Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Nora Bonesteel and the Sight by Sharyn McCrumb

Of all the characters I write about, Nora Bonesteel is the one that people seem most intrigued by. Nora appears again in my new Ballad novel The Devil Amongst the Lawyers, which will be published in June by Thomas Dunne Books of New York.

Nora Bonesteel is based on Charlotte Ross, a professor friend of mine at Appalachian State University. 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.

I can tell you the exact moment that I decided to incorporate the supernatural into my work.

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, and driven several hours north up into the hills of Georgia to be set down in the town of 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 evening party consisted of eighteen professors, two bottles of wine, a bag full of whatever the convenience store had in the way of snacks, and Susanne, the Major, and me. After an hour or so of pretzels and shop talk, the conversation 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 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 -- who was Charlotte Ross-- looked at her for a long moment, and 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. “This streak of the supernatural runs deep through mountain families and I left it out. "

"You had to,” said Charlotte Ross, who later became the model for 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 was 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 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 (Dutton, May 2001) Nora tries to find an old ballad that the dead don’t want remembered. 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.

I have known one other person who really had The Sight. My friend Dr. John Richards was the most amazing person. A professor at West Virginia State University, an expert on Appalachian folklore and healing techniques, he died in 2008-- 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. The big ill-tempered goat (Harvick) 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 described. He never made any prediction like that again. But one time was quite enough.

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 or to do anyone any good.

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 Hamster had somehow gotten into the closed sink cabinet, and she had slid down into the tall glass pitcher, from which she had been 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.

Sharyn McCrumb is an award-winning Southern writer, best known for her Appalachian “Ballad” novels, set in the North Carolina/Tennessee mountains, including the New York Times Best Sellers She Walks These Hills, The Rosewood Casket, The Ballad of Frankie Silver and The Songcatcher.

Sharyn McCrumb's most recent novel Faster Pastor, a comic Southern novel co-authored with NASCAR driver Adam Edwards, is available now from her web-site She and Adam will present a program on their work at the South Carolina Festival of the Book on Saturday, February 27th.