Jeremy Jones went looking for his mountainness.
Sometimes he went on foot and sometimes he went on a bicycle and sometimes he went in a truck. It is our good fortune that he took us along for the ride.
He looked in Edneyville and Fruitland, his homeland. He looked up on Bearwallow Mountain. He looked in the woods and in the creek. He looked in his grandmother's cabinets and bookcases. He looked from far away, from a village in Honduras.
The result of all this hunting and peering into the past and climbing his own family tree back back back toward the trunk is "Bearwallow: A Personal History of a Mountain Homeland." It's the most significant book about our region — really about Henderson County in particular — since whatever Robert Morgan last wrote, which happens to be "The Road from Gap Creek."
Morgan is a fiction specialist, a novelist whose great power is in his ability through authentic mountain dialogue to draw a narrative that is so true. For the seventh generation natives, Morgan's books are so evocative of their own family story that they might as well be biography.
At age 32, Jones comes on the scene as a much younger interpreter of our community and of the mountain ways. We will be fortunate if his life's work develops, as Morgan's did, into a series of installments that illuminate our past and show us our character.
Early on in "Bearwallow," Jones and his wife, Sarah, have a car breadown down in the Piedmont. A North Carolina man in a pickup eyes the frothy green bloodshed and declares: "Your radiator's busted."
When they tell him they're from Hendersonville, he replies: "Mountain folk's good people."
This gets Jones to thinking.
"Despite hailing from the Blue Ridge, I hadn't ever considered that any qualities could make me 'mountain folk' — that geology had affected my personal characteristics or shaped me in any way," he says. "It seemed such a curious notion; if the land had marked me somehow, I didn't know how. I started wondering somehow if others knew me to be mountain folk from my walk or gestures or tongue. Was I 'good people' because of plate tectonics?"
After teaching English to the poor kids of Gracias a Dios, at the base of a mountain in Honduras, Jones and Sarah return home to Henderson County. They're both natives, city mouse and country mouse. Jones is the son of Joy Harrell Jones and David L. Jones, a coach and school teacher who worked his way up to become our current schools superintendent. His wife, Sarah, is the daughter of Boyd B. "Buddy" Massagee III, and granddaughter of Boyd B. Massagee Jr., an old lion of the bar who dies in March.
In the school year of 2005-06, Jones accepted a job teaching English to Spanish-speaking kids again. This one's at Edneyville Elementary School, where he is posted in one of the trailers in the back.
He is "teaching beside my former teachers, living (on Gilliam Road) just up the creek from family land," he writes. "It's as though I'm searching for a taut line leading to southern Appalachian identity because I'm not sure what it is that makes me from here — what connects me to these mountains. How am I mountain folk?"
'More complicated than Southern'
Jones' search for his "mountainness" takes him far from home, back to Honduras, which was also defined by a mountain, and it takes him home, far down into the lineage of the Joneses and the Prestwoods and the Harrells and the Maxwells. It is his good fortune and ours that family members had traced the family tree all the way back to Abraham Kuykendall, an early settler and innkeeper who kept driving west into a mountainous area that maps called "Wilderness.'
In "Bearwallow," Jones treats readers to history by anecdote and family lore.
Abraham's granddaughter married Capt. Robert Jones, who led the local Home Guard for five years. Capt. Jones's son, Hiram, rescued his two sons from Confederate officers who had come to the family's home in Big Hungry to conscript them to the army. Hiram rode home from town in time to shoot one of the recruiters. The rest scattered. Next day, the boys joined the Union army.
"These are my people, I'm learning: caught between two loyalties. More complicated than Southern," he says.
There's a wonderful scene when Jones puts himself in the small office at the historical society, where Dr. George A. Jones, who turns out to be a second cousin of Jones' grandfather, Ray Jones (1917-98), stabs his index finger into the air and announces, "Anonymous no more!" Dr. Jones is referring to research he has done to identify the Confederate soldier buried in "the lonely grave" at the base of Bearwallow Mountain — a genealogical hunt his young visitor had been on too.
Jones is finding his own identity too — through stories about an uncle who had a habit of buying calves and loading them into the back of his car to carry home, about his grandmother who changed the dress code at Edneyville Elementary School when she wore a pant suit one cold day. He knows he is of the land, he can feel that.
"Yet I know that my grandfathers' opting for steady careers carrying the mail and driving a forklift has left their land quiet and has separated me from the soil in a way I can't get hold of," he said. "I have trouble knowing what to do in these mountains. I find myself fighting a constant battle between escaping and settling. So I do both."
'Escaping and settling'
Jones escaped again, after his year back home teaching at Edneyville. He and Sarah moved out to Iowa City, where he earned an MFA in nonfiction writing from the highly regarded creative writing department at the University of Iowa. Boomeranged east again, the young couple overshot the mountains and settled in Charleston, where Jones taught English and headed the Writing Center at Charleston Southern University.
True to his whipsaw way— escaping and settling, "I do both" — he's back to settling, sort of. He's taken a job as a professor at Western Carolina University. He and Sarah have a son, Abraham Ray Jones, named for Jones's mountain pioneer forebear and for Jeremy's two grandfathers.
"I've never been a writer who sees what he'll say before he says it," Jones has written about his creative process. "If the path ahead is dark and empty, each keystroke is a flicker of light that gives me enough to step forward (and sometimes backward). This wandering in the dark can be a lonely and slow-moving process but I know that by the time I emerge — scraped-kneed and muddied — I will more fully understand the path behind me."
That's exactly the case with "Bearwallow." The dark and the unknown can be scary and unpleasant. In our mountain lore, the past is sanitized and romanticized. In "Bearwallow," Jones refuses to resort to romance. He wants to understand the mud.
So far, readers have liked "Bearwallow."
"The reactions have all been positive but it's coerced because it's from people related to me either by marriage or blood," he said in an interview. "But I am a little anxious. It's weird to write about other people in this kind of way."
He hopes readers, including the ones here he doesn't know and the ones from off the mountain, will take from his book the rich texture of his home.
"I really want people beyond the region to see that the Southern Appalachian area is much more than the stereotype," he said. "I think there are really positive and negative stereotypes and I think the truth is probably somewhere in the middle. I hope it gets people thinking about what their connection to a place is."