As I began writing today’s article I realized this might be a good time to share an upcoming plan with you. You may recall about a year ago I published a novella here one chapter each week. A lot of you told me that you enjoyed it and so I would like to share it with readers beyond the scope of this blog. Therefore, I’m in the process of editing it for publication as an ebook on Amazon. I hope to have it ready by summer’s end and will be asking you to both download a free copy and to ask all of your friends to do so as well. Then, I hope you will write a review of the book and let me and other readers know why you liked it. There’ll be lots more details on this in coming weeks.
I firmly believe the key to good writing is to ‘write what you know’. Understanding this, you aren’t surprised that my books are largely set in the places I know and love – the little communities of the Cumberland Plateau. And the fictional characters I write about are invariably inspired by the people around me, or those who have gone before me. I’ve told you many times how blessed I count myself to hail from a region with such a rich oral history. Additionally, I have enjoyed a very large, extended family that has shared details about many generations.
Still, this week I found myself searching for a community name. I want to create a character inspired by one of my great grandparents and would like to name her hometown. As I questioned family members, all they could give me was “near Monterey”. Now, today, we often use the name of the nearest notable town for general statements – for years I’ve explained my hometown as “halfway between Nashville and Knoxville” for the many people who have no idea where Clarkrange lies. That’s a pretty broad statement, but unless you’re placing a mail-order it’s really all most people want to know.
Communities were different a hundred years ago, and my great grandmother was born one hundred twenty-four years ago. (Keeping those times in perspective is a whole other story!) In her day, I would probably never have said I’m from Clarkrange. I would have always drilled down to the actual neighborhood of Martha Washington. There was a sense of identity in being from Martha Washington that was very different than calling Clarkrange your home.
We are so much more mobile now that it’s easy to think of a place that’s actually five, ten or even fifteen miles from your actual house as your home. While I can imagine what it would be like to walk or ride a horse if I needed to go to Peter’s store or to the school in Clarkrange, I’m not at all sure that I can truly appreciate how confined I might have been to a much smaller geographic area. My grandfather once said that we could run to Nashville more easily than his mother could get to Clarkrange. Seems impossible, doesn’t it? But I have to believe he was closer to that day, even if he was born fifteen years after Ford’s Model A went into production.
I can’t help but wonder how often people ventured out to Clarkrange in 1900. While Banner Springs had it’s own post office at that time, neither Campground nor Martha Washington ever enjoyed such a luxury. Even Lovejoy ten miles to the west had a post office until 1897. And business always had to be conducted from time to time at the courthouse in Jamestown. However, the demands of a mule-powered farm and a large family surely kept those trips to a minimum.
Do you think that this sense of citizenship in the community went beyond mere mobility? While visiting the Cherokee village in North Carolina a few years ago, one of the exhibitioners answered a question about gender-roles and he responded that the people were satisfied with their roles, they didn’t question them as we do today. Perhaps the same applies to the sense of community the Appalachian people enjoy. This was home – it’s where you family is, it’s where you worship, it’s where you work. What else is there?
Excepting the occasional wandering pioneer, families often spent generations without venturing very far from their home communities. We can see this when we walk through the cemetery and see several generations buried almost side-by-side. We have numerous farms on the plateau that are now being labelled “century farms” because they’ve been in the same family for over one hundred years. Those are really deep roots and I think that gives a sense of belonging that we are losing in our world today.
Those roots still anchor many of us to the plateau, no matter where we get our mail today. That sense of family and community is very real at family reunions, decorations, even weddings and funerals that bring us all back together. I don’t know if the sense of community I feel in all of the old stories is specific to the time or the place but I’m sure it’s an appreciation we could all benefit from today.
In the case of my great-grandmother who grew up “somewhere near Monterey”, we’ve discussed here before the thriving town that Monterey was at the turn of the twentieth century. The surrounding communities would have certainly benefited from that booming economy, but their little villages would have had a very different atmosphere than that railroad and resort town. So I don’t know why my great grandmother never passed along the name of the community she grew up in. Maybe I simply haven’t asked the right person – or maybe those that knew are already gone. Realizing that we lack this little fact makes me realize what a deficiency there is in my understanding of this woman. And it makes me truly appreciate the family members about whom I know so much.