Peevish Pen

Ruminations on reading, writing, rural living, retirement, aging—and sometimes cats. And maybe a border collie or other critters.

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Location: Rural Virginia, United States

I'm an elderly retired teacher who writes. Among my books are Ferradiddledumday (Appalachian version of the Rumpelstiltskin story), Stuck (middle grade paranormal novel), Patches on the Same Quilt (novel set in Franklin County, VA), Them That Go (an Appalachian novel), Miracle of the Concrete Jesus & Other Stories, and several Kindle ebooks.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Living History

I'm the third generation owner of the family farm in Union Hall where my grandparents, Joe and Sallie Smith, lived for over 50 years. The main part of the cabin was built in 1852 by William Bernard. Later another "pen" was added and an enclosed dog-trot connected the two.

After William's wife Gillie Ann died in 1897, he cut a little window by the fireplace so he could see her grave on the hill.

The cabin is no longer in liveable shape, but it's mostly still standing. I can remember visiting my grandparents there when I was a kid. I was intrigued that they had no electricity and no running water (save in the spring down the hill). My grandmother walked down this hill a couple of times a day for decades:

The spring was a hundred feet or so into the trees. In the 1950s, my grandparents lived pretty much as the Bernards had lived during the 1860s. Maybe this is where my fascination with old-timey stuff started.

Ever since I can remember, I've wondered what it would be like to live in an earlier time. I'm especially fascinated with life in the 1800s. So, when some Civil War re-enactors were going to set up camp at Lake Watch, I knew I wanted to see what they were up to. They were going to stage a battle, too, even though no actual battles had been fought in Franklin County.

Their campsites looked like this:

Some had signs that told which company was camped where.

Some displayed their tack beside the tent.

And some displayed other things that might be needed during—or after—a battle:

The tents were roomier inside than I expected, but they were still a bit cramped.

Cooking was done on open fires. 

An anachronism seems to have slipped into the ashes below. . . 

. . . but rumor has it that Saturday evening a horse-drawn artillery cannon went through the Bojangles drive-thru. Bojangles is just across 122 from Lake Watch where the encampment took place. (Wish I'd seen that!) I wonder if this was this the cannon:

Just outside the camp area on Sunday afternoon, artillerymen prepared for the battle:

Guns and flags stood at the ready:

The group posed for formal pictures before the battle began:

Notice the lack of yankees in the picture.

However, just before the battle, some Confederates returned to their tents for a change of clothes—to blue.

The confederate cavalry practiced a few maneuvers: 


Soon the battle began. It was loud!

The horses were remarkably calm during the cannon fire. I was impressed!


In the background, a large crowd had gathered to watch the battle.

After the battle, the soldiers rode toward the spectators.

I was glad that, for an hour, I could slip back into time and get a glimpse of what life might have been like 150 years ago. I'm pretty sure I wouldn't like to live back then, but it was nice to visit for a little while.

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Friday, September 23, 2011

The Ballad of Tom Dooley

. . . a book review (with cats) of a ballad novel by Sharyn McCrumb

I finally received my copy of The Ballad of Tom Dooley that I'd pre-ordered from months ago. It was worth the wait. I really enjoyed the book.

When I was a teenager and folk music was in, the Kingston Trio's "Ballad of Tom Dooley" was popular. However, the song wasn't exactly historically accurate. McCrumb sets the record straight. Though her book is a novel, her meticulous scholarship shines through. That's one reason I like it.

Another reason I like the book is McCrumb's use of alternating narrators—Pauline Foster and Zebulon Vance—telling their stories in first person. Pauline Foster, a cousin to Laura Foster who was murdered and servant to cousin Ann Melton, is a villainous poor girl who feels little empathy for anyone around her.  Zebulon Vance, former governor of North Carolina, is the court appointed attorney for Tom Dula, a ne'er-do-well ex-Confederate soldier accused of murdering Laura.

None of the characters are likeable, but they're doggone interesting—and therein lies the tale. Beautiful and vain Ann Melton, although married to James Melton, has an affair with Tom, her true love. Pauline, suffering from "the pox," seeks out a doctor and the means to pay him, so she ends up working for the Meltons. Tom is not faithful to Ann. Pauline, who transmits the pox to Tom and thence to Ann, fuels Ann's jealousy of Laura, whom Tom also beds. But I don't want to give away too much of the plot, so I'll stop here.

The setting—the mountains of North Carolina just after the Civil War—isolates the characters and contributes to their hard-scrabble lives.

I like the style of the story. McCrumb lets it unwind slowly, the way an old-time story-teller might do. The dialogue is believable, and the characters take plenty of time to tell their stories. What the two narrators say and how they say it reveals much about them—Pauline's disdain for anyone and Zebulon Vance's ambitions, among other things.

I've heard Sharyn McCrumb speak of telling the truth—"But tell it slant"—in fiction. The Ballad of Tom Dooley certainly rings true. In many places, I forgot I was reading fiction and truly believed I was reading history.

If you love Appalachian literature and a rattling good story, odds are good you'll like this book as much as I do. It won't put you to sleep.

Note: While Chloe, Jim-Bob, Eddie-Puss, and Camilla posed with the book, no cats actually read it, although the above cats napped on me while I read it. 

Now,  little Chloe would like you to guess what book title she's thinking about in the picture below:

Did you guess?
It's Mew-tiny on the Bounty, of course!


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Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Battle of Lakewatch

No actual Civil War battles were fought in Franklin County, but a Civil War reenactment took place this weekend at Lakewatch Plantation (which was not what the farm was called in the 1860s; for one thing, the lake didn't even exist until over a hundred years later).

My husband and I went to see what was going on. Turns out my cousins Gloria and Joyce were there. Joyce's son Anthony was a reenactor, so we ended up watching the battle from the camp.

My favorite part, of course, was seeing the horses. I took a look at them while they were tied to the picket line. They were incredibly well-behaved.

Soon they were saddled and ready for action.

I especially liked the gray horse in the foreground. (More about him later.)

The gunfire and cannon fire didn't bother these horses a bit.

When his rider was "killed," the gray horse took off for the woods. I was worried the gelding was going to run away.

"That's Garth," said a woman near me. "He'll go right back to the picket line and wait. He always does."

I turned around to see Garth making his way through the camp. He looked like he knew where he was going.

The woman invited me to go with her to see him. Sure enough, he was waiting at the line.

Meanwhile, another gray horse was at the reenactment. Looks like General Lee and Traveler made it to the battle.