Magic Realism in Appalachia
By Sharyn McCrumb
Anne is driving alone down a dark forest road when she swerves to avoid a deer, sending her car into the ditch. Anne is unable to get the car out of the ditch, but she gets out to survey the damage.
If at this point a group of elves comes out of the forest and puts Anne’s car back on the road for her, you know you are reading a fantasy narrative.
However, if Anne uses her cell phone to call AAA, and while she is waiting for the tow truck to arrive, some elves come out of the forest and stand around telling her what a bad driver she is-- but they don’t move the car and they depart before the tow truck arrives, leaving no trace of their having been there-- then the narrative you are reading is magic realism.
Magic realism-- the blurring of the line between the real and the supernatural with the equal acceptance of both-- is a concept that first appeared in art in the early twentieth century, and later became an important element in contemporary fiction.
Although people tend to associate literary magic realism primarily with Latin American writers (Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Isabel Allende), the blending of the fantastic with the everyday is easy to find in popular culture: In Northern Exposure when Ed the Inuit film buff spent a week hanging out with a spectral Shaman that no one else can see, or when the prophet Elijah visited Dr. Fleichman for Passover. Hardly an episode of the program went by without some touch of the light fantastic. In Sleepless in Seattle when Tom Hanks’ character sees his dead wife sitting at the other end of the sofa...or Rags the super-annuated dog on Spin City who occasionally croaked out (in Tim Allen’s voice), “Please kill me” -- all magic realism. Magic realism runs through Toni Morrison’s Beloved and through the works of Salman Rushdie, Gunter Grass and Derek Walcott.
Magic realism is certainly a component of Appalachian Ballad novels that I write. I use it not because it is a fashionable literary device, but because I found the elements of magic realism within the mountain culture, and I reported what I saw.
I can tell you the exact moment that I decided to incorporate the supernatural into my work.
In March of 1990 the first Ballad novel If Ever I Return Pretty Peggy-O was published by Scribners. It seemed to be a strictly realistic novel about the effects of the past on a small Tennessee town-- unless you happened to notice the character of Vernon Woolwine, which few people did. In the novel Vernon was described as a “Welfare-funded exercise in street theater.” Vernon, unemployed and pleasantly daft, spent his days loitering around the courthouse square, dressed in a succession of costumes: Darth Vader, a cowboy, a pirate, and so on. He was quite real and everyone took him for granted. No one in the book-- and very few readers, I might add-- noticed that Vernon’s costumes were the emotional barometer of the town. When he is dressed as a negative character, bad things happen in Hamelin; when he’s a good guy, all goes well. In the Christmas eve scene in The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, Vernon is nowhere to be seen, but he has left a snow-covered plaster garden gnome in his place on the park bench, while he... does what?
When If Ever I Return Pretty Peggy-O was published in 1990, Scribners hosted a publication party for the book at that year’s Appalachian Studies Conference at Unicoi State Park, near Helen, Georgia. The publisher sent my editor Susanne Kirk down from New York to host the festivities. The magic realism probably began for Susanne when she was picked up at the Atlanta airport by Major Sue, an elfin army intelligence officer from Wisconsin, who drove her several hours north into the hills of Georgia to be set down in Helen, a Bavarian theme-park-style alpine village that has made many an unsuspecting traveler believe in magic realism -- or at least in Oz.
The conference book party ended in the early afternoon, and that evening Susanne and I invited some of the conference attendees to a get-together in the cabin we had rented for the weekend at Unicoi State Park. The party consisted of two bottles of wine, a bag full of whatever the convenience store had in the way of snacks, eighteen professors, and Susanne, the major, and me. After an hour or so of pretzels and shop talk, the talk turned to the supernatural, and one by one we began to tell the family ghost story. These weren’t “Give me back my golden arm” stories. Nothing Stephen King would buy you a cup of coffee for. They were little stories of supernatural happenings that occurred in the family. Nobody made much of them. They were just there.
Most of them went something like this: “My grandmother was in the kitchen when she looked out the window over the sink and she saw my Uncle John walking across the yard. Now Uncle John lives in Cincinnati, so she wasn’t expecting to see him, but she thought he might have driven in to surprise her. She hurried out into the yard, but she didn’t see him. No car was in the drive way, and when she called out to Uncle John, there was no answer. Finally she gave up and as she was coming in the back door, the phone was ringing. It was the family in Cincinnati calling to say that Uncle John had died-- just when she saw him in the yard.” It isn’t an earth-shaking story, but when you hear more than a dozen similar stories at an academic party, it gives you pause.
We had Ph.D’s in English and Appalachian Studies and mining engineering, people from Georgia and New York and everywhere in-between, and everyone there had a ghost story-- everyone, that is, except Susanne and the two male professors.
The folklore scholar from Appalachian State wasn’t surprised. “These stories tend to get passed down in the family by the women folk,” she said. “Men don’t hear about them.” Wait until a multi-generational family holiday like Thanksgiving, she advised. After the meal is over, the men go out to watch television or talk among themselves, while the women congregate in the kitchen to do the dishes and put away the leftovers. Now, first the women tell childbirth horror stories. That will get any rookies out of the kitchen. After the uninitiated have fled, then they get down to it.
“I don’t have any family ghost stories, either,” said Susanne. “I grew up in Tucson.”
The folklore professor looked at her for a long moment and then said, “Ghosts don’t have call-waiting.”
But the rest of us had a swarm of tales: about a host of invisible beings who ford the Little Santeetlah River at twilight, speaking Cherokee and smelling of bear grease; about the girl who dropped a knife setting the table for a dumb supper and was stabbed by her husband years later...with the same knife; or the weary Confederate soldier who asks the re-enactors how to get back to his regiment.
“I left that thread out of the book,” I said wistfully, thinking of my novel. “This streak of the supernatural runs deep through mountain families and I left it out. “
”You had to,” said the folklore professor, who is Charlotte Ross, and who later became Nora Bonesteel.
“Peggy-O is told from the male point of view. The element of magic didn’t belong in the narrative.”
“Maybe not,” I said, “But it belongs in stories about Appalachia.”
The next novel, The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter is the mirror opposite of the first novel. It is set in the winter, deals with the future, and is told from women’s point of view. It also introduced the character of Nora Bonesteel, the mountain wise woman who knows things that will happen, who makes graveyard quilts and talks to ghosts. In She Walks These Hills, Nora sees the ghost of the pioneer woman who has been trying to get home since 1779, and in The Rosewood Casket she is haunted by her childhood friend, who never lived to grow up. In The Songcatcher Nora tries to find an old ballad that the dead don’t want remembered. In Ghost Riders, I finally used that story told to me by a re-enactor, the one about the Confederate soldier asking his modern re-enactor counterparts how to get back to the 16th Mississippi regiment.
Through Nora Bonesteel I channel the Cherokee folk tales, the mountain legends and the family ghost stories-- changed, perhaps, to fit the narrative, but not invented, because I don’t have to.
In Appalachia the magic is already here.
Sharyn McCrumb won a 2006 Library of Virginia Award and AWA Book of the Year for her NASCAR-themed novel St. Dale, which was featured at the National Festival of the Book. Named as a “Virginia Women of History” for 2008, she is known for her Appalachian Ballad novels, including the New-York Times best-seller She Walks These Hills. A film of The Rosewood Casket is in production.