Bearskin to Holly Fork: Stories from Appalachia.
By Bob Sloan. Wind Publications, 2003, 135 pages. $14.00
Reviewed by Judith Hatchett
The fifteen stories in this collection introduce readers to a contemporary Appalachian world, the fictional town of Midland, Kentucky, and the conflicts and often thwarted hopes of its residents. Louisville and even Berea College are far-off, strange places to people deeply rooted in one small community and its history and stories.
Sloan, whose commentaries have aired regularly on Kentucky and National Public Radio and who lives near Morehead, never romanticizes the region. Instead, in prose as plain and direct as his characters, he tells of lives lived among dashed hopes, failed love, and infrequent opportunities to make things better. Midland has lost much of the community and tradition of the Appalachian past, yet its characters cannot quite seize the prizes of the present. Jobs outside the ever-unreliable mining and timber industries seem unthinkable, impossible to obtain. Remaining at home and growing marijuana actually seems safer.
An old woman in the story "Finding the Gate" expresses the ambivalent view of most of Sloan's characters when she remembers that "once, at church, I heard a visiting preacher compare the high flint ridges rising all around us to the caring, cradling arms of Jesus. It was a pretty image, but to me these Kentucky mountains seemed more a fence so high we could neither cross nor see beyond it." For her, education and the dream of teaching school were to be gates through the fence.
Other Midland residents, however, just want enough work to be able to stay behind the fence. In "Timber," the narrator, laid off from his timber cutting job, is first forced to seek a GED in order to keep his benefits, and then is placed in an "anger management group" after going into a rage at being called a "displaced worker." His dark humor underscores the absurdity of the situation when during "mad class," as he calls it, he is asked to role play his reaction to being cut off from a parking place: "'I said, 'There is so much parking downtown since the Walmart come in, what would be the point to making a big deal over one little space?'"
When unions shut down the mines, when the timber industry comes to a halt, when tobacco can't support a family, and when Walmart closes small businesses, Midland residents quietly accept marijuana as a force in the local economy. The title "Symbiosis" is particularly appropriate for a haunting story of loyalty and betrayal in the face of interdependence on the illegal crop.
In Midland, people know each others' stories, whether they choose to tell them or not. In "The Whole Story, 1969" the young narrator, laid off and waiting to be drafted, is at first excited by the drama of an old woman demanding that the local bootlegger refuse to sell any more liquor to her alcoholic son. His first belief is that "The business between Langley and Mrs. Allen sounded like it could turn into a good story, and watching it close up seemed like a fine place to be." He anticipates how the story will be told for years to come. When the conflict plays out in a way that brings even the bootlegger to near tears, however, he realizes a communal responsibility to shape narratives in ways to protect the most vulnerable. And in "Jesse's Becky," Joe Sawyer learns the dark tragedy behind the family story of his cousin Jesse. While all other family members moved north to find jobs, Jesse remained behind. The family told Jessie's story one way: "Jesse sure loves Hawkes County. He'd starve to death down there before he'd leave Kentucky." Joe discovers the truth of why Jesse could never leave, however, and realizes that a part of his family narrative will remain as false as the story a Louisville reporter plans to write about the same events.
Sloan makes the reader care about the people of Midland, to admire their loyalty and determined independence. In "Obligation" and "Fire, and Stella," Sloan depicts moral decisions made in the firm belief that "This ain't the sheriff's business," and most readers will probably agree. They will also agree that Midland is worth entering, that seeing the world through the eyes of Midland residents brings a dark and different perspective on the choices they make. They will also enjoy Sloan's direct but evocative prose that makes both his characters and their beloved and bedeviling
home--stretching all the way from Bearskin to Holly Fork--seem so real.
Judith Hatchett is Chair of Arts and Humanities at Midway College
An abbreviated version of this review appeared in the Lexington Herald-Leader,
October 17, 2004