I’m back in the South for a spell. North Carolina neighbors our home state of Virginia. It is a state we’ve visisted often, and whose climate, history, culture, and people are intimately familiar to me after growing up in Georgia and living here in Appalachia. The Appalachian mountains of Robert Morgan’s are particularly similar to our current home in the hills of Southwest Virginia, and the gardens of Garden Spells overflow with the flowers of my southern homes.
Biography: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
Author: Harriet Jacobs, slave in North Carolina
Setting: 1870s North Carolina
What an amazing book. This biography of Harriet Jacobs and the Underground Railroad was published in 1861 — 1861! before the Civil War! — under the name Linda Brent.
Like so many books written by women, this one told a new (to me) perspective. I’ve read Roots and A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, along with other heart-wrenching accounts of slavery, but not with a focus on what it was like to be a female slave. This one is a woman’s account, including her living for 7 years in a cramped, unlit, unaired space where she could not even stand up. Seven years without going outside, without walking, without stretching, without seeing or talking to anyone except her grandmother who hid her in the same town as the master she had fled from. He traveled multiple times to New York to try to hunt her down. She lived in her hole under the same roof as her children for 7 years but could never speak to them for fear they’d reveal her hiding place; they didn’t even know she was there.
Jacobs lived this way to be free from her master’s lasciviousness. She lived this way rather than have him force himself on her — she was his property and he could do to her as he pleased — using her to breed more slaves he could then own. Her children, his property.
The secrets of slavery are concealed like those of the Inquisition. My master was, to my knowledge, the father of eleven slaves. But did the mothers dare to tell who was the father of their children?
An unexpected insight this book exposed is Jacob’s observation of how slavery debased everyone. Slave girls who came of age under their masters’ roof were chased by the white masters and reviled by the masters’ wives. Wives seethed in jealousy of fifteen-year-old slave girls who were desired and raped by the masters.
Slavery is a curse to the whites as well as the blacks. It makes the white fathers cruel and sensual; the sons violent licentious; it contaminates the daughters, and makes the wives wretched. And as for the colored race, it needs an abler pen than mine to describe the extremity of their sufferings, the depth of their degradation.
I feared the heaviness of this book. I often tell my mom I don’t like to dwell in the past. But this book is important. It is important to know these stories to understand our present, and to improve beyond the vile ways of our past. It’s also important because Harriet Jacobs is a strong and admirable woman. I would have crumbled in her circumstance. Jacobs was fiercely committed to being free, to not standing for the abuse, and for quietly fighting for her and her children’s’ freedom.
Novels: Gap Creek and The Truest Pleasure
Author: Robert Morgan, born Hendersonville, NC
Setting: western North Carolina
I’ve read Gap Creek twice, and now I want to read The Truest Pleasure again as well. Gap Creek explores the rawness of life in the Appalachians.
I reckon there’s nothing awkwarder in the world than the sight of two women in long dresses at either end of a crosscut saw.
In Gap Creek, protagonist Julie Harmon moves down the mountain from her family’s home, where she did the hard labor after her father’s death, to a home in the valley with her new husband. There, she works harder than ever, navigating a new marriage, butchering hogs, collecting chestnuts from up the mountain when they had no other food to eat, and birthing her baby alone on the kitchen floor. The first time I read Gap Creek was before we had children, and the childbirth scene was one I carried with me through labor, delivery, and to this day. Morgan’s is the truest account of childbirth, from the laboring mother’s perspective, that I have ever read. Likewise, his prose took me into the grease fire, the flooding creek, and the way of life of a hard-working, no-money, living off the land existence that I have not seen since Little House on the Prairie. Only Morgan’s story is a grittier one, told from the perspective of an adult instead of a child.
Like Gap Creek, The Truest Pleasure also takes place in the western mountains of North Carolina. It has been a few years since I’ve read it, and honestly, given the stoic nature of the husband in it, I remember it feeling more Midwestern than Appalachian. But what sticks with me about The Truest Pleasure is that the protagonist, Ginny, is a Pentacostalist who speaks in tongues, to the shame of her husband. I remember that Morgan did a brilliant job of putting the reader inside Ginny’s head, and like Dennis Covington’s account of snake-handling in Salvation on Sand Mountain, Morgan writes the Pentacostalist’s faith beautifully and convincingly, allowing an outsider like myself to understand the power of Ginny’s convictions and the bliss of her salvation.
Novel: Garden Spells
Author: Sarah Addison Allen, born and raised in Asheville, NC
Setting: early 2000s North Carolina
I love this book so much. Garden Spells is the story of the Waverly women, each of whom has a gift: creating foods from flowers and herbs that, when eaten, make certain wishes come true; understanding, or bringing out, a person’s essence through the way they wear their hair; and knowing exactly where things belong (and who belongs together). The Waverly garden is home to plants that bloom out of season and apples that tell people’s’ destinies. The book is magical, includes charming characters and the love among women, and has a touch of romance. It’s one of those books I wanted to skip work for so that I could read it cover to cover in one sitting.
Book: Me Talk Pretty One Day
Author: David Sedaris
Setting: Raleigh, NC (and later, other cities)
This is possibly the funniest book I’ve ever read. I remember eight years ago, when we lived near St. Paul, MN, while our daughter was at skating lessons on the ice below me, I passed the time in the rink stands with tears streaming down my face as I read this book. I kept closing it because the pages were riddled with swearing and all sorts of offensive language that I didn’t want any of our Minnesota-nice neighbors to see me laughing so hard at.
David Sedaris makes me laugh until I hurt. He’s crass, irreverent, makes hilarious fun of himself, and he is a master of the written English language. Me Talk Pretty One Day is my favorite collection of his, and since the first half of it takes place in North Carolina, I had to include it here.