Book Review: “Bearwallow: A Personal History of a Mountain Homeland” by Jeremy B. Jones
Little did Jeremy B. Jones suspect that a kindly man, who stopped to help repair his car, would launch an odyssey by asking where he was from. When Jones indicated Henderson County, to the west, the man proclaimed, “Oh, so y’all’s mountain folk … Mountain folk’s [sic] good people.”
Jones finished college and moved with his wife, Sarah, to the mountain village of Gracias, Honduras, to teach grade school. In the Celaque Mountains, he saw … traces of home everywhere … It was as if [he’d] found some sort of wide-reaching mountain-ness.
Heeding “the Pull,” defined as “… the phenomenon that kept people in or always coming back to [his] small mountain town,” Jones returned to North Carolina to teach at the Edneyville Elementary School and to answer a question: How am I mountain folk? He was fortunate that his primary sources were readily identified: the Blue Ridge Mountains, his family’s history, and the Edneyville Elementary School.
Bearwallow Mountain had been his North Star since boyhood when he imagined the mythological keeper to be an enormous bear that “… circled the peak, a mysterious mix of gentleness and power, always keeping his distance behind trees and high grass.” Though out of biking condition, Jones eagerly struggled to the mountaintop to again revel in the view. To his dismay, dark fencing, earthmovers, and a towering sign indicated that developers were turning his beloved North Star into The Grand Highlands.
Salesmen at The Grand Highlands’ office on Hendersonville’s Main Street tersely informed him that they were not “developing” Bearwallow, but “creating a … community for [three hundred] families to “experience all that Bearwallow has to offer.” His research was not off to a good start with that announcement.
Jones, in his Prologue, refers to the Old Testament passage in which God commands Abraham to travel and settle in new lands intended for his offspring. Likewise, Abraham Kuykendall, the progenitor of Jones’s clan, emigrated from Holland to Western North Carolina in the mid-eighteenth century to settle with his wife and begin a family.
To begin pondering these forebearers, Jones had only to look out the window of his rented house at the fields on the south side of Clear Creek, once “the pasture land of [his] people.” He rambled through the woods where the houses built by his great-great-grandparents and his great-grandparents still stood as a testament to their building methods. Jones always noticed and appreciated all aspects of nature. He entered … a pocket of forest speckled in the browns and oranges of fall … Birds answering his calls reminded him of the Montezuma Oropendolas in Gracias. Jones still regretted that … his vocal chords had no access to their … metallic song.
Farther into the woods, his Grandmother Betty Jones lived in her home with the door unlocked because she “reckons whoever [came had] come in peace.” Pleased with his interest in his family’s history, she shared stories, pictures, and a video of his Great-Grandmother Nora Whitaker’s quilting prowess which was featured on a Tom Brokaw news broadcast.
North of Clear Creek, Jones visited his maternal Grandmother Grace and Grandfather Dennis Harrell to fill up on home cooking and more stories about his great-grandparents. He shared a special bond with his Grandmother Grace because she taught reading to slow-learning students in the Edneyville Elementary School for decades. Also, she was the first woman who dared to ward off freezing temperatures with a pantsuit. Before she could be disciplined at the next staff meeting, her peers were wearing pantsuits.
Much of what is good about his mountain-ness—Jones discerned from his visits—came from these four people who raised his parents.
Working with teachers who had taught him fifteen years earlier initially flustered Jones who tended to address them as “Miss” or “Mrs.” rather than by their first names. As he observed their commitment to each student, Jones gratefully recalled his days in their care.
As the English as a Second Language teacher in the “condo” behind the main buildings, Jones collected his students from their classrooms and returned them afterwards. As the year passed, he wondered about their future in the Blue Ridge Mountains as they learned English and used their Spanish language less.
After researching his deep mountain roots, however, Jones found himself questioning much more about himself. Had he slighted his mountain heritage by changing his accent from southern to academic for college? How could he justify a family that fought for both the Union and the Confederacy? Would learning to play the claw hammer method on his Saga banjo help preserve an Appalachian art form? As research often does, each answer led to more questions.
Jones’s prose is so earnest and seamlessly interwoven that his writing flows as smoothly as Clear Creek. Only by stopping to dissect sections will readers realize his thorough consideration of each topic. His discussion of past and current environmental issues in southern Appalachia is especially detailed and thoughtful.
A lesser writer might have occasionally ranted and raved, but Jones always remained objective. Rather than bemoaning the ruination of Bearwallow, he chose to simply remember the mountain of his boyhood home: “… after a life away [I] stand on the top of the bald mountain and look around for any sign of the bear.” He is equally objective about people and history, including a classmate who cried for days after learning that the South lost the Civil War.
Jones’s respect for his heritage, his environmental concerns, his seamless prose, and his objectivity make Bearwallow a valuable read on many levels. Local people will appreciate his authentic record of The Grand Highlands’ threat to their environment. Area visitors who have seen the town or lands of their youth sacrificed to development will sympathize with Jones’s dismay when discovering his North Star in ruins. People seeking answers to similar questions will be heartened to learn that Jones came to a satisfactory conclusion about how he was mountainfolk. And Bearwallow is the ideal book for readers seeking reliable information about this area in particular and the Appalachian Mountains in general.
Bearwallow deserved the 2014 Appalachian Book of the Year Award and the many positive reviews.
BIO – Bearwallow: A Personal History of a Mountain Homeland won the 2014 Appalachian Book of the Year Award in nonfiction and was awarded Gold in the 2015 Independent Publisher Book Awards for memoir. Jeremy B. Jones’s work appears in Oxford American, The Iowa Review, and Our State Magazine, among others, and has twice been named Notable in Best American Essays. He earned his Masters of Fine Arts from the University of Iowa and is an assistant professor of English at Western Carolina University. Additionally, he serves as the series co-editor for the In Place book series from West Virginia University Press.
He is working on a new nonfiction book exploring the legacy and life of his Great-Great-Great-Great grandfather William Thomas Prestwood who logged his life in a 50-year coded diary in the 19th century. The recently discovered and decoded diaries reveal him to be many men: a farmer, a scholar, a miner, a soldier, a dreamer, and, most often, a ladies’ man. Jones has published one essay from the project at Oxford American.
VIEW FROM MY LIBRARY
I’m not sure what’s happening in the nether regions of the house, but I’ve heard another cat meowing, the three tuxedos licking their chops, and Mary talking about something called a “Manx.” I have yet to see said cat on my rambles through the house, but will keep you posted. Meanwhile, my life has taken on new duties since Roy started a 4,000 piece puzzle with pieces so small that three fit under my paw. And how do I know that, you wonder? One of my duties is occasionally flitting across the table to check his progress. He’s doing quite well, but the picture of sailing ships in battle make the previous puzzle look simple. That picture was five rows of kittens on a white background. Sounds easy, but each piece had one little whisker, or a tail, or an eye. The rabbit and puppy didn’t help anything. Roy and I are a good puzzle team, though, and will persevere to the end.