Appalachian Thursday–Dialect

Story KeeperWhen I see that a book is set in Appalachia I tend to get excited. I love when the mountains from Georgia to Maryland get a little attention and I’m often eager to snap up books set ’round these parts.

So I was thrilled to get my hands on The Story Keeper by Lisa Wingate. (Of course, she’s also a wonderful writer, so it wasn’t a hard sell.) The book starts out in New York with editor Jen Gibbs getting a job at the publishing house of her dreams. But Jen is from Towash, NC, and when a mysterious manuscript takes her back to the mountains of her childhood her new life and old ways will collide.

I REALLY enjoyed this book. But I’ll confess something. When I first hit the mountain dialogue I was a little put off. I kept thinking that it wasn’t how my people talked. There’s a story in my family about a reporter who interviewed my great-grandmother. When the article ran, she quote Grandma Jane using dialect and let’s just say Grandma was NOT pleased.

But it wasn’t just that the dialogue came from uneducated mountain folk. I certainly grew up knowing plenty of people like that. It just felt a little off. A little too much. Like singing The House of the Rising Sun to the tune of Amazing Grace. It works, but it feels different.

And that’s when I had my epiphany.

While Appalachia is a distinct region there are lots of sub-regions within it. The further south you go, the more likely you are to hear a bit of a drawl. In Eastern Kentucky and West Virginia there’s a twang. Tennessee and North Carolina have their own variations.

I wanted to hear a way of talking I’d grown up with. But I didn’t grow up in the Blue Ridge of NC. I grew up in central West Virginia. I’m a little ashamed of myself. Here I am, fancying myself a champion of Appalachia, and I was guilty of lumping the entire region under one banner.

While still Southerners, people in Virginia sound different from people in Mississippi. People in Charleston, SC, sound different from those in the upstate. And that’s were much of the beauty of the writing life comes in. People are different and authors get to show and share all those little nuances. Those little quirks and tics that make us unique.

Lisa Wingate does a wonderful job of this in The Story Keeper. It’s a delightful story that makes me proud to be from Appalachia with all its rich diversity. Even if I did grow up a little further north.

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April is National Poetry Month

playing the cello

My ONE and ONLY public performance.

When I started writing, my first love was poetry. I wrote poems because I could capture ideas, feelings, and emotions on one page. Books, on the other hand, are really long and take a LOT more work. So, in honor of the days when I could complete an entire first draft in less than an hour, here’s a poem for National Poetry Month. After you finish, I recommend you go out and read something by Billy Collins. He’s wonderful.

A little background for this poem: I once took cello lessons. I think it’s an absolutely gorgeous instrument and while those piano lessons I took as a kid didn’t pan out, I figured wanting to learn to play would give me a leg up this time around.

And it did. But you can only get so far by grit alone. I eventually ran up against an utter lack of natural talent and so, set the instrument aside. Sometimes, you just have to let go but I’m still really glad I tried.

GIVING UP THE CELLO

Watching Yo Yo Ma
wring a symphony
from four thin strings,
I think of the cello
sitting idle in my closet
behind a wedding gown
and a sack of old clothes.

I was not made for music,
no matter how my hands
itch to wield a bow,
to sing a mellow song
that vibrates deep
in my soul. I feel
music hiding there,
but my fingers refuse
to pluck it out.

It seems there are many
things I wasn’t made to do,
though I often nurture
the seeds of longing.
This garden of mine is weedy,
rabbits nibble tender leaves.
Still, I’ll scatter handfuls
of seed to see what grows.
And then . . .

. . . I’ll make music of that.

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Appalachian Thursday – Ramps!

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My brother digging ramps on the family farm.

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Jackpot!

It’s ramp season in Appalachia.

Back in WV, April has long been the month for ramp suppers usually featuring a “mess” of the pungent onion/garlic/leeks alongside beans, cornbread, ham, and potatoes. Dessert can be assumed.

We didn’t much go to ramp suppers. LOTS of people didn’t go. Because, well, lots of people don’t much like ramps. Did I mention they’re pungent? The lingering after effects of eating ramps are legendary. Not just your breath, but your very pores exude the garlicky aroma.

But now–NOW–ramps are apparently trendy. Plenty of downright ritzy restaurants are weaving ramps into their spring menus. My friend and WV chef Dale Hawkins is offering a gourmet ramp dinner in Buckhannon, WV, on April 18. It will feature dishes like roasted ramp and celery root soup along with beer-bathed bratwurst with apples, buttery noodles, and caramelized ramps.

Right here in Asheville, the Marketplace is offering a five-course ramp dinner on April 15. Of course, Chef William Dissen is a native West Virginian so he probably knows what he’s doing.

My theory is that trained chefs have hit on the right formula for cooking ramps. They really ought to be treated as a condiment–a flavoring or seasoning. Sure you can blanch them then fry them in a little bacon grease and sprinkle on the vinegar, but if you don’t regret that dish your close friends will.

Ramps

My niece didn’t think much of her first ramps.

It might be better to chop a few and add them to a potato and bacon hash or mix them up with scrambled eggs. Or better yet, find some outstanding chefs somewhere in Appalachia and see how they’re working their magic on the legendarily stinky first fruit of the season.

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SouthernBelleView Monday – He is Risen!

sunriseI’m blogging about my memories of going to Easter Sunrise Services when I was a child over on SouthernBelleView today. If you have a minute, please click over and share your childhood memories of Easter.

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Appalachian Thursday–Take Me Home, Country Roads

I’m in West Virginia visiting family today. Thanks to spring break we’re all in the same place at the same time for once. A gift too precious to set aside for blogging. I’ll check in at the weekend!

Below are some images from home that inspired settings in Appalachian Serenade and Miracle in a Dry Season. Always happy to return to such special places.

Laurel Fork

Laurel Fork (this is the creek I imagined Delilah dipping her toes in)

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Aunt Bess’ House (this is where I picture the Talbot sisters living)

Dad at church

Laurel Fork United Methodist Church (AKA Laurel Mountain Church with TWO front doors)

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Awards or Readers?

AwardDo you remember field day back in grade school? The 100-yard dash, long jump, shot put, and so on? I used to love field day. (That was before I knew I wasn’t athletic.) We were outside doing fun activities and we got ribbons for doing well. Blue and red and white ribbons.

Okay. Maybe what I loved were the ribbons.

Then, in middle school there were certificates for academic achievement and perfect attendance. At high school and college graduations there were special cords and tassels to wear. I loved them all. I still have some of them.

Then I stepped into the working world where there are things like employee of the month or year, credentials to be earned (I have letters after my name), and certificates to hang on the wall.

And then there’s this writing business. Turns out there are markers of achievement here, as well. Reviews, writing awards, interviews in journals, prestigious speaking engagements . . .

But what does it all MEAN??

When Miracle in a Dry Season came out, RT Book Reviews gave it three stars. Nothing to jump up and down about, but a fine review. I told myself that one review wasn’t all that important, anyway. Library Journal gave the same book a starred review. Clearly they “got it.”

Well, last week, RT Book Reviews gave Until the Harvest four and a half stars and a Top Pick ranking. So now the temptation is to think, this time around, the review means a great deal. I mean it’s a blue ribbon with a gold star instead of the plain white ribbon from last time.

It’s also coming around to awards season. The Christie, The Carol, The Selah, The RITA. Can I have one of each, please? Because if I have awards to put on my shelf, then I’ll know I’m a REAL writer.

Oh, the temptation to measure success with reviews and trophies and awards.

Before my first book released I asked my editor about the importance of awards and he in turn asked me a really great question. He wondered if I’d rather have lots of awards or lots of readers.

And as much as I still covet awards, I know the better answer to that question.

 

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Appalachian Thursday–Fried Squirrel (and a deal!)

In about a month my second novel, Until the Harvest, will be out. As a lead up to that, the e-version of my first novel, Miracle in a Dry Season, is on sale for $1.99 through Sunday. If you’ve been meaning to get a copy, I hope you’ll grab it!

But in the meantime, I thought I’d share something from Until the Harvest. The book opens with my hero, Henry Phillips, enjoying one of his favorite dishes–venison steak. A little later he partakes of . . . fried squirrel.

Now, before you get squeamish, understand that in my growing up years we ate quite a bit of game–including squirrel. Plenty of folks still enjoy it. And my mother made the best squirrel gravy. If you tried some on a biscuit, I bet you’d think so, too.

cookbookEating game is just a way of life in WV. Back in 2010 I wrote a short essay along with mom’s squirrel recipe for inclusion in The Southern Foodways Alliance Community Cookbook. That makes it legit, right? At any rate, just in case you have occasion to try it, here’s a recipe for WV Fried Squirrel. (No, it’s not like chicken. Maybe a little like duck . . . )

Fried Squirrel with Gravy
Makes 4 servings

2 large squirrels
1 cup flour
Salt and pepper
Oil or lard for frying
Milk and water

Soak the cleaned squirrels in a pan of water in the refrigerator for a couple of hours. Cut into pieces, place in a large pot, and cover with water. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer until the meat is tender, but not falling off the bones. Drain. Season the meat with salt and pepper and roll in the flour. Heat oil or lard to shimmering in a cast-iron skillet and add the pieces without crowding. Fry until golden brown on both sides. Remove to drain on a brown paper bag. Leave about two tablespoons of oil in the skillet and add two tablespoons of the flour left over from dredging the squirrel. Stir the flour until it’s lightly browned. Add milk and water alternately, stirring constantly, until your gravy is as thick as you like it. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve with mashed potatoes.

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