Long before Thomas Wolfe put pen to paper nearly a century ago, the N.C. mountains and foothills have provided the perfect setting for countless stories. This month, in three new novels – about a snake-handling church, a dying furniture town and a mountain cove cursed with bad luck – N.C. authors once again give western North Carolina a starring role.
This literary bounty, which arrives in bookstores over the next three weeks, raises an interesting question: What is it about North Carolina that produces so many good stories?
The answer, Ron Rash believes, is tradition.
Rash, author of “The Cove,” one of the forthcoming novels, grew up in Boiling Springs reading Wolfe. Later, he found inspiration from N.C. authors such as Fred Chappell, Lee Smith and Robert Morgan.
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When people grow up in a storytelling culture, he says, they want to tell a few tales themselves.
“You just start to get a generation that comes up saying, ‘This is what North Carolinians do,’ ” Rash says. “We do barbecue and novels.”
Like Rash, the other authors of the new novels, Wiley Cash (“A Land More Kind Than Home”), and Susan Woodring (“Goliath”), have drawn inspiration from N.C. authors who’ve preceded them.
Cash, who grew up in Gastonia, sets his debut novel in Madison County, where tragedy strikes when members of a snake-handling church place their faith in a dark-hearted minister.
He cites Chappell’s “I Am One of You Forever” and Kaye Gibbons’ “Ellen Foster” as influences. His novel’s title is a line from Wolfe’s “You Can’t Go Home Again.”
Woodring’s “Goliath” tells of a fictional town, not unlike her home of Drexel, where a furniture company’s decline drags down the entire community.
Woodring, who lived in Greensboro as a child, says Smith’s “Fair and Tender Ladies” was among the first books that made her want to be a writer.
With so many people writing about North Carolina – its landscapes and people, its quirks and traditions – you might wonder if N.C. authors will ever run out of material.
That was something Rash used to worry about. Then he took to heart an observation from Robert Morgan, author of “Gap Creek,” and, most recently, “Lions of the West.”
Rash remembers telling Morgan, known for his stories set in Appalachia: “I feel like you’ve covered it all. There’s nothing more for me to write about.”
No, Morgan replied. The opposite is true. The more a place is written about, the more you discover to write.
The Cove, by Ron Rash
This part of the book is true: During World War I, the U.S. government held more than 2,000 German civilians in an internment camp in the Madison County town of Hot Springs.
Most were crew members of German commercial ships that happened to be in U.S. ports when Great Britain declared war on Germany in 1914.
One man – described as an artist – escaped the Hot Springs camp.
“That’s all I wanted to know,” Rash says, “because then I knew I had a novel.”
Set in and around Mars Hill, “The Cove” explores a community’s prejudices through the story of Laurel Shelton, ostracized and lonely until she hears the music of a flute-playing stranger near her farm.
“At first,” the story begins, “Laurel thought it was a warbler or thrush, though unlike any she’d heard before – its song more sustained, as if so pure no breath need carry it into the world.”
Back in town, Chauncey Feith is an ambitious Army recruiter. He hasn’t gone to war himself, but he’s bent on recruiting others, and on exposing imagined traitors in his midst, including a German professor at Mars Hill College.
This novel, like many of Rash’s works, explores the nature of evil. It also speaks to today’s politics.
“What scares me in our own society is you have these people who are almost clownish, and they’re capable of great harm,” Rash says. “As a novelist, I’m not a propagandist, but I think you can sense that Chauncey is a type.”
“The Cove,” out Tuesday, has already snagged four starred reviews – in the Library Journal, Booklist, Kirkus Reviews and Publishers Weekly.
Rash, 58, teaches at Western Carolina University. His last novel, the best-selling “Serena,” is now being made into a movie with “Hunger Games” star Jennifer Lawrence in the title role.
Goliath, by Susan Woodring
St. Martin’s, $24.99
As “Goliath” opens, teenager Vincent Bailey comes upon a body splayed in the mud near the railroad tracks.
Percy Harding, owner of Harding Furniture, had been the most important man in Goliath. From the day he took his own life, the little town, already down on its luck, began declining fast.
“They weren’t prepared for the sad news when Vincent Bailey found it on the first Sunday in October, the weather just beginning to cool,” Woodring writes. “The sorrow of it went out in glittering gusts like the old-fashioned purple and pink insecticide clouds sprayed through the town streets in years past. There was a sheen to a tragedy this grave, this mysterious. It began with Clyde Winston, the soon-to-retire police chief, going out to inform the widow.”
Woodring, 38, had never lived in a one-industry town until she moved to Lenoir in Caldwell County in 1997 to teach middle school.
Before long, she’d learned that traffic was heaviest during the 4 p.m. shift change and that her students’ parents worried about jobs leaving the area.
Woodring, who holds an MFA from Queens University of Charlotte’s Creative Writing Program, now lives in Drexel, home to a closed Drexel Heritage Furniture plant.
“Part of what I saw being a tragedy of the furniture industry was that it never had a definitive ending,” Woodring says. Gradually, jobs migrated overseas. Gradually, plants closed.
In her new novel, out April 24, she creates an unforgettable ending, dreamlike yet definitive, for Harding Furniture and the town of Goliath.
A Land More Kind Than Home, by Wiley Cash.
William Morrow, $24.99.
When Wiley Cash, 34, attended UNC Asheville, he loved heading out for drives through nearby Madison County, a place that seemed mysterious and remote.
Years later, Cash was a University of Louisiana at Lafayette graduate student studying under Ernest J. Gaines (“A Lesson Before Dying”). It was his first time living outside North Carolina, and his first time feeling like a cultural outsider.
“I realized all the things I’d missed – bluegrass, shade, seasons, fresh water,” he recalls. He realized, too, that what he wanted to write about was North Carolina. “Because I left, it really made me look at it.”
In “A Land More Kind Than Home” an autistic boy dies during a healing ceremony at The River Road Church of Christ in Signs Following.
The story, set in the tiny Madison County town of Marshall, is told through the voices of three characters – the boy’s brother, the county sheriff and Adelaide Lyle, who’s been a church member for decades. Adelaide knows that Carson Chambliss, her church’s ex-con minister, covered up an earlier death of elderly member Molly Jameson during a snake-handling ceremony.
“I didn’t like none of it one bit at all, and I knew if it wasn’t a safe place for an old woman, then there wasn’t no way it was a safe place for children,” Adelaide says.
“And I knew then that I’d have to stand up to Carson Chambliss, that I’d have to tell him that what he was doing was wrong.”
Cash’s debut novel won a starred review from Library Journal, which calls it as “lyrical, beautiful and uncomplicated as the classical ballads of Appalachia.”
Cash now lives in West Virginia but says he dreams of moving back home. He’s no relation, he says, to the late “Mind of the South” author W.J. Cash, who was from Shelby. “A Land More Kind Than Home” is out April 17.