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.

Things You Would Know If You Grew Up Around Here by Nancy Wayson Dinan

Forces of nature and preternatural human empathy come together in an extraordinary novel about relationships, love and place.

Set against the true events of Memorial Day weekend 2015 in central Texas, Things You Would Know if You Grew Up Around Here explores empathy, history, local lore, fantastical happenings and simple humanity. Amid catastrophic flooding, Nancy Wayson Dinan’s protagonist offers a compelling balance between the weird and the ordinary. Eighteen-year-old Boyd has always been unusually perceptive. Her best friend Isaac is the only one who never asked anything of her, in the unspoken way that people do. “Hurt children trailed Boyd… the forked stick of a dowser… tuned not to water, but to pain.”

It’s the fourth year of the drought, the beginning of summer, and Isaac is camped on the edge of the lake below Boyd’s house, panning for gold: “You can pay a semester of tuition at UT with a tiny sack of that gold dust.” After the first night’s rain, landscapes are rearranged, people scattered, and the rain still falls. Boyd can feel Isaac lost somewhere, “the copper fear in his mouth… the shivering of his chilled limbs.” Bridges out and all roads blocked, she sets out cross-country, on foot. “She had no doubt she could find Isaac; she was drawn to him like a magnetic pole, reading his distress like a Geiger counter.”

So begins a chain of events and searches: Isaac in mortal danger; Boyd following instinct alone into uncharted territories; her neighbor Carla, a retired hippie recluse from Austin, following her own instincts after Boyd. Boyd’s mother, Lucy Maud, accompanied by a motley crew of aging family members and Boyd’s father. Isaac’s father, also missing, gone treasure-hunting just as the rains began.

Dinan’s narrative shifts among these quests: Carla slipping through the mud in her yoga slides. Lucy Maud, alternately drawn to her estranged husband and annoyed by his ineptness. Isaac in one predicament after another. And Boyd, whose unlikely understanding has expanded until she must navigate both time and space, lost children and Texas history, wandering through the same sodden world where she looks for Isaac.

Things You Would Know If You Grew Up Around Here is fabulous and engrossing, both faithful to the real-world details of central Texas and wildly imaginative, peopled with treasure hunters, prehistoric beasts, distracted professors and one improbable young woman facing a momentous decision. Dinan’s storytelling flows as forcefully as a flash flood in this spellbinding first novel in which a handsome young man, refreshingly, awaits rescue by a powerful woman.


This review originally ran in the April 27, 2020 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 glyptodonts.

The Tree and the Vine by Dola de Jong (trans. by Kristen Gehrman)

This sensitive novel illuminates women who love women in pre-World War II Holland.

Originally published in 1954, Dola de Jong’s The Tree and the Vine was a groundbreaking portrayal of lesbian lives in Holland just before the outbreak of World War II. This updated translation from the Dutch by Kristen Gehrman retains what is fresh, understated and moving in the original.

Bea, a shy office worker and the narrator of this story, keeps to herself and considers social activity a chore, until she meets Erica. Within weeks, they become roommates, and Bea is increasingly fascinated by her heedless new friend: Erica, a journalist, keeps strange hours and doesn’t seem to sleep. Her moods vacillate. Over many months, the pair becomes close, and Bea is simultaneously obsessed and resistant to her own feelings, telling herself that independence is paramount. “I could no longer live without her, and with her there was nothing but the strange existence that had been predetermined.”

As the threat of a German invasion grows, Erica gets involved with several female lovers, often in abusive relationships, while Bea plays the loyal friend always there to bail her out of trouble. On the brink of war, realizing that Erica is half Jewish and engaged in risky behaviors, Bea takes a half-step toward recognizing what they share. “She never spoke those few words again…. We’ve accepted it, each in our own way.”

The tone of The Tree and the Vine is often backward-looking and elegiac, told at a distance of years. But the immediate events of the women’s lives feel frantic: Erica rushes about, Bea panics. What is most important almost always goes unsaid.

The prose can occasionally feel a bit stilted, or involve a bit more telling than showing; but in fact what is shown, often, is not actions or expressions but Bea’s own deep feeling and anguish. The result is a love story on the brink of war in which the love never quite steps out in the open and the war remains off-stage. A sense of looming, momentous events pervades this slim novel.

In a thoughtful translator’s note, Gehrman notes linguistic peculiarities of de Jong’s original: anglicisms and words and expressions from the French, for example, which Gehrman has worked to maintain, and her delicate handling of Dutch idiom. She argues that The Tree and the Vine is not just a lesbian novel but “reflective of a broader female experience.” By turns emotional and restrained, this powerful story indeed offers valuable perspective on the human experience.


This review originally ran in the April 23, 2020 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 6 sandwiches.

author interview: Paul Lisicky

Following my review of Later: My Life at the Edge of the World, here’s Paul Lisicky: Turning Up the Volume on the Everyday.


Paul Lisicky‘s work has appeared in the Atlantic, Conjunctions, the New York Times, Ploughshares, Tin House and many other publications. He was a 2016 Guggenheim Fellow, and has received awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, the James Michener/Copernicus Society and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Mass., where he has served on the Writing Committee since 2000. He is the author of Lawnboy, Famous Builder, The Burning House, Unbuilt Projects, The Narrow Door: A Memoir of Friendship and Later: My Life at the Edge of the World, available now from Graywolf Press. Lisicky teaches in the MFA program at Rutgers University and lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.

How do you write a memoir about events nearly 30 years ago?

photo: Beowulf Sheehan

In many ways I’ve been writing this story over and over. At the center of my first two books is the prospect of AIDS and HIV. My third book is about characters who are dealing with an unnamed illness, the fourth is about dementia, and the fifth has cancer at the center of it. I think this material has been a part of my imagination for my entire adult life, and there came a point where it seemed crucial to get it to the page. I don’t think that those early years in Provincetown ever felt very far away to me. My friend Polly and I continue to talk about those events with regularity. Honestly, I think those days are firmer and more precise in my imagination than any other time before or since. If you asked me to write about Provincetown from 1996 onward, after protease inhibitors changed the landscape of AIDS for people who could afford them, my memories would be far more diffuse. But there was something about that window of time between 1991 and 1994 that continues to be sharp and bright and italicized to me. It’s so fascinating how memory works, and how much more is stored and alive in the imagination than you know.

How do you navigate writing about the lives of other people?

I don’t write about anyone who I don’t love very deeply, even though it might not always look like it. I’m drawn to people who are super vivid and complicated. I think it’s a sentence-by-sentence matter. If I’m aware of saying something that feels like it has more power over the subject than I should have, then I stop and process and think. There isn’t a simple answer, because largely it’s about paying attention to my intuition. It also involves showing the work to the people who appear in the pages. At least three of the people who appear in the book have seen the book and have vetted and approved everything I’ve written. It’s important to tell people, Look, I really love you. Some of the material here might be difficult, it might feel like it invades your privacy or puts down observations you don’t want to hear, but we can talk about that. It’s a matter of conversation first.

Is there a trick to writing beautifully about sad subject matter?

It’s not even something I think about. I could not write this book without folding in the landscape of Provincetown. Not just the topographical landscape, but the people on the streets, their interest in clothing, display, performance–all of that feels like it’s a part of this story. I think when one is writing about illness one is also writing about life. Life at the precipice can be super intense: it turns up the volume on the everyday. And that might be experienced as beauty by the reader, but as I’m writing I’m not terribly conscious of that quality.

It’s a book about surviving day to day, and how people take care of each other and check in on one another. And joy did not at all feel slight in those times. Joy was an aspect of participation, and those people in that community felt the need to draw life and joy and community out of one another. I think that’s one of the reasons why I felt compelled to write the book, because community and belonging got people through those times.

The book has a life of its own. I want to write something that feels more acute, more conscious than my usual everyday thinking mind. I’m trying to write something that teaches me as I write it.

How is writing your sixth book different from writing your first or second?

The first or second felt so tentative. I had no structural confidence. I didn’t know how to think about my work outside of the landscape of the individual sentences. And I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing, but over the years I’ve developed some chops in terms of how to think about how one scene may dialogue with the scene after it. I’m aware of building a conversation from passage to passage over the book, developing a passage around an image or metaphor that might speak to one that follows. I feel I have much more structural confidence and much more awareness of the book, any book, as a whole. I’m as excited about the macro elements of putting a book together as I am the sentences.

I learned a lot from The Narrow Door, which couldn’t follow a linear structure. When I tried to write that book in a linear fashion, it simply didn’t work. It wasn’t able to hold the simultaneous stories that that fed one another in my imagination. I had to write that in a way that was faithful to how my mind moved. That was tremendously freeing and an educational experience. It was teaching me how it needed to be written.

Is this a timely book?

I hope it is. I’m still taken with the idea of community at the center of this book. I don’t feel like I’m in a world where community takes care of me the way it took care of me then. It was a world that instantly felt welcoming, and not too much. In a world before social media, faces and gestures and simple kindnesses did a lot to sustain life. Life has not been that way for me since, and I suspect it isn’t that way for most of us. Most of our casual interactions happen through social media, the world of online. I wanted to write a book that thought about what we don’t have right now. And that’s not in any way to idealize the world at the center of Later, because that’s a world that was under siege day by day–it would be wrong to sentimentalize that period and think about it with nostalgia, because those were rough, rough times. But they were also times of deep tenderness and affection and looking out for one another. I needed to examine that world and bring it to the page, and offer readers another possibility of living. What don’t we have in our lives right now, and what could we have if we were lucky enough to organize them around a participatory life?

What’s next?

I’m working on a book about my father, or fathers in general. He’s a vivid and complicated character–you got to see a little about him in Later–kind of scary and loving and completely unpredictable. Still thought of himself as young when he was 90 years old. He became more open, gentler, as he grew older, but not in a Pollyanna-ish way. A lot of life in that human. For a while that book was braided with Later but I realized that it needed a separate life. So I have a lot of material: it goes back to the structural question. I don’t right now know how to shape it. It needs some boundaries to give it some cohesiveness. I have some ideas about it, but I’m excited about the fact that I still don’t know, that I haven’t found its glue. I have a kind of faith that I might not have had with earlier books. Once I find out the answer to this simple question, it’s all just going to fall into place.


This review originally ran in the April 14, 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.


In case it’s not clear, this interview took place “before COVID,” and I think Paul’s answer to the question of timeliness, about community, offers an interesting glimpse into the near past, across this great new divide. I said just the other day that Paul’s perspectives have aged well in ways that not all writing has. In mere weeks, some of our writings and perspectives have come to sound silly, near-sighted, insipid, frivolous. I think Paul Lisicky’s wisdom holds fast in what Paul Kingsnorth calls the Great Strangeness.

What Is the Grass: Walt Whitman in My Life by Mark Doty

What Is the Grass is literary criticism and explication, memoir and meditation, and the kind of fine, evocative, thoughtful prose that Mark Doty does best.


It was part of Walt Whitman’s extraordinary innovation with Leaves of Grass to close time and space, to bring his observations and a sense of intimacy to each reader who finds him. It feels perfectly natural that acclaimed poet and memoirist Mark Doty (Dog Years; Still Life with Oysters and Lemon; Deep Lane) chooses to receive, interpret and muse upon these transmissions with What Is the Grass: Walt Whitman in My Life.

Doty, like Whitman, is gifted with words, a lover of beauty and of men, a New Yorker. He feels haunted by the elder poet, sees and smells him in the museum of Whitman’s home, again encounters his ghost “above the shoulders of a bedmate on a winter afternoon early in the twenty-first century, in an apartment tower in Hell’s Kitchen.” What Is the Grass is a close reading of Whitman’s great work, but also of American poetry, same-sex love, the exuberance of the physical body, myriad cultural shifts and Doty’s own life.

As is his habit, Doty’s mind on the page wanders widely. Considering a “weird period piece of art porn,” he realizes that “even in the imagined paradise of limitless eros, there must be room for death.” Indeed, death is the fifth of five sources Doty identifies for Whitman’s genius, by which he organizes this book. First, “an experience… of transforming character, loosening the doors from their jambs,” some life-changing moment or moments in Whitman’s life. The second source, “The Unwriteable,” is vigorously, jubilantly celebrated queer sexuality; here and throughout, Doty considers his loves and lovers, relationships and travels.

Next the very city, the “great stream and pulse of life” that is Manhattan, and then language itself, the lovely trips and surprises and sensuous effects and all the multitudinous details to be found in the Crystal Palace exhibition, “at which examples of practically everything human endeavor had created up to 1853 were on display.” Add to this slang and regionalisms, and “these words splash onto the page in Whitman’s first edition, as if a dam holding back a flood of new speech had been dynamited, all at once, by the force of a single poem.”

The fifth source of Whitmanian genius is death, “that strong and delicious word,” which Doty as well must wrestle with. “I’ve seen a man I loved die, and it seemed to me a pure liberation.” But “time avails not, distance avails not,” as Whitman and Doty each repeat, and the latter helps navigate the former. Readers should be prepared to dig out a copy of Leaves of Grass (or find one: “there is a copy of the Leaves in every used bookstore, everywhere in the nation, count on it”) upon reading this book, which makes an indispensable companion and guide. Arriving finally at “the poet’s greatest glory, and the exegete’s inescapable defeat,” in the end, Doty reminds us that Whitman’s “words accomplish what words cannot,” and exits quietly.


This review originally ran in the March 20, 2020 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 lines I’d consider tattooing on my body.

Sin Eater by Megan Campisi

In this enchanting alternate history, a Sin Eater consumes the misdeeds of others, and may have a chance to right some wrongs.

Megan Campisi’s Sin Eater opens with a 14-year-old girl named May being arrested for stealing a loaf of bread, in an alternate version of Elizabethan England. The royal family of Angland is entangled in court intrigue and murders, including of babes, to secure favored heirs to the throne, even considering marriage to the hated Northern lords. Common people work hard for a meager living; some starve unless given special permission from the queen to beg in the street. The penalties for petty crimes are high: vagrants have a hole “burned through the gristle of [the] ear with a hot iron as thick as a man’s thumb.” The penalty for a second offense is death.

In this cruel world, below even dung men and woad dyers in the social order, lies a cursed role: that of the Sin Eater. “It’s always women who eat sins, since it was Eve who first ate a sin: the Forbidden Fruit.” Marked by the iron collar locked around her neck and her tattooed tongue, she may be neither seen nor heard. She is called to deathbeds to hear the Recitation, a confession of sins; she translates these sins into foods, which the family will prepare for the Eating. By taking the sins of others into herself, the Sin Eater absolves the deceased. Every child in the street knows the basics. “Salt for pride. Mustard seed for lies. Barley for curses.” When a deer’s heart appears on a noblewoman’s coffin, the city’s older Sin Eater will not eat it, for the terrible sin it refers to was never confessed. She is tortured and killed, leaving May on her own to wrestle with a deadly royal plot.

Recently orphaned and terribly talkative, May is now forbidden to speak. Her apprenticeship as Sin Eater was both silent and short; she’s still learning which foods match the more esoteric crimes. In her favor, May discovers the strange power of the Sin Eater: afraid to touch her, people move out of her way, granting her access to prison cells and royal bedchambers. Chance introduces her to a group of fellow misfits, including a disfigured man, a leper and a roguish theater player. But she must solve the royal mystery alone and, just maybe, create a new fate for herself.

Sin Eater is a fully fleshed work of speculative fiction, abundant with the fine details of Elizabethan life and, of course, food. May is a damaged and sympathetic heroine, at once intelligent and innocent. This is an opulently imagined debut, horrific and weirdly beautiful, filled with earnest feeling as well as cruelty. Set aside time to read this engrossing novel in one go.


This review originally ran in the March 16, 2020 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 small loaves of bread.

Maximum Shelf author interview: Kawai Strong Washburn

Following Friday’s review of Sharks in the Time of Saviors, here’s Kawai Strong Washburn: That Isn’t the Way the World Works.


Kawai Strong Washburn was born and raised on the Hamakua coast of Hawai’i. His short fiction has appeared in McSweeney’s, Electric Literature and The Best American Nonrequired Reading, among others. He has received scholarships from the Tin House and Bread Loaf writers’ workshops and has worked in software and as a climate policy advocate. He lives in Minnesota with his wife and daughters. Sharks in the Time of Saviors (MCD/Farrar, Straus & Giroux, March 3, 2020) is his first novel.

How does a story with multiple protagonists come to be?

photo: Crystal Liepa

I think a lot of writers gravitate toward what they love, and I love books in which you get to think into multiple consciousnesses. You get to expand your initial impressions. And it’s possible to do this with a third-person perspective, but it can feel less rich, or it can move me less that way.

I knew early on that it was going to be about a family, and I really wanted to dive into each person and challenge myself to create characters that would have perspectives that were nothing like mine. With all the different family dynamics involved, pushed in different directions, each has their own blind spots and their desires and their failures. It was a challenge, but one I wanted to try, because I felt it made for a richer experience as a reader, and so I wanted that as a writer as well.

How do you handle the storytelling challenge of shifting points of view?

For me it is very hard, partly because none of them are based on me. I read a section a few years ago, that was excerpted in Electric Literature, in which Dean hits his mother. Somebody came up to me after I read that and said, oh, you’re so brave to write about having hit your mother! And I said, this is not my life! None of these characters are me, or my family. They’re not based on anyone I know. With Dean, the challenge was to write a character who would have tried to beat me up in high school. If I encountered him in most walks of life, he would feel like an antagonist. Is there a way that I can write this character and understand what makes him tick with a sense of empathy but without letting him off the hook for his faults? Create this whole character who has problems and stupidities and issues with anger management, but in a way that challenges me to think about how he might justify his feelings to himself.

I love language. I really love it when writers take risks with language and render a new way of speaking and thinking that I haven’t experienced before. It takes me to a new place. I wanted to do that with the characters as well, and so in addition to creating these different psyches, I then had to create a different language for each, so that they each felt like a different consciousness. There were so many revisions to get sentences right. Given a thought that might be the same for Kaui and Dean, how would that feeling play itself out in different sentences? What would their voices feel like in their head? It was a ton of work. It was awful. I would never do it again. If I’d known at the time what a challenge I was setting for myself, I probably would have been like, no. But once I was in there, that was the work that was before me.

So this is not autobiographical.

I share very little with the characters. All the locations where all the scenes happen are places I have been. I could draw on my own experiences in those places to describe the smells and the ambient details. And there are times when I indirectly brought in observations that I had, as someone from Hawai’i moving [to the mainland], the cultural dissonance. Observationally I drew upon that, but there are almost no experiences in the book that I drew from my personal life directly. Having lived and grown up in Honaka’a, I experienced the place long enough that I had an innate sense of the culture and how most people think and feel and act.

I wrote a first novel that will never see the light of day. I think that that’s where I got the classically autobiographical elements out. In this book, in any moment when I felt like a character was doing something that I would have done, or when I winced at their decision-making or their biases or their thoughts or feelings because those were not thoughts or feelings I would have, or they made me uncomfortable, I would push toward those things and away from things that felt like me, in a conscious attempt to move away from the autobiographical.

What aspects of the book required research?

When you come from what is traditionally an underrepresented perspective and an underrepresented place, you carry this burden of authenticity that some writers don’t have to grapple with as much. When I wrote earlier in my career, I didn’t write about Hawai’i, partly because I was scared that it would be autobiographical. Or there was an expectation that because I’m from Hawai’i I should write about Hawai’i. But also I was scared, because there wasn’t a lot of literature out there based in Hawai’i, that I would fail to present the sort of universal feeling or experience of people from the island.

I spent a lot of time doing research into the mythology and native Hawai’ian religion that I had passing knowledge of, being born and raised there. You remember those things, but not fully or accurately enough to be a cultural ambassador. So I went back and spent a lot of time researching Hawai’ian culture and folklore and knowledge and history, because I had just enough incomplete knowledge to be dangerous if I just wrote from what I knew.

Do you have a favorite character?

I do. I don’t know if you’re supposed to say that, it’s like a kid. But I really enjoyed Kaui.

I see the novel as a kind of metaphor for the Big Man theory of history. All the great inventions, the important moments in the collective history of this country, are almost always filtered through the lens of a particular actor, usually a man. That’s what Nainoa came to represent to me, the Big Man theory of the events early in their lives. Particularly Malia is really invested in the idea of Nainoa as some sort of savior. He’s going to be this special, important Big Man. As I was working through revisions, Kaui became the answer to that. I believe that most positive change that has happened in the world has come about because of collective action and a lot of small, simple sacrifices in ways that no one ever sees or celebrates. The right person happens to be in the right place at the right time and gets on the apex of that groundswell, and they’re the one that gets the credit for it. Kaui embodied an answer to that. She’s back in Hawai’i and she has to learn to accept that she’s made mistakes, but the way forward is to reconnect with her family and the land. She has to give up a sense of complete individuality, something that Nainoa was reaching for incorrectly, that was placed on him as a burden. He’s supposed to be something so big that he can fix everything. And to me, Kaui’s reckoning in the latter third of the book is a sort of answer, that that isn’t the way the world works.

I really like the idea of having her be an engineer, having her build things with her hands and be a very physically grounded character, as a woman. I don’t think women necessarily get rendered in literature and in pop culture in a way that I kept wishing they would. I tried to not direct my gaze too much at the body. The way some male writers talk about female bodies can be really creepy and gross. When I was writing Kaui, I wanted her to not be some idealized femme fatale. She was living in a body that was strong and that she was comfortable in. She didn’t have anything to do with beauty or the standard female values that are upheld in a lot of pop culture. She was more driven by friction and velocity and fear, and a lot of things that don’t get associated with female characters. It became a lot of fun and that’s one of the reasons I enjoy her as a character.

What are you working on next?

I’ve started another novel. It has to do with climate change, has some elements of reincarnation, it spans around 200 years, there’s a band of female pirates: it’s cool. I’m enjoying it. It tries to blend a couple of genres, and celebrate both the internality of the human experience and the things I love about plot.


This interview originally ran on March 4, 2020 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun.

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