Category Archives: folklore and ethnography

The Monday Book: GRAY MOUNTAIN by John Grisham

tumbsNormally I only do Monday Books on those I’ve liked. This one is a bit half-hearted, but Grisham’s latest is set in our region and tackles the much-ignored topic of mountaintop removal, so almost everyone around here feels an obligation to read it. We need opinions for the church potlucks.

Obligation is a pretty good word. I don’t like dissing authors, or books – unless they’re real creeps, and Grisham isn’t. He just….. kinda didn’t do anything exciting in this book. And, inevitably, even though he spent time in SE Kentucky with some people dedicated to stopping MT removal AND bringing social justice to the Coalfields, he got some important stuff wrong.

It isn’t a big deal that the mileage and directions are way off in his book. It’s fiction. It isn’t a big deal that sometimes he slides into stereotypes even though you can tell he’s trying not to – kinda like a kid learning to ride a bike will guaranteed hit the pothole she’s watching with her whole being, intent on avoiding it. You always hit what you concentrate on avoiding, because you’re concentrating on it rather than the story you have to tell. We don’t mind; it was nice of him to try.

But I knew we were in trouble when Grisham started the serious action of his book with an old “legend” that circulates about SW VA/SE KY/NE TN mountain roads.

The book itself opens with the heroine getting laid off from her high powered-yet-hated legal job. She has a chance to keep her health insurance if she goes to work for a nonprofit, and she winds up taking the “bottom of the barrel” with the only remaining option: in the Coalfields of Appalachia. It must be hard for an author to try not to stereotype while writing about a NYC character coping with moving out of Manhattan. He tried, bless his heart. It made the book a bit flat because at the points where people would’ve been asking some serious questions, the heroine gets all open-minded. Still, his mechanism for driving her to VA is a good one: keep your health insurance if you leave the land of the midnight latte for the exile of rural America. Nice try, Johnny, but your logistics are showing.

Maybe that’s the biggest problem throughout the book. HOW he was trying to tell the story showed as much as the story.

Anyway, she drives into a town thinly disguised as being not-Grundy, VA, and a guy pulls her over in an unmarked police car and threatens her with all kinds of things if she doesn’t come back to the station with him. Including handcuffing and a gun. Turns out he’s the local learning impaired dude who pretends he’s a cop and only pulls over people with Yankee license plates.

We are not amused. You can look up the stories on Snopes, but there really was a rape and murder under this scenario; the guys weren’t handicapped; they were felons. It is not funny to display color local characters in this manner, let alone a town complicit with such dangerous actions. {“Yeah, he’s weird, but he’s ours.”} I began to hate the book at this moment, and probably couldn’t give it a fair read from there forward.

From then on the words skimmed past my eyes very much like an Arthur Hailey novel: all explanation and no storytelling; the facts of mountaintop removal thinly disguised as a fish-out-of-water story; lots of sensational details added about the main characters, a la the unnecessary drama of a Hollywood plot built around a love story. The whole thing just read like… well, like reading the script of your average mid-week 8 pm tv drama. I didn’t care what happened to any of the characters, because I didn’t believe they were real.

Which is annoying, because–let’s give him credit–Grisham is the FIRST big deal author to tackle MT removal, and I don’t care how much I didn’t like the book, I love him as an author for doing that. GOOD FOR YOU MR. G!

But can I add, very sadly, that I wish he’d done a better job of telling a story rather than so obviously trying to talk people into hating the bad guys? The complexities suffered, and so did the communities. But thanks.

mtr

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Onward Christian Snowmen – Let It Go!

We’ve been snowed in for 11 days now in Wise County, with a couple of breaks wherein 4WD vehicles went ‘round gathering everyone’s grocery lists to make a provisions dash down the mountain and back. We no longer think snow days are fun.

You have to remember the above fact as the story I’m about to tell accumulates its layers, or you’ll miss the joy of it. And don’t get off the path; the sh—er, snow is deep in some places.

During the first week of snow–or, as we now call it, the light dusting–a nice man named Alex and his friends built a giant snowman: 15 feet! They’re tall guys and they used ladders and put a cross on its chest and a “God’s Got This” t-shirt (from a fundraising and support campaign for local kids with cancer) where its breast pocket would be, like an old-fashioned gentleman’s hankie. Orange solo cups for eyes, a wide stick smile, arms raised to heaven: they surveyed their giant snowman and called it good.

So did the rest of us, when the clouds lifted Saturday and we were able to walk or skid or dogsled to various stores. My friends Elizabeth, Elissa, and I walked to Food City to get a few things, and posed with the snowman along the way. And I blogged the Monday Snowstorm instead of a Monday book.

Barbara, a regular blog reader, sent the photo to the TV station in Roanoke, who displayed it along with a fairly magnificent kangaroo someone else made, and a Marilyn Monroe somewhat the worse for sun.

All fun and games until someone has a weather eye out….

By the time Roanoke News began circulating the photo, we’d been snowed in AGAIN, a whopping 27 inches in just one day. Buildings literally collapsed (including the Wise County Food Pantry for Norton City, with $25K in inventory inside it. The building is a total loss.)

So I don’t blame TCL (The Christian Lady) for being surly. On Tuesday, she reposted the picture Elissa took of Elizabeth and I with this message:

Carolyn

Small towns are amazing places. Kelley and I spent most of yesterday afternoon trying to find houses people had called in to the café, where those who couldn’t get out would appreciate hot soup and a sandwich. Nobody in a small town uses numeric addresses. (“Turn where the old Family Dollar used to be” one lady told me.) Kelley was donated the money to make two vats of soup after she started doing this on her own the day before, and walking it to houses in the neighborhood because no one could drive. With the aid of our 4WD supertruck, we made it all the way to East Stone Gap and back, trudging through sludge and up roads we didn’t know existed. And everywhere we were met with smiling people with snow shovels who helped us get through, drivers who waited patiently in their cars for us to back up after realizing what we were doing, a guy who stuck his head out the window and said, “Y’all need any money to help do this?” and other kind souls.

But we also saw people who were tired—of snow, of trying to stay warm, of being afraid that something in the house would run out, of being alone.

We’re all on edge, pretty much trying not to murder each other with axes at this point. So when TCL posted her “intent-to-shame,” other people jumped her. Understandably, TCL did not like being jumped, and said many things, including that God had told her to post.

As Christians, we are called to be Salt of the Earth. Which would melt the snowman, I guess. Maybe we should just take TCL’s whole approach with a grain of salt.

I contacted the snowman maker to ask if the accumulating flakes of Snowmangate were associated with him. He was unaware until then, but assured me he didn’t have a problem with our picture. In fact, he was proud to know that his Snow Preacher had circulated so widely.

And I felt I had to come clean. Because, far worse than re-enacting an ugly scene from the Bible, Elizabeth, Elissa and I had thought the snowman was a vampire. His smile was down when we came by, no t-shirt. Glowing orange eyes, claw hands raised in menace to the sky, crucifix sunk into his chest (the sun had been our friend that day) – what’s a bookstore owner who sells six paranormal romances per week to think?

And a fairly magnificent vampire at that, waiting for midnight to rise from his frozen bed and take to the streets, looking for the only people out in those conditions: salt truck drivers, EMTs, and police, poor souls. We couldn’t have him picking off the very county workers we needed most, so we prepared to drive a stake through his heart. But he was too tall, and–as Elissa pointed out– already leaning precariously, so we went on to the store.

Alex laughed hysterically online Tuesday night. TCL, however, was not amused. Words that included “fess up and apologize to all her Christian customers and to the people who took the time to build that lovely snowman for all of us to enjoy” finally clued me in.

There’s not much clear here in Big Stone Gap, as we all brace for yet another snowstorm tonight, and everything that can be closed remains so for the eighth day running, but I give you two fundamental principles on which to lay your firm foundation:

1) TCL is probably out of medication because her road is snowed in.

2) Getting hot over a snowman is one of the funniest things this town has seen in a lonnnnnng time – and that’s saying something, because we have collectively survived the scandal over where to put the Farmers Market, the unification of high schools, and updating our ancient town water pipes (causing old houses everywhere to pop their u-joints like champagne corks).

We can weather a little storm on a snow shovel. Onward, Christian Snowman. Let It Go…….

 

BTW if you want to send a donation to help the Food Bank, it’s

The Food Bank of Wise County P.O. Box 2977, Wise, VA 24293.

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Filed under Big Stone Gap, blue funks, bookstore management, folklore and ethnography, humor, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, out of things to read, small town USA, Uncategorized, VA, Wendy Welch

Think Pretty Maids how you Court Young Men

Jack and I swung past Colonial Williamsburg on our way home from DC, as neither of us had visited before. And guess what… they were having a Southern Textiles display!

Poor Jack – it was his birthday and all, but he passed a pleasant hour in the mental hospital exhibit while I went, stitch by stitch, through the museum with the curator, who was delighted to have someone who liked needlework with which to discuss its intricacies.

But there was one piece Jack and I could both enjoy before he left – this quilt from the early 1800s, done by a lady with eleven children. Three of her quilts, all gifts to her kids when they got married, hung in the exhibit. After viewing this one, all I can say is, she must not have liked her daughter’s chosen husband.

pretty maids courtingThat girl definitely looks dubious, and if Jack had courted me hunched over and grabby like that, things would have turned out different.

Come all you fair and tender ladies

Take warning how you court young men…….

It’s a ballad Jack and I sing often when teaching Transatlantic balladry, as versions are found in the British Isles and the Appalachian Mountains. And it definitely applies to this poor child. The exhibit never told how those marriages ended, but I was reminded of the short story A Jury of her Peers. This is the piece in the literature textbook that every school child in America remembers as “that quilt story about the murder.”

Two women come to the house of a third who may or may not have murdered her husband, and as their husbands tramp about looking for clues, they discover via her quilting that she did it, because her husband killed her beloved pet. And they hide the fact from their husbands, who have been condescending to them about their wanting to take the piece work to the jailed woman, so she’d have something to do. It’s like that other great short story Lamb to the Slaughter, where the cops eat the evidence (woman kills her adulterous husband with a frozen leg of lamb, then cooks it up for the investigators) because they can’t expect a woman to 1) kill and 2) be smart enough to cover it up.

I love textiles. And one of the best parts of the visit was talking to the guide about the division between samplers that had religious poems–of which there were many–versus nature scenes in them. I speculated that the girls who did animals may have been of a slightly rebellious nature, tomboys, and she shot me a shrewd look.

sampler“I actually speculate that it was the other way ’round and the roughest girls were set pieces with the strictest verses,” she said. “Look at this one.” She pointed out a sampler about devotion and piety, very badly stitched. “This kid was pretty much sabotaging her own work, more power to her.”

Attagirl, girls. I love the power of women in subtle things – since the 1600s, when life hands us needles, we jab them into that which annoy us. :]

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Filed under Big Stone Gap, crafting, Downton Abbey, folklore and ethnography, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, VA, Wendy Welch

A Return to Normalcy? HA!

normal12Jack’s Wednesday blog tackles a big question

For years now I’ve pondered on what ‘normal’ means. I can identify various times in my life when it meant very different things for me – my early life running a painting and decorating business, my 20 year career as an educator in a community college, my parallel life as a singer and musician in Scotland, and then my life in the US as a bookstore owner. Believe me, when you work retail, normal is just a setting on a dryer.

But that’s fairly superficial and applies to most folk as we get older, I’d imagine.

No – what I’m interested in is maybe more fundamental. It’s what we consider normal behavior or a normal lifestyle when we look at other people around us. It’s how we judge these things and place values on folk, placing them somewhere on a continuum that’s based around our definition of ‘normal’. In a small town bookstore, we find that some books just won’t sell, and we think it’s because the norms of the area don’t uphold those lifestyles or needs. People asking for some books wait until the shop is empty, or phone ahead anonymously.

The society we live in obviously has a bearing on this, and that’s society with both a small and large S. On my monthly visits to the local Federal prison I’m painfully aware that we incarcerate people for failing to conform to our norms. While some of that non-conformity is understandably so extreme that keeping those people from harming others is essential, a good deal of it is simply inconvenient or unfashionable.

Possession of items as opposed to the committing of violence to get them is one example–wouldn’t treatment be a better option? However, I don’t want to get political. It’s interesting to look back in history and observe how different activities have been classified as crimes and/or insanity. It’s not so long since unmarried mothers or kids we’d now classify as autistic were locked up and treated pretty much as if they were in prison.

It’s very easy to look at other people, or other places, and be critical of how they treat different sections of society, not to mention individual non-conformists. If we turned this same critical eye on ourselves, would we look any different? Does thinking about this make me any more tolerant of other ‘normalities’?

I am not sure it does, but since I live in a glass house and am concerned with the mote in my own eye, I really don’t have time to judge others. :]

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Hands up, Hands Down: a message from Chile to the USA?

Santiago Countdown 1 095The cultural center in Santiago, Chile is the type of place one dreams of having nearby: a government-funded center where kids learn to dance, juggle, play the cello, just because they want to. If they walk in, they get to learn something.

When we visited, I couldn’t stop taking photos as the Tours4Tips guides talked us through the various forms of dance and street art we were seeing. Finally I understood how all those stop-light entertainers acquired their skills. (When cars wait at a red light, kids don’t rush out offering to clean your windscreen; they pedal out on unicycles, carry devil sticks, do yo-yo tricks. It’s fun to drive in Chile.)Santiago Countdown 1 093

But then our guides Carrie and Flores led us down to the main auditorium. The building was in active use when Pinochet’s coup descended and things in Chile changed rapidly–including the ability to express oneself. When it first opened, the bronze door handles on the Cultural Center displayed fists pumping toward the sky, an artistic expression of victory. Pinochet had them flipped over, so that they looked like the fists of someone being handcuffed.

Artists joined the poor students and labor workers vanishing; perhaps the most famous was the songwriting guitarist Victor Jara (in Argentina); the police broke his fingers before they shot him.

“These handles were a hint,” Carrie said, tracing an upward fist with one finger. Her body blocked the other handle. “Don’t forget what can happen if you sing too loudly.”

When Pinochet was voted out peacefully in the late ‘80s, many things were quickly set to rights in Chile, but in one of those “healing is in the details” moments, debate over the center’s door handles raged. Should they be turned back up; left down as a reminder that artists sometimes paid in blood; one up, one down, remembering the past while looking to the future?

“Whadya think they did?” Carrie smiled at her group of Scots, Australians, and Germans, plus me and one other American. Then she stepped aside so we could see both handles; two fists reached for the sky.

Santiago Countdown 1 096A soft murmur rose from the group, but the other American locked eyes with me and I saw we were thinking about the same thing: police handcuffs, don’t shoot, equal justice for all … maybe someday America would be two fists up in victory again?

God bless the families suffering loss in this ongoing violence, and grant us strength to create peace born of justice. We have better music in us than this.

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Senora DeFarge

arpillera protest 2I went to Chile hoping to see textiles in action, to visit women who spun wool and practiced traditional weaving and carved their own crochet hooks. This I found, but also something more.

The world’s most famous knitter is probably Madame DeFarge, of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. Via her stitch code recording wrongs perpetrated by the autocracy during the French Revolution, many an innocent (if irregular-looking) scarf doomed someone to the guillotine. Portrayed largely unsympathetically until the end of the novel, she is herself a victim of the crimes she records.

In the aftermath of Pinochet’s Military Coup in Chile, Senora DeFarge emerged. Several Latin American cultures have a tradition of arpilleras. These are a combination of applique and embroidery depicting a typical scene from everyday life. In order to understand how they became a central fixture of a protest movement, you need to know that in 1973 Pinochet took the country by military coup from Allende (who in 1970 became the world’s first socialist party president to be democratically elected—and you can imagine how scary that was during the Cold War).

I encourage you to look up the English translation of the speech Allende gave when he knew not only death, but also revocation of his reforms to date, was imminent. His moving final address applies to a wider situation than his immediate one.chile protest

Pinochet’s promises mutated into repression. People began disappearing. Many left voluntarily after seeing the handwriting on the wall. Some received “if you’re still here next week” messages and took the hint; more than 200,000 “voluntary” exiles left between 1973 and 1988. About 3,000 people disappeared into camps–as in no one ever found the bodies–with another 40,000 detained and released.

Freedom of the press ended; unions for miners and transport workers were emasculated; and food shortages grew. The Chilean exiles talked non-stop about their homeland being taken apart, but since they were from a “Communist country” (America in particular did not like Allende) not everyone listened—at first. Inside Chile, mostly poor men and students were disappearing, so who cared?donde estan

Enter the arpillera-makers. Sad as it is to admit, attracting international attention to injustice can be hard. There’s just so much of the stuff going around, who gets attention can literally depend on how well you sell the message. Women in prison smuggled out embroidered scenes, made from threads pulled from their own clothes and wood splinter needles, showing the horrors. Outside the camps, mothers, sisters, daughters, and wives began marching, but not about the political issues; instead they made famous the question “Donde Estan?” (Where are they?) shouted from arpillera banners as they silently walked.

chile arpillera protestFrom as small as 10×12 inches, to bigger than five feet square, the arpilleras also went up on walls, got smuggled out of (and into) the country, and caught the interest of television stations.

It’s amazing how loud a silent art form can be. Pinochet was peacefully voted from power in 1988 after international sanctions showed him that he’d run through his foreign friends. The “Mothers of the Disappeared” protests didn’t just help get Pinochet out with no shots fired in the change-over, they also helped locate and close the camps no one wanted to admit were out there. Never underestimate a woman’s love, plus needle and thread.

reconciliationBut the arpillera legacy continued. When the Chileans who’d left came home to a different country, when their children who’d matured elsewhere couldn’t identify as Chileans, when those who stayed scorned those who fled for abandoning a country that needed them, again the arpilleras came out, this time as an act of reconciliation. Scenes depicted returnees welcomed, Chile united, hands reaching across water.reconciliation 2

Stitching up wounds, women’s true colors show.

 

 

making them

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The Monday Book: TIME WAS SOFT THERE by Jeremy Mercer

“In a place like Paris, the air is so thick with dreams they clog the streets and take all the good tables at the cafés. Poets and writers, models and designers, painters and sculptors, actors and directors, lovers and escapists, they flock to the City of Lights. That night at Polly’s, the table spilled over with the rapture of pilgrims who have found their temple. That night, among new friends and safe at Shakespeare and Company, I felt it too. Hope is a most beautiful drug.”

mercerJack and I got the idea for using shopsitters at our place – people who receive free room and board in return for living there – from Shakespeare and Co. This is a famous bookstore across from Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.

On a listserv of bookshop owners, talk turned to books about bookstores. (I received ego strokes, and then we went on.) Mercer stayed at the shop for some time, watching the ebb and flow of people who ranged from down and outs to up and comings. He also spent significant time with George, the shop owner (although not its founder – Sylvia Beach did that) and some of the regulars.

Mercer’s book is in many ways journalistic, showing his roots as a true crime writer. Yet he portrays the under humanity so simply with his “this is what happened” prose. One of the blurbs on the back calls the book a romanticized version of the bum’s life, but I don’t agree. The book is far less romantic than wistful.

Among the things Mercer does is get George’s daughter to visit, and ultimately secure the shop’s future. It has a fascinating history: closed during the Nazi Era, considered a hothouse of sedition in the 1960s student riots, monitored by the CIA in the 1990s if George is to be believed.

There are a couple of startling moments: an ethnic hate crime results in murder and Mercer is less concerned about the murder than the police sniffing around a bookstore full of people with improper visas to be in France. He seems more concerned when the 84-year-old George gets engaged to 20-year-old shop worker Eva. That kind of thing. It all just sails past, along with the adorable moments of scorn for “30 minute tourists” who just want to stick their head in the door because the place is famous, having no understanding of or interest in its true ethos.

And there’s a very funny cynicism to the scheme three residents come up with, to sit and write in front of the tourists and sell the pages, story by short story. The description of this was, quite frankly, laugh out loud funny.

This isn’t a story about books, but about the bookstore itself, its inhabitants, and its purpose. Mercer’s final paragraph is a good summation: “In the end, yes, it is a famous bookstore and, yes, it is of no small literary importance. But more than anything, Shakespeare and Company is a refuge, like the church across the river. A place where the owner allows everyone to take what they need and give what they can.”  

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