of the classic.

war music

Upon his death, poet Christopher Logue left unfinished a full-length reimagining of Homer’s Iliad. His fellow poet and friend Christopher Reid applies a careful editorial hand to the papers Logue left behind to release War Music, which includes both previously published works and new material.

The result is as epic and evocative, as emotional and resounding as the original, yet also surprisingly novel. Logue employs memorable images, as when the two armies meet “like a forest making its way through a forest.” He is unafraid of wild anachronisms: “As many arrows on [Hector’s] posy shield/ As microphones on politicians’ stands”; “Blood like a car-wash.” But this is no attempt to modernize; the rage of Achilles, Helen’s beauty, capricious gods and customs of battle remain set in Homer’s Greece. Rather, it is an enrichment of a well-known and loved story, in swelling verse and with the same clever eye for tragedy and sly humor of its model.

Reid finds Logue’s “capacity for the grand conception dashingly and convincingly executed,” as near “pure Logue” as possible. His preface and comments in the appendix (where the manuscripts were roughest) offer insight for readers unfamiliar with Logue, who references Dostoyevsky, Shakespeare, Keats and Tennyson, as well as Homer. Expertise with the original is unnecessary to enjoy this version; although such knowledge will increase the impact, the grandeur of War Music is gripping and suspenseful regardless of the reader’s background. No fan of Homer will want to miss Logue’s contribution.


This review originally ran in the January 19, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 8 topaz saucers heaped with nectarine jelly.
%d bloggers like this: