Appalachian Literature for Young Adults:
The Contributions of Rebecca Caudill
by Mary Warner
Rebecca Caudill, born in l899 in Poor Fork, now Cumberland, Kentucky, lived until l985 and devoted a major portion of her life to writing young adult and children's literature. With the exception of Wind, Sand and Sky, a book of Haiku of the Arizona desert, the remainder of Caudill's seventeen books are all set in Appalachia, each portraying something of the life, the milieu, and the richness of the mountain culture and its people. During a lecture called, "The High Cost of Writing," given to students and faculty of Southeast Community College in Cumberland, Kentucky, Rebecca Caudill emphasized that "what life has said to an individual is the only thing he has to write about that is worth writing about" (12). Her life in and of Appalachia spoke consistently to her of the joys and anguishes of the mountain experience, and her four young adult novels comprehensively convey many motifs "worth writing about." Caudill's Tree of Freedom, The Far-off Land, Barrie and Daughter, and Susan Cornish capture four major characteristics of Appalachian culture, each worth writing about and each worth examining more thoroughly in the waning years of Appalachian culture.
To clarify the point of Appalachian culture "waning," it is significant to explain who makes up this culture. The Appalachian people are those born in the region geographically covered by the Appalachian mountains of Pennsylvania, Maryland, Ohio, Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama. This area contains several unique cultures and communities, including the culture of the coal mining areas of the central and southern Appalachians, the Eastern Band of the Cherokee nation, and the last vestiges of the self-sufficient farm and village culture of the southern Appalachian mountains. Between the Civil War and World War II, the rolling hills and deep hollows of the Appalachians sustained an unchanging civilization. This way of life, however, was destroyed by the Industrial Revolution in other parts of the nation. As the last living natives of the Appalachian cultures, those born in the region prior to World War II pass away, the true Appalachian cultures are in danger of being lost. Thus the particular importance in revisiting the works of Rebecca Caudill.
The four major characteristics of Appalachian cultures which dominate Caudill's novels are the following. The first quality is kindness, which encompasses tolerance of others and hospitality. The second is a kind of freedom which implies independence, self-confidence, and the pride that supports necessary and authentic self-esteem. The third, specifically evident in her strong female protagonists, is a moral code of integrity. The fourth quality is the importance of education, the emphasis that marked Caudill's heritage from her parents who were teachers and was confirmed in her return to Appalachia later in her life.
Many of Caudill's novels are loosely autobiographical; her memoir, My Appalachia, delineates the positive and negative of mountain culture.Most important were the people, unhurried, kind, independent, determined, with big families and close and loyal family ties. Money was of no importance in the life of anyone I knew. If a man was sick, womenfolks helped nurse him to health, while the menfolks tended to his planting, his plowing, his harvesting. A man was judged by what he was, never by what he had. Doors in the houses of my Appalachia were never locked against friend or stranger. The people found their pleasures in the simple things of life. They possessed a kind of profound wisdom, characteristic of those who live close to Nature, who walk in step with Nature's rhythm, and who depend on Nature for life itself.This rich description arose from Caudill's early years in Appalachia. As she moved away from the region for graduate work, and eventually settled in Urbana, Illinois, Caudill did not experience firsthand the early years of the coal mining exploitation of her Appalachia nor many of the negatives which affected Appalachian life. These problems included economic difficulties, ignorance, and the lack of a sense of community, according to Dr. W. D. Weatherford, who had lived most of his ninety years in the mountains of North Carolina, who had been a teacher, Methodist minister, Y.M.C.A. official, and vice-president of Berea College, and whom Caudill interviewed in the l960's.
(My Appalachia 28 and 31, interim pages are photographs)
The realities Weatherford pointed out to Caudill have informed her writings; she used her understanding of the area to become a voice authentically portraying the mountain culture. This portrayal of Appalachian cultures, marked specifically by kindness which signals acceptance of others and hospitality towards them, freedom which signals self-confidence and pride, a moral code of integrity, and an emphasis on the importance of education, is a portrayal apt to contemporary young adult readers who can meet in Caudill's characters, authentic role models.
Tree of Freedom (1956)
Two of her four young adult novels are historical and consistently highlight the characteristic of freedom. Tree of Freedom and The Far-Off Land are set in the late 1700's and focus primarily on the westward movement of Scots-Irish to Kentucky and beyond the Appalachians. Tree of Freedom, which begins in l780, chronicles the move of the Venable family, and the many others seeking the rich, then unclaimed land in Kentucky. This land rush creates one of the major conflicts in the novel: men devoting their energies to the land rush instead of fighting with the beleaguered troops of the Continental army. Noel Venable, the fifteen-year-old, eldest son who is too steeped in his maternal Tidewater heritage and idealism to be eager about his father's persistent drive Westward, voices the concern about owning land without the freedom of independence:"Folks are too busy scandalizin' the Continental Congress," he said. "They're all tryin' to get their hands on hard Spanish money. They're grabbin' up Kentucky land while it's cheap, but doin' precious little to keep it free. Folks are too blind, Steffy, and too scared. They're a little hexed, a lot of 'em are. And not one in a hundred of 'em, I reckon, has ever thought what it'd be like if we win our chance. Or for that matter, if we lose it."Noel, in the beginning of the novel, is the only one in the Venable family who has learned how to read. Caudill's sense of the importance of education is evident in Noel's and Stephanie's treasuring of books and reading. Noel ultimately wins his father's "approval" of books and reading when he uses his ability to read to save his family from unscrupulous land swindlers.
(Tree of Freedom 83)
Stephanie Venable, age l3, is the female protagonist of Tree of Freedom. She serves as the mediator between her father and Noel, and consistently holds the family together. She manifests each of Caudill's four characteristics. The aspect of freedom is evident first in Stephanie's selection of the item she'll take with her from the family's North Carolina home into the wilderness.In the smokehouse she broke the cobwebs that sealed a warped old calabash. Reaching her fingers inside, she took one solitary apple seed of the many Bertha [her mother] had saved, and dropped in into the deerskin pouch that hung about her waist, tracing in her mind as she did so the long, strange journey of the apples through which the seed had come. Bertha's Back Country tree had grown from seed she had saved from an apple that grew on Grandmammy Linney's tree in Charleston. And Grandmammy Linney, when she was thirteen-year-old Marguerite de Monchard, had brought her seed from an apple that grew in the yard of her old home in France. The Trees of St. Jean de Maurienne, they were called, for the little French village from which Grandmammy came.In this novel, Caudill reveals the Appalachian culture against the backdrop of freedom. She weaves several conflicts, again with contemporary echoes: families against untamed wilderness; a father, Jonathan Venable, against his torturous past that drives his pragmatic, relentless pursuit of Kentucky farmland and independence; the same father against his idealistic son; land grabbers and swindlers against those like the Venables who have planted corn on the land as part of their claim; frustrated patriots against colonists disgruntled by the British dominance to this point in the American Revolution; George Washington, George Rogers Clark, Francis Marion and other leaders against the unwilling colonists who continue to slump in their commitment to liberty; and a cast of individual characters who face inner conflicts.
(Tree of Freedom 25)
A final significant theme from Tree of Freedom highlights the cost of freedom. Stephanie reiterates in her explanation to younger brother, Willie, that a tree of freedom is one "that grows sometimes sweet apples, sometimes bitter ones" (Tree of Freedom91). She learns as well that her efforts to secure freedom do not have to entail physically joining the Revolutionary War. Noel reminds her, "Servin' your country's mostly honest work...And thinkin' ahead. You're doin' your share to found new settlement in America, only you want to be on your guard like the de Monchards, not to make any deal with slavery of any sort. There's lots of slavery, Steffy, besides that you find in a black skin" (Tree of Freedom 142).
The Far-Off Land (1964)
The Far-Off Land, the second historical novel, even more emphatically develops the moral imperative of acceptance of all human beings, particularly of Native Americans. This novel can be studied in tandem with Dorothy Hoobler's The Trail on Which They Wept. Figure One provides a guide for how Dorothy Hoobler's novel, voicing a young Cherokee woman's experience during the Trail of Tears, can be paired with Caudill's The Far-Off Land.
When The Far-Off Land opens, it's l780. Ketturn Petrie, the novel's protagonist, has been raised for eight years of her life by the Moravians, living in Salem, North Carolina. Anson Petrie, Ketty's only living sibling, whom she has not seen in over fourteen years, has discovered that his sister is with the Moravians. Anson does not know that after he left his North Carolina home in l764, following the allure of those pioneering into Kentucky, his parents and five of his six siblings died. As Ketty reveals the sad saga, she tells her brother how their mother treated every person as one of her own children:"You'd think, Anson, that when Mother had parted with six of her children, five deep in their bury holes and one gone off in silence, she'd have parted with her senses too. But it seems like sorrow only tendered her heart till she looked on all people as her children. (26)Anson cannot believe that his mother would have treated "red men, skulking thieving red men" as he describes them, with such kindness, yet this very kindness proved to be the shield that protected Ketty and her mother in every circumstance.
Ketty takes the Moravian trait of acceptance and sense of hospitality for all on the pioneer journey. As Ketty prepares to leave the Moravian community, Sister Oesterlein counsels Ketty to "be present" and "be reverent" (35) in all dealings with others, and once again Caudill establishes the motif of moral integrity and hospitality toward others:"By loving people, Ketty, you will come to understand their needs. By loving and caring about people--all people. See people as we Moravians see them--not as friends or enemies, but as people, red people and black people as well as white, Tories as well as patriots, the gentleman's slave as well as the gentleman. If love goes with you through the wilderness, Ketty, you needn't be afraid. There isn't any evil in the world that won't give ground before a loving woman."This advice given by Sister Oesterlein underlies all of the conflicts Ketty and her companion pioneers encounter. This novel is filled with the tensions of Anglo settlers invading the lands and lives of Native Americans; of the dangers of mountain travels, untamed rivers fraught with shoals, sawyers, "the Suck" and "the Boiling Pot"; of the overwhelming fears experienced by Farrer, the young boy who witnessed his parents being scalped; and the fierce persistence of Ketty to hold onto her ideals of treating all people with kindness despite the relentless insistence of Anson that his sister learn to shoot "red men." The "Far-Off Land" suggested by the book's title symbolizes the universal of many different searchings.
(The Far-Off Land 35)
At the point when Ketty and Anson were reunited, she learned that Anson was married and had two children; Ketty was particularly troubled to learn, though, that Anson's wife and children could not read. Feeling somewhat useless on the initial day of the river journey into the wilderness, she decides to teach the six children on board how to read. One of Ketty's major ways of "being present," fulfilling her admonition from Sister Oesterlein, is to teach, entertain, and divert the children during their river route into the wilderness.
The Petrie party is eventually joined by George Soelle, a surveyor. Soelle lends the male voice of reason to the feverish land-driven Anson and his two male counterparts, Baptist and Shubeal. Soelle also serves as moral support for Ketty. In one conversation following Anson and Baptist's braggadocio about an early Indian raid, when they thought they'd successfully demolished the Native American settlements along part of the river, Ketty expresses her anguish, "Why won't white men listen to reason?" (142) George's words again articulate the challenge of moral integrity:"Because they're land-greedy...They're always pushing west, and in the same way. First one ventures out, a hunter or a trapper. Then other hunters come. They like the lay of the land, so they decide to fetch their families and settle. They cut down trees that shelter the wild game, and plant corn. Their neighbors follow and take up claims of their own. And nobody says by-your-leave to the red men. (142-3)From this point in the novel, the parallels with Dorothy Hoobler's The Trail on Which They Wept are all too clear, and the pairing of texts (see Figures 1 and 2) provides the basis for a rich thematic unit about the treatment of Native Americans in the century during which the United States was settled.
Barrie and Daughter (1943)
Caudill had learned from her father, who was a teacher, "What you carry in your head, nobody can take from you" (My Appalachia, 28) and the theme of education dominates Barrie and Daughter and Susan Cornish. Barrie and Daughter was Caudill's first novel. The book, set in the early twentieth century, highlights more of the Appalachia Caudill experienced in her childhood. Caudill's father, like Peter Barrie in the novel, was a Democrat in eastern Kentucky, which like most of the Appalachian sections of the Southern states was overwhelmingly Republican. Caudill saw her mother's tears and distress on Election Day, a day Caudill describes "of drinking, quarreling, shooting, feuding, and generally disturbing the peace" (My Appalachia 2). In Barrie and Daughter the Election Day scene causes Blanche, Peter's wife, even more agony than it brought Caudill's mother, since in the novel Peter Barrie has not only taken an unpopular political position, he has challenged the Scollard brothers' lack of moral integrity.
Peter, and his daughter Fern, who are described by Blanche as being gifted with the sense to "distinguish clearly and quickly between what they considered right and wrong, and never to allow the sun to go down on action undecided" (Barrie and Daughter 41) decide to open a store, despite the fact that the Scollard brothers operate the only other store in the valley, and the Scollards live adjacent to the Barries. It is Peter's driving sense of justice and integrity though, that causes him to open a store where the people of the valley will not be cheated. Fern eagerly wants to become her father's partner in the store. Peter has shared his idealistic plan with Fern and counsels her:"A good store not only furnishes people with what they need. It can make them want better things than they have. It can help them live more comfortably than they do live. It can give them more satisfying things to work with, and prettier things to look at while they work. If it does that for people without robbing them, then you're right--it is a thing big enough to spend your life doing."The key sentiments in Peter's counsel are the goals of the good store helping people live more comfortably than they do, and giving people more satisfying things with which to work. Clearly too, there is the aesthetic component: "prettier things to look at while they work"; each of these goals addresses the needs of the community and through another venue, offers hospitality.
(Barrie and Daughter 44)
Throughout the novel, Fern faces ridicule for being a woman and a storekeeper. In the face of mountain politics she's told by her future fiance, Clint Stacey, "Politics in these mountains is stronger than any passel of facts you can quote to people. And you've got to be ready for lean and dangerous times when people get busy at their politics and just naturally don't know and don't care if their smokehouses are full or empty" (Barrie and Daughter 112). At the same time, Clint remains her staunch supporter since he too, wants to do something less than typical in his mountain community. When he shares with Fern his dreams of becoming a doctor he emphasizes, "But it takes a lot of courage, Fern, doesn't it, to do a thing everybody say you can't do, or that just a waste of time to do?" (Barrie and Daughter 228). Clint's plans to be a doctor have grown specifically from his experience in the mountain community where homegrown remedies have dominated medical treatment. With no disparagement to the natural wisdom of the mountain people, Clint knows that the white swelling Fern's brother Tom had in his leg when he was four, could have been treated differently. If it had, Tom, age fifteen at the novel's opening, would not need to face all of life hampered by crutches.
Barrie and Daughter delves deeply into the moral fiber, that honesty and drive to live by principle, that the best of mountain cultures nourishes despite the prevalence of violence. The Scollards, primarily driven by the greed and corruption of John Scollard, attempt a series of sabotages of the Barries' attempt to provide a store that fosters honest trade. Again Peter's wisdom provides both shield and goad for Fern's courageous actions. Peter says in the face of John Scollard's violent action, "That ain't according to our way. But we won't run from them either. There are some things a knife can't cut" (Barrie and Daughter 51).
In her decision to join her father's venture and to persevere in the face of the demoralizing actions of the Scollards, Fern emerges as a courageous and ethical woman. Her father reflects, "She was going to be something far more splendid than the mere keeper of the storehouseÉfar grander than a mere trader in food and clothing and shelter. She was going to be a mighty fighter on the side of the people" (Barrie and Daughter 52).
Peter's wife, Blanche, a quieter figure in the novel, is a champion of education, one of the qualities of mountain culture which Caudill weaves throughout each novel: "'I'd as soon a child of mine would be dishonest as to grow up without book learning'" (Barrie and Daughter 94). This conviction Blanche shares with her husband and with those who seek the best in mountain culture. Peter's strong moral convictions are likewise grounded in education. The Democrat Peter wishes to support in the elections has not been entirely fair and honest in the means he has chosen to right a wrong. In this dilemma, Peter responds:"And I don't care how bad a thing need correcting if you can't come out and correct it in the open, then the medicine's just as poisonous as the disease. It takes education, daughter, to change a thing. Education. And education's a slow thing. But it's an honest thing, and when it gains ground with a point it's trying to make, it can just about hold that ground against anybody"Susan Cornish (1955)
(Barrie and Daughter 233).
Susan Cornish is Caudill's novel whose main conflict arises from the issue of education. The novel presents Caudill's strongest challenge to the moral and economic torpor affecting the people of Pickwick Mill, a community easily identifiable as representative of the broader Appalachian region. Susan, the novel's protagonist, has chosen, in her junior year, not to return to the college her parents have selected; the college's narrow perspective on learning cannot satisfy her far-reaching questions."Can't you see what I'm talking about, Daddy?...I wish I could make you understand that--that something inside me is always asking questions and driving me to find answers. I can't help it if they're hard questions, or if they're questions you're ashamed to ask. Like, 'What is God?' and, 'Are all men really created equal?' and, "Is white a superior color to black?' The thing that matters is that they're honest questions. But nobody has ever faced my questions with me squarely."Her refusal to return to college precipitates her need for a job, and at eighteen, Susan obtains a teaching position, deciding "to find out if a teacher could be to a child what she had wanted her teachers to be to her" (Susan Cornish 15).
(Susan Cornish 13)
Her challenges in Pickwick Mill are monumental: the land is eroded; wealthy landowners like Sam Goad, who has given Susan her position, can remove their tenant farmers at whim and pay their poll tax so the tenants vote as the "boss" wants; families are dissatisfied with the school and are unmotivated to do anything for its improvement. Susan is told: "The old settlers did work together and play together. But together they wasted the wonderful loamy flesh of this elbow of land right down to the rocky bone. They bequeathed a lot of gully-washed farms to their children, and gully-washed farms won't nourish a community" (Susan Cornish 57).
Added to these harsh realities, Susan learns quickly "that the essence of good teaching was more than prodding children through textbooks. It was guiding and companioning children in the realms into which their textbooks led. Teaching was more than knowing the answers. It was being the answers, deep within herself, to all the questions..." (Susan Cornish 21).
County Superintendent Lawrence McAdam recognizes in Susan the honest searching, tireless drive, and integrity that will make up for any inadequacies. He, and several other supporters, provide the backdrop for her idealism. Even when Susan feels as the speaker in Milton's "Lycidas" that "the hungry sheep look up and are not fed," she is able to awaken a new kind of energy in the community. Caudill creates in the novel as she has in the other young adult novels, fictional characters who clearly achieve the answers to each of the three major problems dominating post-l940's Appalachia: economic, lack of education and lack of community responsibility. As the school at Pickwick Mill is rejuvenated, the community reunites in the "coming together of people who had long gone their separate ways" (Susan Cornish 101).
The novel identifies the roots of that which can most erode the ideals in mountain communities. Susan examines the roots in a conversation with Superintendent McAdam:"I want to go beyond teaching my children how to read and spell and multiply...I know these skills are necessary tools. But as far as I have been able to work things out, the chief business of teaching, after helping children learn is to-is to sick them on some deep yearning-the way you train a hound and then sick him on a fox. Maybe, Mr. McAdam, I'm just an ignorant girl playing around with impossibly big ideas, but I do have a goal. I want these children to make over Pickwick Mill into a living community, a place alive with vigor and hope, where people work together and play together and worship together they way they did in the old days."Susan's efforts to renew the community are slow and frequently thwarted; her experience in facing the blight that saps the community is not a new one nor is it unique to mid-twentieth century. She is told "The physical and spiritual erosion in Pickwick Mill didn't take place overnight, and overnight you aren't going to rebuild what has been wasted" (Susan Cornish 59). Caudill has created a story of a woman who does assume the challenge; the novel reveals a cast of characters true to mountain life and equally true to the spirit of renewal that can triumph over torpor.
(Susan Cornish 56-7)
None of these brief analyses can do justice to the wealth of Rebecca Caudill's contributions to authentic voicing of Appalachian culture. In addition to the creation of characters and conflicts so true to Appalachia, Caudill uses the mountain variety of English, the foods, activities, and elements of nature native to Appalachia for her comprehensive expose of this region. Her writings serve the mountain people well, but her works also capitalize on the universals in human experience, thus appealing to contemporary audiences from regions well beyond Appalachia. Her character of Lawrence McAdam, the county superintendent in Susan Cornish identifies the human characteristics that apply to any region in any age."Honesty and truth and the other living essentials get so shoved around in this world, so mixed with mean little sordid little half-truths and with sheer triviality. Truth is so prostituted in most of our lives." (61)It is another character though from Susan Cornish, Frank Burch, who indicates why the best of any region or people will ultimately triumph. And here we understand why the works of Caudill need to be rediscovered. As Burch puts it, "By speaking the truth in love...There isn't any meanness in the world that can stand up against the truth spoken in love" (180)Figure 1
I. Major ThemesA. Treatment of Native AmericansII. Interdisciplinary Topics
B. Attitude toward the Land and Material Possessions
C. Wisdom Figures
D. Displacement/Loss of Home
E. The Quest
F. Value of Family/Children/Community
G. Desire for Freedom/Autonomy
H. Experiencing Death and LossA. "Relocation" of Cherokee compared with the Japanese forced into Interment Camps or with the Jews being forced into ghettos and eventually concentration campsl. Parallel with Elie Wiesel's NightB. Revolutionary War study
2. Parallel with Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston's Farewell to Manzanar1. Francis MarionC. The Moravians
2. George Rogers Clark
3. Roles of the Appalachian colonists1. PhilosophyD. Sequoyah and other Native American leaders
E. Cherokee Beliefs1. NamingF. Retaining Cherokee language and culture
2. Burial customs1. Cherokee words in the textG. Establishing Appalachian culture and tradition
2. "the Raven Mockers"
3. "the Darkening Land"
H. The historical background of The Trail of Tears1. Role of the state of GeorgiaI. Role of the elders/Influence of wisdom figures
2. Role of Andrew Jackson
3. Role of Martin Van Buren1. Grandmother and medicine belt
3. Sister Oesterlein in the Moravian communityFigure II
III. Significant Quotations for Writing Prompts/Discussion from The Trail on Which They Wept by Dorothy Hoobler (with Thomas Hoobler)
1."He [Sequoyah] is a wanderer. But he knows where his home is" (8).
2. "The soldiers are already here. They have guns, and we do not. They are many, and we are few. Let me tell you what they have already done to clear one of our towns. They rounded up all the children and put them into camps. Their parents had to follow, or they would never see their children again" (18-19).
3."Our children are our future...We cannot risk their lives. We cannot keep the Americans from taking our land..." (19).
4. "The soldiers forced everyone into the stockades--mothers with newborn babies, sick people, old men and women who could barely walk. No one was allowed to stay behind" (29).
5. Grandmother, Tsaluh's wisdom figure, refuses to go the whole journey: "You will take my spirit with you. But I will never go where the sun dies" (38).
6."The Cherokee did not punish their children. They expected them to learn by watching what the adults did. If a child did something wrong, she would have to find it out for herself (46).
Writing Prompts Quotes from The Far-Off Land by Rebecca Caudill
1. Ketty's description on her niece Lennie as a poet prompts this definition: "A poet is somebody who can see things ordinary mortals can't see" (45).
2."People are always trying to find some far-off land--leaving behind the fields they've tended and the friends they love and crossing ocean seas and climbing high mountains to get to it. How are we to know when we get to the French Lick if it's the far-off land we're looking for?" (53)
3. Ketty and Anson in discussion about the Indians: "'All of Salem met up with Indians many time,' Ketty said. 'Whenever Indians came to Salem they were treated like human beings. If they were hungry, they were given a warm place to sleep in the hayloft, since that was more to their liking than a proper bed. And the next day they went on their way'" (57).
4. "What else is waitin' but not knowin'?" (103, Tish's words)
5. Tish to Lettice, who has just had her baby drown and now Lettice says she wants to die: "Life ain't a purty to throw away when you get tired of hit. Even when life's a burden, you don't throw hit away. You hold on to hit, hard" (214).
6. "But the wilderness kept a stern school. In it a body learned quick enough what comes first and what waits" (279).
Caudill, Rebecca. "The High Cost of Writing." Cumberland, KY: the Southeast Community College, the University of Kentucky, l965.
Mary Warner is a professor of English at Western Carolina University, Cullowee, North Carolina.
Copyright 1999. The Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN #0882-2840). Permission is given to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not intended for resale in any form.
Reference Citation: Warner, Mary . (1999) "Appalachin Literature for Young Adults: The Contributions of Rebecca Caudill." The ALAN Review, Volume 26, Number 3, pp 55-60.