From Step Into the Circle: Writers in Modern Appalachia
It’s just after 11.00 a.m. on the second day of spring and I am back in Washington, D.C. for a few days. Back in my old hometown—the place I left Kentucky for at eighteen, the place I truly came of age. It’s a place I return to clear my head, to locate myself, and this visit I am locked in an internal battle with a book I am writing, one that has resurrected a legion of buried anxieties.
I am staying with an old friend in Northern Virginia, a poet with family roots in the coalfields of Appalachia. She is at work, and has left me a note on the kitchen counter reminding me to make myself at home. We are to meet that evening for a farewell dinner before I drive back to Kentucky in the morning, back to my teaching job and fear of the blank page, and after a late night of movies and talking, I am greeting the day with no definite plans. I don’t need them. This is my city, a place I know as well as the hollow I was raised in, and there is never a shortage of things to do. I make myself a cup of tea to go, grab a banana and head out the door to my car.
As I wind my way out of my friend’s apartment complex, I find myself reverting to a habit I formed during my seven years of living here. I tune the radio to 88.5 WAMU, the NPR station that broadcasts from American University. And then I hear her voice.
The familiar, honeyed tones, the girlish laugh, the rippling rhythm of her speech. I cock my head in surprise, turn my right ear towards the speakers as if I might be mistaken. But I am not. She is exchanging greetings with host Diane Rehm, and I can sense her smile beaming across the airwaves as she describes how her father kept a dimestore in Grundy, Virginia, and how she used to take care of the dolls, fussing over their dresses and hair while eavesdropping on the customers surrounding her.
I have missed the introduction, but I know that Rehm usually interviews her guests live in studio. I pull to the side of the road and locate the number for WAMU on my iPhone. “Hello, is Diane Rehm’s interview with Lee Smith being recorded live?” I ask the woman who answers. I don’t wait for her response. “Is Ms. Smith in studio?”
She pauses, perhaps to find the answer, or maybe to size me up by the sound of my voice, to intuit if I might be some rabid, unhinged fan. “Yes,” she finally confirms.
In the moment it takes to offer my thanks, I am driving again, speeding, urging my Mini Cooper along the Northern Virginia backroads in the direction of Northwest D.C. I have exactly fifty-five minutes to get there. To navigate the tangled mess of highways surrounding Lorton, the construction and traffic of I-95 and the curves of George Washington Parkway along the Potomac, to cross Key Bridge and disappear into the avenues and circles of the city. To find a parking place by noonday and burst through the doors of WAMU to surprise Lee Smith as soon as she comes off the air.
It was her voice that beckoned me, and the voices of her characters. They were the sounds of the women I had grown up around—my mother and aunt and first cousin, my living grandmother, my grandmother who died two years before I was born, all the women, young and old, in my hollow in southeastern Kentucky. Most were “world-class talkers,” as Lee once described her own family, natural storytellers who conjured epics, whether from the past or from their present daily lives, that were replete with rich imagery, vernacular language, and often, poetry unawares.
I came to Lee’s novels in my early twenties, when I was living in Washington. I was finally emerging from an adolescence stymied by fundamentalism, and I was being changed by the city, by its diversity of people, ideas, religions, cuisines and landscapes. By its very air, it seemed. I was opening like a morning glory with the first graze of the sun. But sometimes I found myself missing those voices. Their rhythm and feeling. Their sense of home, of security.
Those voices not only came alive for me in Lee’s work, but they also imparted knowledge and understanding about her characters, and about the Appalachian women in my life and community. In my family, the women of generations past—and sometimes present—often found themselves without choices or options, hemmed into lives they could not escape. I recognized them in the pages of Lee’s novels, and I was able to better comprehend their experiences. But I also heard whispers in her chapters, invitations to escape and understand, yes, but also to imagine. To trade places, to make substitutions. In reading her novels, I began to conjure alternative lives for the women in my family.
While reading Fair and Tender Ladies, I kept thinking of my maternal grandmother whom I never knew. She died two years before I was born, young and under tragic circumstances. Ivy Rowe allowed me to rescue her: instead of a marriage to an abusive man who won her dependence with the promise of stability, my grandmother gained new strength. She had a torrid love affair. She thumbed her nose at everyone and ran off with someone who made her deliciously happy. She was finally able to live her life on her own terms.
As I read Saving Grace, I was haunted by my paternal grandmother, whose life had been cloistered and subsumed by Pentecostalism, governed by a withering fear. The fear of allowing too much of the world to seep in, of letting her vulnerability show, of a slippery slope that would one day land her in the bowels of hell. In Florida Grace Shepherd, my grandmother became a questioner who acknowledged the darkness and complexities of her soul.
By opening up these realms for me and her legions of other readers, I learned that Lee’s voice was one to be trusted, one by which I could set my course. Dignified, inviting, probing and vulnerable, a voice in which I have often heard the echo of my own doubts and questions.
After the initial congestion of merging onto I-95 and then sitting in traffic for a mile or so, I have finally made it to the Potomac. But I am doubting myself now, beginning to feel as if my spontaneous journey to surprise Lee is silly. I don’t know why it is imperative for me to see her today, to lay eyes on her. We are supposed to be together later this summer—she has told my husband, whom she has mentored and nurtured for twenty years, that she will be at the Appalachian Writers’ Workshop in Hindman, Kentucky, for nearly a week, where we will all have the chance to visit, to catch up. Perhaps it’s because she is in my city and I feel a duty to greet her. Perhaps it’s just because of the proximity—so close it would be a shame to miss her. But no, I realize this impulse is about need, not responsibility. So I silence my fleeting reservations and focus on the road, on her voice.
As I negotiate the curve of the exit onto George Washington Parkway to follow the river north into Georgetown, Lee explains how Grundy has changed since her childhood. She describes how it was moved across the river and out of the flood plain, and how strange it has been to return and see the new version of the town.
How did your mother and father survive the changes? Rehm quivers, and I hear Lee’s voice tighten. She talks about truth being stranger than fiction, about how her father died on the final day of his going out of business sale in 1992 after his dimestore had begun to fail. And then she says something I have heard her say before, both onstage and in conversation. That her father had declined her offer to join her in the piedmont of North Carolina. No, honey, he had said. I need me a mountain to rest my eyes against.
But it affects me differently this time, her anecdote. Out the window, the murky Potomac is flashing past. It’s windy and the river is whitecapping, churning up milky crests that resemble the flashes of lace older women once tucked inside their dress sleeves. I gaze across the river, up its rolling banks to the line of cherry trees that will soon be blooming, up above their branches to the flat roof of the Lincoln Memorial, the sharpened pencil tip of the Washington Monument, the gleaming dome of the Capitol in the distance.
Although I love mountains, they are not something I need—at least not every day. I prefer rivers and cityscapes, the jagged peaks of buildings and the gentle hills of the countryside to the dramatic crags that surrounded me in childhood. But there is still something in me that longs to touch wildness every once in a while, a pining to return to the landscape of my birth, to a place that is at once achingly familiar and wholly foreign to me.
I have a complicated relationship with Appalachia, with my family, and the book I am working on is demanding that I confront it. My insides are my own Potomac, roiling with this material. How, like Gracie in Saving Grace, I have been warped and damaged by fundamentalist religion. How, like Lee herself, I am an only child, raised by my parents to be independent. How our relationship was broken with my coming out. (My parents, Diane, have not survived the changes.) How I have been looking for home since I was eighteen, and perhaps even before.
On the radio, Lee begins to muse about Grundy. About how it has changed, how often she returns. Because she left. Like me, she was raised to leave, to fix her eyes on what lay beyond the mountains, and after earning her undergraduate degree from Hollins College, she set out on an odyssey guided by her restless spirit. Richmond, Tuscaloosa and Nashville, then on to North Carolina: Chapel Hill and finally Hillsborough, where she settled with her husband and fellow scribe Hal Crowther, her soulmate with whom she takes annual extended sojourns to Maine and Key West, along with the occasional visit back to Grundy. I, on the other hand, rarely return to the hollow where I was raised. The place is no longer home to me—instead it is one of the places where I’m from, and there is a marked difference between the two.
As I drive, as Lee continues to talk, I wonder how long it took her to find home, to cull her options, to settle down. How she knew. I’m curious because I am in my mid-thirties and my restive impulse has persisted much longer than I imagined. Forty is looming, and I wonder where I will be—where we will be. I am anchored by my marriage and stepchildren. My husband and I have good, fulfilling jobs in a small college town that enable us to write. But neither of us, if we are honest, feel settled. This is not where we see ourselves in ten years, let alone twenty. This is not home.
The search for home emerges again and again in Lee’s fiction, in the characters that have materialized on the pages of her legal pads. Crystal Spangler, Ivy Rowe, Florida Grace Shepherd, Evalina Touissant—they are all seekers, restless souls who carry a tortured, aching knot in their bellies. They are all homeless in a sense, wanderers who have been damaged by Appalachia as much as they have been helped.
This is because Lee Smith’s Appalachia is a complex, complicated place, one that is neither romantic nor debased, but which occupies a messy, authentic middle ground. Before her emergence on the literary scene in the late 1960s, before she hit her literary stride in the 1980s, there were authors who portrayed the region with nuance. But none complexified the place like she did by offering characters, primarily women, who wrestled with issues that arose from the region and its traditions.
In Black Mountain Breakdown, the first of Lee’s books I ever read, Crystal Renee Spangler is gifted, popular, beautiful. The small mountain town ideal. But something goes wrong along the way. She finds herself hemmed in, no longer able to recognize her life. She cannot deal with the constrictions imposed by a conservative culture, with the trauma of an event from her past, and her mental health begins to deteriorate. She is being smothered by being what everyone expects of her and becomes an outsider to both her home and self.
Ivy Rowe is threatened by a similar type of suffocation. In Fair and Tender Ladies, Appalachia is portrayed as a place brimming with natural beauty that is being threatened by the expanding, exploitative coal industry. The young Ivy discovers a love for learning and writing, and she develops an active imagination that becomes her savior. She knows herself—she tends to her desires, her needs, to the natural world that surrounds her. This sturdy sense of self carries her through pregnancies, postpartum depression and an affair with the ravishing Honey Breeding that jolts her back to life, but brings with it heartrending consequences. When she is judged and exiled by her fundamentalist community, she is defiant and unapologetic. By the end of the novel, Ivy has recognized what is wonderful and terrible about the mountains, and she articulates those paradoxes. She chooses a triumphant, solitary life divorced from the oppressive elements of her culture, an Appalachia of her own making.
Home for Florida Grace Shepherd in Saving Grace is synonymous with both oppression and liberation. She chafes under the rules and strictures of her father’s snake-handling church, but she finds freedom in the wilds of Scrabble Creek. Gracie knows she has to escape, and so she sets out on a journey that culminates in Gatlinburg, a place that seems to epitomize modern Appalachia, where natural beauty, commercialism, heritage, industry and exploitation all converge. The ending is ambiguous: does Gracie lose it, or does she finally find herself, her home?
There is a mystery in that ending, in all of these novels, that tantalizes me. I sometimes wonder if Lee was working out her own anxieties, her own questions, about home in their pages. If she realized that Appalachia is a place that she will never get over. If there is a longing nestled in the crook of her heart for the rim of mountains encircling Grundy, a place about which she must have complicated feelings, a place she loves but where she could perhaps never again live.
Like Lee herself, some of her characters leave, and others stay. Some seem to be working out a question she once raised in an interview given as she was selling her childhood home in the wake of her father’s death: “It’s affecting me profoundly and so obviously will affect whatever I write. Just having a home to go to. What do you do when you don’t have a home to go to?”
Maybe these are simply my projections. After all, we all bring our own doubts and anxieties with us to lay upon the altar of literature. But the notion of home seems to be a riddle to Crystal Spangler, to Ivy Rowe, to Florida Grace Shepherd, and perhaps it is to Lee, too. Perhaps it is to all of us.
I have crossed Key Bridge now, and I turn left into Foxhall Road, which carries me up among the lush, tamed wilds of Wesley Heights and Glover Park. Eleven years ago, I lived nearby, just three blocks from National Cathedral and within a stone’s throw of the Russian Embassy. I was twenty-three, working in communications for a federal agency, editing and writing for its magazine, and just beginning to imagine a more creative life as a writer. In many ways I was continuing the process I had begun here as an eighteen-year old at George Washington University, determining what to maintain and shed of where I was from.
I had decided mine would be a broad life, one that gazed out at the vast expanse of the world. It would not be confined to the prisoning hills where I had been born five hundred miles away. I knew I would never again be able to live in the mountains, a realization stemming from both preference and identity. I was on the cusp of coming out, a process that had been thwarted by the fundamentalism that haunts the mountains. But I was certain I would maintain my abiding love for the region’s literature, as evidenced by the worn copy of Black Mountain Breakdown on my bedside table. I could not only see the women of my family in those pages, but I could also see myself in Crystal Spangler: the overachieving student who carried the confining expectations of her community on her slender shoulders and was destroyed by them. Crystal was my cautionary tale—I would never find myself imprisoned by a life not of my own making.
As I drive past Garfield Street, the turn I would have made to my old home with its shelf of Appalachian novels, I laugh at the memory, at my youthful inflation of my own power. At the fact that although I have succeeded in living broadly, my life has assumed a confining propulsion of its own centered on home, one I haven’t quite been able to control as I thought I would. At the irony that it was Appalachian literature that helped take me back to Kentucky, although not to the mountains, and that the words of Lee Smith and Silas House, my future husband, actually helped to beckon me back west.
But since then, some of my certainties have vanished. The hollow I was raised in has descended into rampant drug abuse. Beloved community members have died; others have moved away. Some have latched onto a vicious brand of conservatism that I cannot begin to understand or respect. My lapsed Southern Baptist parents have become fervent Pentecostals. They don’t accept me or my family, and I no longer have a childhood home to which I feel I can return. Everything, it seems, has changed.
On the air, Lee has just finished explaining Grundy’s three-story Walmart, replete with its escalators that transport customers and their shopping carts, a description prompted by a caller from Louisville who had once visited and left amazed. Then Diane Rehm makes an announcement. An email has come in from Wesley, whose location is not given. “May I object to the nostalgia for a time that never really existed?” Wesley asks. “While Ms. Smith enjoyed a childhood she remembers as idyllic, others in her city were denied an equal education or access to jobs.”
I raise up erect behind the wheel, bristling at Wesley’s implication. Not about Appalachia’s racial or class disparities—he is exactly right about this and is, in fact, making an important point—but at the assumption he seems to be making about Lee. That she is engaging in mere nostalgia. That her memoir, her body of work, is sentimental drivel and doesn’t portray Appalachia’s complications. It’s an accusation often thrown at women, that their work simply is not gritty enough. That it’s mere flummery, something that Lee Smith’s writing surely is not. Lee handles the moment with her customary grace and moves on.
My blood has simmered back down as I reach Tenleytown and American University. I am nearing WAMU, having made it earlier than expected. The traffic gods have been kind, I think. I pull into the lot behind the Metro station and exit the car when I realize there is a problem. WAMU is no longer here. As soon as I see the building and the suite advertising its new tenant, I remember reading about the move on social media.
I check the time: 11.45. I find the address of the new location over on Connecticut Avenue, and by the time I return to my car I have already plotted my route to the new studio through the backstreets. Back down Wisconsin to Tenley Circle, around to Albermarle Street and then southeast on Connecticut.
Lee is talking about her novel Saving Grace, about how Florida Grace is born into a conservative, religious home from which she ultimately attempts to run. I am only half-hearing now, because there is construction on Albermarle, and I am forced to reroute. But I know the story.
Community, I hear Lee say. Home.
That word again. I turn it over in my mind as I drive down 38th Street to Alton Place, where I am greeted by another detour. So I reroute: 38th again to Yuma, then south on Reno before making a left on Van Ness.
Perhaps Wesley is right, though not about Lee. Maybe I am the one being nostalgic and sentimental, idealizing a fixed notion of home that really does not exist, or at least no longer does. Or maybe we all take detours, and some of those are pointing us towards our destination on city side streets. When I finally reach Connecticut, Lee and Diane Rehm are wrapping up their chat.
Great literature asks questions. It asks them of characters, and by extension, it demands we ask them of ourselves. Like most lifelong readers, I realized this at a young age—that my questions were welcomed by literature, and sometimes even answered by it. When I discovered Lee’s writing, I found that her novels were no exception, and I began turning to them for answers about where I was from. Because there are questions raised in her writing about Appalachia—important ones, queries posed by her characters and their lives.
How has conservatism in the Mountain South constrained women over the years? How does the region judge and sentence people—again, often women—who refuse to conform to proscribed social norms? How and where does beauty persist in a natural world threatened by industry? How does religious fundamentalism thwart creativity and spiritual growth? Is Appalachia a place where people who are different can ultimately live?
These are not nostalgic, sentimental questions. These are interrogations, hard questions, that challenge power dynamics and structures in Appalachia and throughout the South, including patriarchy, religion, industrialism, prejudice. Lee asks these on the page with subtlety, with her trademark depth and nuance, and her asking never interferes with the art or the telling of the story. But in posing these questions through her characters, she is doing something else as well. She is opening a world for her readers, a universe void of judgement, in which she gives them permission to ask those very questions of themselves, to apply them to their own lives.
Such openness, at its core, is an act of inherent generosity, which might be the first word that comes to mind when I think of Lee. Both on the page and in her own life, she has come to exemplify what it means to give of herself not only to her readers, but also to her fellow writers. An entire generation of Appalachian and Southern writers can trace their roots back to her work, encouragement and patronage.
What she has given these writers, and scores of others, is permission, a sanction that is rooted in belief. The belief that anything is possible, that we must follow our creative impulses, that we have a responsibility to lead examined lives. “I refuse to lead an unexamined life,” I have heard her say on more than one occasion, advice I have scrawled on a notecard and taped above my writing desk. In Dimestore, Lee adds a vital addendum: “No matter how painful it may be, I want to know what’s going on.”
That is our duty as writers. To keep asking, to keep examining, to keep searching. The quest is its own reward, itself a kind of home. This I have gathered from her work. From her, our North Star—or better yet, our bright, constant Southern star. A generous, open-hearted literary refuge towards which we can all steer our speeding cars.
After the traffic and construction; after going to the old, wrong location; after the crooked detour on the closed backstreets; I find a parking place just a block away from WAMU’s posh new headquarters. It is 12.05. I push some coins into the meter and tear off down the sidewalk towards the studio. By the time I heave open the doors and thrust myself into the lobby, adrenaline and sprinting have conspired to make me a sweaty mess. A touch of my childhood asthma has reappeared in my dash through the cold air, and I have to pause to catch my breath before approaching the receptionist at her desk on the right side of the lobby.
“Hello, is Lee Smith still here?” I enquire.
“It’s you,” she smiles. “You called earlier.”
“I did. Have I missed her?”
She points over my shoulder. “She’s right in there.”
I turn to see an expansive, glass-enclosed conference room. Lee is standing with her back to me, talking to another woman I don’t recognize. A couple of other women are sitting at a table, engrossed in conversation.
I approach the glass wall and knock. Everyone is startled, bewildered, and I don’t care. I need to see Lee.
She turns around and I wave through the glass. Her eyes become the size of egg yolks.
“Oh my God!” I hear her laugh, and I burst through the door to give her a hug. “What are you doing here?”
I begin to explain, and when I see that lovely smile bloom across her face I know why I am here—why I need Lee Smith to rest my eyes against. As she erupts in laughter at the tale of my tortured journey to find her, I know all will be well. I know my book will be fine. I know my husband and I will someday find our home. I know that goodness and generosity still persist in this world. And I know that there will always be an Appalachia—the one she has conjured—to which I can return over and over again, a home on the page in which I can see myself and love without condition.
“Celestial Navigation” is included in the collection Step Into the Circle: Writers in Modern Appalachia, edited by Amy Greene and Trent Thomson, out December 2019 from Blair.
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