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Homespun life sparkled with humor; Aunt Arie - A Foxfire Portrait, edited by Linda Page and Eliot Wigginton. New York: E.P. Dutton/A Foxfire Press Book. 215 pp. $15.95 in hard cover, $9.95 in paperback.

By Sonia W. Thomas / July 13, 1983



Everyone should get to know ''Aunt Arie.'' And, for that matter, many people already do. Arie Carpenter is familiar to thousands of readers of the original ''Foxfire Book.'' She was also immortalized in the recent play ''Foxfire,'' which starred Jessica Tandy as Annie Nations, a character based partly on Arie Carpenter's recollections as told to high school students in the original Foxfire learning experiment.

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Students who visited Aunt Arie's home were amazed by her simple life and practical skills. The youngsters were taken in by her charm, wit, her trust in God, generosity, and capacity to love. They went to learn, share, help in the garden, bring in firewood, make life easier for her, but they always went away with so much more.

Often they helped prepare a meal, making bread from scratch, opening jars of homemade sausage balls, setting the hand-hewn table, or asking the blessing.

Every minute they were there, Aunt Arie talked with them, spewing out tidbits of folklore - riddles, songs, and wisdom, sprinkled with laughter - passing it on in the same way she had received it. Each winter visit culminated in the country ritual of parching (popping) corn in a ''capper'' (a covered pan fastened to an old broomstick), while the teen-agers huddled around the fireplace until after dark, reluctant to leave the special friend they had come to respect and love.

''She is the only person we ever wrote about whose personality was so strong and whose face was so compelling that she literally walked off the pages of 'The Foxfire Book' and into the lives of millions who read it,'' writes Eliot Wigginton, the originator of the Foxfire program and co-editor of this new documentary on Aunt Arie.

The opening scene of the Broadway version of ''Foxfire,'' as well as several others, draws on incidents from Arie's recollections. The characters are composites of several people interviewed as part of the Foxfire project, in which students in Rabun County, Ga., talked with older citizens and wrote about them. The program began in 1967 with Wigginton's 11th- and 12th-grade English classes.

The late Arie Cabe Carpenter was born Dec. 29, 1885, in Macon County, N.C., close to the Georgia border. She passed on in 1978. She never traveled more than 35 miles from home. She married at age 38 after caring for her invalid mother and the family home from the time she was a little girl. Aunt Arie loved children but never had any of her own.

For most of her married life she lived in the log house she and her husband, Ulysses, had built. A fireplace provided the heat, and Aunt Arie cooked her meals on a wood stove. She never had a sink in her kitchen, but washed dishes in a shallow basin - outdoors when weather permitted.

Arie and Ulysses had farmed and lived off their 68 acres, selling farm products. After Ulysses' passing in 1966, Arie stayed on, determined to be self-sufficient.

This new book is composed of Aunt Arie's own words, tape-recorded during visits and sensitively edited to retain her unmatched personality and the flavor of her folksy dialect. Charming photographs and an attractive layout enhance the text.

One can begin to capture the dimensions of this woman in a few of the qualities that make her so unforgettable:

* Her unequivocal love. She reached out to identify and love the young people who came into her home in a way that each one felt. And she loved older folks, too. She threw her arms into the air with enthusiasm when greeting a stranger. She explained, ''Can't do hardly anythin' I used t'do. But I can still love.''

* Her faith in God. She taught Sunday school and did other work in the Coweeta Baptist Church for over 60 years. At one time she pledged $1,000 to help pay for a new building, and then found ways to earn the money to meet the obligation. When someone stole the wash pot off her kitchen porch, her chief concern (and not without her characteristic humor) was how the thief would explain that black pot to St. Peter at the heavenly gates! She simply lived the Christianity many merely talked about.

* Her joy. She managed to spark every conversation with humor. ''I don't reckon th' Devil'll get me fer laughin','' she says, ''but if he does, he'll shore get me, 'cause I've always done more'n my share a' th'laughin' in the world.''

There's much in this book that will endear Aunt Arie to readers, as she talks about her life with ''Ulyss,'' about her family, and faith.

I was sorry the book had to end. It was - for me - like a childhood visit from my own elderly Aunt Lily, who sat quilting and chattering about the ''olden days,'' while three little girls clung to her every word.

After one finishes the book, the memories linger. As Wiggington says, what remains is ''the uncommon decency and the humanity that characterized the entire experience of knowing such a woman. She was a good and decent human being in a complicated world.''

Now this book makes it possible for many of us to get to know Aunt Arie. I recommend taking advantage of the privilege.