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, March 19, 2016

Them That Go

 I've already blogged about my Appalachian novel while I was writing it. In mid-December, I posted "Novel in Progess," followed in late December by "Novel-in-Progress Progress." In mid-February, I posted "Book Cover Cabin Door." In anticipation of the novel being published, I added a Them That Go page to my website

Now I can actually blog about the book itself. Forty copies of my self-pubbed novel, Them That Go, arrived from CreateSpace last week. They were immediately give a cat scan:

The cover isn't quite the way I wanted it to look, but some friends recently made some minor adjustments. So, likely the books in my next order will look slightly different. I suppose that'll make these first forty collector editions. Or maybe not.

Anyhow, with a signing coming up at the Franklin County Library at 6 PM on Tuesday, March 22, it occurred to me that I should get the word out about what Them That Go is about. The back of the book gives a hint, but not much else. (But no one will see the back of the book because books self-pubbed through CreateSpace aren't in book stores—but they're on Amazon.)
The info on my website doesn't go into a lot of detail. The blurb on Amazon that's supposed to pique potential readers' interest gives more hints but doesn't really tell what happens either:

A secret revealed, A mystery solved, A life forever changed. In 1972, seventeen-year-old Annie Caldwell, who has the “gift” of animal communication, wants to be normal, but she’ll settle for being unnoticed. Annie’s brother died in Vietnam, her mother is depressed, and her father drinks. Her only friend is elderly Aint Lulie—who lives in the same holler and who understands the gift because she has one, too: “The first daughter in ever’ other generation has always been blest with a gift, though some think it a curse.” As they sit by the fireplace in the evenings and tell each other stories, Aint Lulie shares family history with Annie, including a relative’s mysterious death and how some of their ancestors came to settle in the area: “There’s always been them that go and them that stay in ever’ generation.” When a local girl goes missing, Aint Lulie’s and Annie’s gifts can help solve the mystery—but if Annie speaks up, she can no longer go unnoticed. THEM THAT GO is an Appalachian coming-of-age novel rich in tradition, superstition, family ties, and secrets.

Them That Go is told from the viewpoint of Annie Caldwell, a senior at Bosworth County High School who is able to communicate with animals. This gift and her poverty set her apart from her classmates, so she tries to go unnoticed. She takes showers when she helps out in PE class, gets a free lunch, and has only two friends at school. Every evening, she visits her elderly Aint Lulie—the only one who accepts Annie as who she really is. After her English class studies Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken,"Annie chooses to ignore her gift, and gradually becomes more accepted by her classmates. Annie is good in home ec, and the teacher pays her to help out at the Harvest Dance. There, Annie observes a disagreement between the popular cheerleader and the quarterback. At church the next day, she learns that both are missing. And that leads to many complications—and a few plot twists. But I don't really want to give away those complications and twists in this blog-post.

Them That Go has already received a couple of blog reviews from writers I know. On her Imagine blog, Ginny Brock, a "gifted" author of By Morning's Light, posted "The Mountains Hold Secrets—and Spirits." This is part of what she says this about Them That Go:

This is Becky Mushko at her best. Superbly written, "Them That Go"  is set in Appalachia in the 1970's. She has lit a torch and shone a light through the woodlands and valleys of the mountains exposing the illiteracy, poverty and the joy that coexists in 'them thar hills.' It's a telescope into the often stereotyped secretive existence of a musical people, sometimes gun-toting, hard-drinking, bible bashing folk we hardly know.

In my opinion it's a valuable learning tool as we, so many of us transplanted from other places, try to get a handle on the people who live around us. Our neighbors, who are so like us in so many ways. Except for Annie who is 'different'.

 On her Blue Country Magic blog, Botetourt writer Anita Firebaugh posted "Book Review: Them That Go". From her review:

This magical realism story is set in a believable world. Annie's magical gift sets her apart in a place already separated from the rest of the country. Her town is one of the forgotten landscapes that dot that area, filled with the characters frequently found in similar areas throughout Appalachia. Some of these characters speak in written dialect. This style of writing can be difficult for some readers, but Mushko handles it with great skill and the dialect adds to the magic of the story instead of detracting from it, as over-done dialect sometimes does.

Mushko has created an interesting character in Annie Caldwell, a young woman the reader won't soon forget. What might someone with her talent ultimately make of her life? Thankfully, the author offers us a foreshadowing of Annie's future the end of the book, giving a satisfying ending that does not leave the reader wondering.

 Anyhow, Them That Go is out and about, albeit on a limited scale. The print version is for sale on this Amazon page, and the Kindle version is on this page. The book is available from me anytime I do readings—like 6 PM on March 22 at the Franklin County Library in downtown Rocky Mount, or 2 PM on April 14 at the Westlake Library in Hardy. Before long, I hope to get some into a few local gift shops.

The best way to find out what the book is actually about is to buy the book.


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Sunday, March 13, 2016

Hints of Spring

It won't be officially spring for another week, but I've found some hints of spring already. The crocuses have mostly come and gone, but a solitary one remained this morning.

The daffodils and muscari are out in force. 

 The lilac that I transplanted as  slip a few years ago from Smith Farm is showing it's green leaves. The original lilac grew beside the door of an old kitchen house that was long gone before I was born.

Forsythia is just starting to bloom. In 2009, right after the gazebo was delivered, I transplanted these from slips I took from Polecat Creek Farm down the road.  

The little peach tree at the end of the driveway is loaded with buds and even has a few blooms. Last year it was loaded, too, but a frost and high wind destroyed most of the blooms. Only four peaches grew, and three of those were bloom off. The remaining peach was delicious, though.

The redbud trees have buds, but they're pink. 

The bridal wreath has tiny white blooms and green leaves.

My kale patch made it through the winter.

And so did the mustard greens beside it.

A few windflowers made it though the winter, too.

In a few weeks, everything will be in bloom. And spring will officially be here in a week.

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Sunday, March 06, 2016

Hiding Ezra

My kitty Arlo and I recently read another Appalachian novel. Since Arlo is a rural kitten who spent about six weeks hiding in various places on my property until he surrendered, it is appropriate that he help me review this book.

Hiding Ezra, by Rita Sims Quillen  has what I consider a doggone good opening sentence: "Ezra Teague lay flat on his back underneath Wayland Baptist Church, the smell of loam and mint perfuming the air, while the damp earth soaked its coolness onto his back."

That sentence tells the reader who (Ezra Teague) and where he is (underneath Wayland Baptist Church), plus it hints at the problem: why is Ezra hiding? Since the name Ezra is no longer a popular man's name, the reader knows that the story must take place a while back.

And it does—during World War I and thereafter. Ezra, a farmer in deep southwest Virginia  has been drafted but goes AWOL from Fort Lee to return home and take care of his family. His mother is dying, his father is in poor health, and his sister Eva needs someone to look after her. To him, family is more important than country. So he hides out in the surrounding mountains and ventures home from time to time to provide his sister with what she needs. Though there's a price on his head, many neighbors protect him and leave him food. One is Alma, a strong-willed woman who is in love with Ezra and rejects any suitors her father brings home.

The story is told in a combination of the third person and first person (via the journal Ezra keeps during his two years of hiding). This alternating viewpoint works nicely in letting the reader get inside Ezra's thoughts. Sims's knack for description is commendable.

Sims also has a skillful touch with dialect, not bogging down in phonetic spellings but letting the word choice and rhythm of the sentences suggest the Appalachian speech patterns. The dialogue in Hiding Ezra rings true. That—along with the strong sense of place and interesting characters—makes for a good Appalachian read.

I especially like the cover, done by Appalachian artist Willard Gayheart, whose work I admire.  A Gayheart print that I've owned for a couple of decades hangs over my fireplace.

The novel, despite its wonderfully lyrical prose and compelling story, is not without a few flaws. There are a couple of typos that an astute editor should have caught, but they don't distract from the flow. But something else an editor should have caught does puzzle me. On p. 180, Alma's father watches Alma and Ezra, who'd taken an early morning ride, "leading Diamond and old Glory, walking along side by side." As he continues to watch, a few sentences later "[t]hey climbed through the fence, and walked side by side." What became of the horses? Who unsaddled them and removed their bridles? (Note: As a horse-person, I'm picky about details involving horses. Other readers probably wouldn't have noticed this.) Nevertheless, I really did enjoy the book.

I first met Rita Quillen a number of years ago at the John Fox Festival in Big Stone Gap. One of my short stories had won a prize in the Lonesome Pine Short Story Contest, and I was there to collect my winnings. Quillen was one of the two speakers at the conference, and I was intrigued by the poems and part of a story she read. I figured she'd go places. Look like she has.

I think Arlo agrees.     

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Friday, March 04, 2016

No Snow

For the last few weeks, we've had all sorts of weather in my part of Virginia—snow, ice, heavy rain, temps in the 60s, etc. We were supposed to get more snow last night, but all we got was a sprinkling of ice that melted this morning.

Our first snow was a challenge, though.

Chloe wasn't happy that she couldn't go out and do her cat-work.

Arlo holed up and Tanner boxed himself up, but they're housecats so the snow doesn't interrupt their daily activities.

 George tried boxing himself up, but it didn't work too well.

Tanner got a little high on some fresh catnip.

He and Arlo curled up with the iPad.

But sometimes they wrestled.

The second snow storm turned to ice.

But finally it started to melt.

We got some strong winds and heavy rain, but we also got a rainbow.

We were lucky that the tornadoes missed us last week. And that the third snow missed us last night.

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