Appalachian News-Express, Friday, March 19, 2004:
Hopkins writes of the "strengthless
of Greasy Creek
by Gayle Compton
Historian Steven Schiff has said that "at the heart of good history is a naughty little secret: good storytelling."
Spirits in the Field, Bruce Hopkins' first book, is not only good history well told, it offers the reader what many histories don't: writing that is both clear and stunningly beautiful.
When Hopkins sees the plans for the new section of
U.S. 460 in 1997, the spring following his father's death, he is unprepared for further loss. Not only will the new superhighway take much of Greasy Creek, the world of his youth, it would take something more sacred. The Old Prater Cemetery, burial grounds for Hopkins' family since before the Civil War, was but a few blue lines on a
map--and the bulldozers were coming.
Hopkins is suddenly a man at his own crossroads. After all,
U.S. 460, like Route 66, was viewed by many as just another highway to be taken by the Joads of today when the time comes.
"U.S. 460, like every other road in this tired place, had basically one function: to take young people away when the coal industry waned."
Spirits in the Field could well have been a scathing indictment of the Kentucky Department of Transportation. Their smug indifference toward the more than 70 graves of the Old Prater, three of which were from the Civil War, was infuriating. If this weren't reason enough, they would ignore repeated requests for a forensic anthropologist to identify the unknowns. But a new century was dawning and Hopkins
knew the road meant progress for a languishing economy. Besides, the contents of the Old Prater, as well as that of the smaller Samuel Robinson plot, would be taken to the modern perpetual care cemetery where his father was buried. So begins, on a lonely hill among the moss-covered stones and sunken graves, a journey the
author--and his readers--won't soon forget.
At 52, with the dirt still fresh on his father's grave, Hopkins ponders his own mortality and a squandered youth. "I actually knew little of the distant past, of which I speak now so
matter-of-factly. . . . That lack of knowledge was a gap in my education, one I ignored for nearly 50 years, but which would close rapidly in the next five." Those five years spent researching and writing, traveling back roads, knocking on strangers' doors, poring over dusty files and battling bureaucracy would do more than close the gap. Like the dark secret of Hooker's lost journals, there was much he'd never learn, but he would finally face the past with a clear conscience.
Although the Civil War is the matrix for much of
Spirits in the Field, the book does not quite fit the genre. What it offers students of that conflict is valuable information on the role the war played in Eastern Kentucky, a subject on which little is written. We learn, for instance, that cotton was once grown in Pike County as a cash crop and shipped to New Orleans, and that Joseph Hopkins, the brother of the author's great-great-great grandfather, was one of its successful growers.
The history of an Appalachian family, the book is as accurately a history of Eastern Kentucky, roughly from pre-Civil War days to the present. We who call Appalachia home recognize the Hopkins family as our own. We feel an indebtedness to the "Old Ones": Cornelius, who helped settle Pike County, and his wife Dorcus planting roses all over Greasy Creek. We feel a kinship with the kindly Rissie, with the harelip and clubfoot, big-hearted Cripple Will and his brother the eccentric Hooker writing in his journal by lantern light on the cemetery. Down the ages we have attended their funerals, the candy-makings and soirees on a front porch. We have raised families like theirs and pursued happiness in the presence of what the author calls "the specter of violent death." We have smelled the sulfurous smoke of the coal camp and seen men like Harlen Damron walk into a mine "only to be carried out, bereft of life and limb." We have seen the end of war when "too many faces were missing." We feel we know these people, yet we also know they are unlike anyone we have ever met.
And the most unforgettable is Elisha Hopkins, Bruce's "cantankerous, foul-mouthed, whore-hopping" great-great-great grandfather, a man who lives to be 94 in spite of having "half a dozen wives and more than 50 children." When Hopkins feels overwhelmed by the job before him, Ol' Lige, who is not buried in the Old Prater, but on nearby Ripley Knob, becomes his strongest ally. In the author's most despairing moments he appears in epiphanies from beyond the pale, a fiendish muse, giving him clues, cheering him on. Will the Old Prater go on the National Register of Historic Places? Will Hopkins get his forensic expert? During the agonizing wait, when the fate of the Old Prater hangs in the balance, is it coincidence or does Ol' Lige cause the telephone to ring?
Set on two stages, the past and the present, Spirits is at once history and art in the novelistic tradition of Robert Penn Warren and Allan Eckert. The author moves between two worlds with the seamless, cinematographic ease of a John Dos Passos or Tom Wolfe, imitating neither. The book is studded with iridescent imagery that often reaches the level of poetry, even when describing the most commonplace: "Geese were the resplendent emperors of their domains, and they strolled about their farms with a regal detachment, fearing nothing." Allowing another bold comparison, Spoon River Anthology comes to mind. However, we again feel that intimacy with the real characters of Greasy Creek that is not quite possible with Masters' imaginary ones.
We are safe in assuming that Spirits in the Field is a memorial to the author's esteemed father who, in many ways, inspired it. Hopkins, like young Rufus Follet in James Agee's
A Death in the Family, is a son who must "tell the sorrow of being on this earth."
Above all, it is an apology and a living monument to the "strengthless dead" of Greasy Creek.
Has the author succeeded? In the final chapter, at the grand party of 1860 when the ghosts of Greasy Creek are speaking, it is Ol' Lige who removes all doubt: "You did good here, boy. You did real good. Don't let nobody tell you different."
Slowly, inexorably, U.S. 460 presses forward, into a new millennium and a new world. The spirits of the Old Prater are quiet at last, having returned to the dust and bone from whence they came. To paraphrase Masters:
Where are Cripple Will, Harrison, Zeke, Harlen and Dorcus: the kind one, the bastard, the cavalryman, the miner, the planter of roses? In another place, not far away, all, all are sleeping on the Hill.
Gayle Compton has written many stories, poems and essays on Appalachian themes. He is a 2003 winner in the Kentucky State Poetry Society's Jesse Stuart competition.
This book may be
obtained from your favorite local bookstore, on-line from Amazon,
or you may order directly from the publisher.
Bruce Hopkins is Director of Communications and Risk Manager for the
Pike County, Kentucky, School System. He holds a BA in English from
Pikeville College, an MA in English from Longwood University, Farmville,
Virginia and has taught in the public school systems in Kentucky,
Virginia and West Virginia. He has been an English teacher and
journalist for most of his adult life. He still teaches occasional
college-level classes in Southern Literature and writes a weekly
commentary for the Appalachian News-Express in Pikeville, KY.
Book order form
Other books from Wind
600 Overbrook Dr
Photographs of the the Old Prater Cemetery on Greasy Creek near
Pikeville, Kentucky, are by the author, Bruce Hopkins.
Spring 2003. The view westward from the Old Prater Cemetery and Greasy
Creek toward Pikeville. US 460 will soon
cut through the mountain that's been cleared of trees.