Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Sight: Nora Bonesteel

In a couple of weeks I’ll finish the new Ballad novel The Devil Amongst the Lawyers, which is set in the Virginia mountains in 1935, and features Nora Bonesteel as a young girl. Of all the characters I write about, Nora Bonesteel is the one that people seem most intrigued by.

Nora is based on Charlotte Ross, a professor friend of mine at Appalachian State. She is originally from north Georgia, and the Sight runs in her family. Nora’s experiences in The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter are all based on real events in Charlotte’s childhood. She has never written an account of her life, but I finally persuaded her to tell some of her family tales on tape, and you can find it on my web site:

The Sight is something that seems to run in mountain families, and in their counterparts back in western Britain. I decided to put Nora Bonesteel in the Ballad novels because of a publication party for one of my books at an Appalachian Studies Conference in north Georgia. That night we got around to telling the family ghost stories, and every person from the mountain region had such a story. My editor, from Tucson, did not. Charlotte told her, "You're from a big city, hon. Ghosts don't have call-waiting."

I have known one other person who really had The Sight. My friend Dr. John Richards, a professor at West Virginia State University, an expert on Appalachian folklore and healing techniques, was a most amazing person. He died last December-- much too young. He was working on a book of Appalachian Folk Magic and he loved the connections between Appalachia and Celtic Britain.

And he had the Sight.

He really did. He never talked about it with people he didn’t know extremely well, but I saw it firsthand. In May 2005, he called me one day asking if I was all right. It seemed an odd question-- he sounded very concerned.

I said, “Nothing’s happening here. Why?"

John said, "I see you wearing a blue raincoat, kneeling in a field, and you’re very upset.”

“Nope.” I said. “Didn’t happen. And my raincoat is beige.”

Except that my old raincoat-- the one that I never wear except to dash out to the mailbox or something-- is blue. And at 7 a.m. the day after John called, it was drizzling rain, and some dogs got into our pasture and attacked our pet goats, Harvick and Kenseth. (I have got to stop naming animals after NASCAR drivers.) My daughter Laura saw it as she was driving down the driveway on the way to school, and she came back to the house and said, “We’ve got to get down to the field and save the goats!”

On the way out the back door, I threw on the old blue raincoat and ran for the barn.

One of the goats was mired in the mud of the creek, bleating pitifully, and we hauled him out and got him on the ground of the pasture, and (in hysterics) I knelt over him in my blue raincoat.

It had all happened exactly as John had described in the phone call the day before.

John never made any prediction like that again. But one time was quite enough. He was born on Lamma and died on the Winter Solstice, which, as a folklorist, he would have loved, but I miss him very much.

Every so often readers ask me: Do I have The Sight ?

I do have the Sight only a little, tiny bit: flashes every so often, but nothing to brag about. Here’s an example of my “powers.”

About ten years ago, my son’s pet hamster Emma escaped from her cage. She had been gone for days, and although we had searched all over the place, we found no trace of her. Then one night I was up in my study at 2 a.m. writing. There was no noise in the house, nothing out of the ordinary. And suddenly I had a strong feeling that I ought to go in the kitchen and look in the sink cabinet in a tall glass pitcher we kept down there. There was absolutely no reason for me to do that, but I had an absolutely compelling urge to check there for the missing hamster.

Before I could think better of this impulse, I got up from my desk, walked to the kitchen, and opened the sink cabinet.

Sure enough, Emma the Wayward Hamster had somehow gotten into the closed sink cabinet, and she had slid down into the tall glass pitcher, from which she was unable to get out. She must have been without food or water for two or three days by then, and she would have died had I not found her. I wasn’t even surprised when I found her. I just knew she was there.

So, that's my psychic gift.

Some people stop plane crashes. I save hamsters.

I have no plans to start wearing a cape and spandex, but thanks for asking.

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Sharyn McCrumb, a New-York Times best-selling author, won a 2006 Library of Virginia Award and AWA Book of the Year for St. Dale, which was featured at the National Festival of the Book. A 2008 “Virginia Women of History,” McCrumb is known for her Ballad novels, including She Walks These Hills. A film of The Rosewood Casket is in production.