Lyrical ballads of girlhood
APPALACHIAN MOUNTAIN GIRL By Rhoda Bailey Warren Academy Chicago Publishers 175 pp., $22.50
Many stories could be told about growing up a coal- miner's daughter in the mountains of Kentucky during the Great Depression. In her slim, spare, quietly lyrical memoir, "Appalachian Mountain Girl," Rhoda Bailey Warren focuses attention on a small, carefully chosen set of vignettes that reveal the true spirit of that particular time and place.
The author might well have written about the wretched lives of the miners, the brutality of the mining companies, and the struggles of union organizers. But these conditions, while not unnoted, are in the distant background.
She might also have concentrated, in classic autobiographical fashion, on the story of her own emotional and intellectual development. But her feelings, thoughts, and personality, while part of the story, are not the main theme.
Rather than tell a single story, Warren tells several. In one chapter, the family moves from their cheerless shack in a company town into what they see as a spacious two-room "mansion" on the green hillside of Letcher. In another chapter, we come to know a charismatic preacher called Gideon. In another, we meet an itinerant beggar whose gracious manners make him welcome at every door. In yet another, we make the acquaintance of a "Doctor Woman" called Cindy, who not only helps out as a midwife and healer, but also has a real knack for child psychology.
When some of the heroine's younger brothers get into the bad habit of throwing rocks at passersby, wise Cindy comes up with an ingenious way to make them stop.
At a time when so many memoirs expose, or often even exploit, the seamier side of things, Warren's recollections of her Appalachian childhood are as refreshing as a mountain stream.
This is a book in which life is hard and often sorrowful, yet most surprises turn out to be pleasant ones: mysterious strangers prove harmless; a trampy-looking teenage girl with a passion for trashy romance magazines is revealed to be a tenderly devoted sister; a stern preacher, upset when his wife nurses their infant during his sermon, reacts not in anger, but with a caring and practical solution.
Warren manages to evoke this vanished world of simple virtues without descending into coyness or sentimentality. Indeed, there is a stark, rugged sort of nobility in her renditions of these people that is reminiscent of Wordsworth's poetic portraits of the rural folk of Cumberland: Michael, Margaret, Lucy, the Solitary Reaper, the Leech-Gatherer on the lonely moor.
Take, for example, Warren's account of Kin Walters, the local plowman:
"Nature had made the rocks, mountains, and creeks, and over long generations had blended them with the people till they were one.... A path, beaten to a hard smoothness by rain and footsteps, led from the creek at the foot of the mountain to Kin's gate. It wound white and glistening along the mountainside....
"The minute a mountain flung a shadow over his work, Kin stopped plowing and unhitched his mule. He stopped earlier than other plowmen, but it was tolerated by everyone because Kin could sing. Early on the day he arrived, Mother would send children in all directions to tell the people that Kin would be singing on our porch that night. At eventide, on the little paths along creeks and ridges, would flow streams of people carrying unlit lanterns to light them home later."
Wordsworth, of course, not only broke new ground in the way that he wrote about common, humble people in poetry designed to touch the hearts of common, ordinary readers. In his magnum opus, "The Prelude," he also invented, almost single-handedly, the art of introspective, poetic autobiography charting the growth and ripening of his own mind. Unusually for a modern autobiographer following in the footsteps of the great Romantic, Warren, perhaps lacking her eminent precursor's sense of "the egotistical sublime," tells us very little about herself. Yet this is what helps make her story such a restorative change of pace.
There are plenty of writers nowadays all too ready to unload their psychological histories, but very few who manage, as Warren does, to find deep value in the lives of simple, rustic people struggling to make ends meet.
Like Wordsworth, Warren loves both the landscape of her youth and the individuals who peopled that landscape. Sadly, however, unlike the great Romantic, who began writing two centuries before her, she cannot take comfort in the permanence of nature. Returning to her hometown in the summer of 1992, six decades later, she sees mountains bulldozed and strip-mined, a once-clear river muddy from erosion, and kudzu vines, imported from Japan as cheap cow fodder, now wildly out of control, choking off trees and covering the hillsides in an impenetrable jungle of green.
The world in which she grew up lives only in her memory - and in this poignantly evocative memoir.
*Merle Rubin reviews book regularly for the Monitor.