by Deborah Miller Fox, assistant professor of English at Anderson University
During the drafting of my young adult novel, A Star for Robbins Chapel, I recognized the need for what Silas House calls spiritual research and method writing, both of which allow a writer to get inside the skin of her character and acquire that character’s understanding of the landscape she inhabits.
Spiritual research can include experiences like immersing oneself in music typical of the region or time period in which the story is set, wearing the shoes or kinds of clothing that the characters wore, engaging in the activities that are central to the character’s life, such as plowing a field or canning applesauce, and eliminating modern technologies from one’s daily life in order to experience darkness or quiet or summer heat the way the character would. Set in the Cumberland Mountains of southwest Virginia, my story depicted the life of a migrant family in 1905. Though I had what Scott Russell Sanders would call “window knowledge” of Lee County, Virginia, acquired from my childhood trips to visit two great-grandmothers living in Pennington Gap, I did not know the voice and manners of Appalachian speech intimately enough to render the dialogue and character thoughts authentically. Though I was writing from a chronological perspective 100 years past the time of my characters’ lives, I knew I could collapse that distance by talking with people who inhabit Virginia and Tennessee today, thus tuning my ear to the syntax, colloquialisms, and aural rhythms in the voices of southwestern Appalachia.
In August 2007, I traveled with my mother and two sisters to Tennessee on a research grant, intending to gather information about late nineteenth and early twentieth century Appalachian life at the Museum of Appalachia. When I reserved a little house 20 miles from the museum, the owner suggested I might want to spend some time with the woman who lived just down the road. “She sounds just like an elderly version of the female characters in the novel you’re writing!” she said.
So I met Miss Margaret Faust. Her grandparents were Lovelys. They ran a watermill and sold corn liquor to make their living. Her parents were Ella May Lovely and Charlie Richard Faust, a man she called Papa. She was the youngest of six children and is now the only surviving member of her immediate family. She completed school to the eighth grade at Riverview School and kept her dolls on an organ her mother kept in the family room of their modest house. Miss Margaret never married, though she was engaged to a pharmacist who was in the Navy. But someone stole him from her.
At 84 years of age, Margaret lives with her two dogs in a tar-paper shack on Island Ford Road, just a few miles outside Lake City, Tennessee. When we approached the shack, the larger black dog paced the drive, groaning slightly as if to express his anxiety about four strangers coming up the lane. Clearly, the neighbor who had arranged the interview had not gotten the dog’s permission.
Coming out of the house and into the yard to sit with us, Margaret said, “Well, I’m rattled,” shaking her head. “But you’re welcome as a flower in May!” She wore a long cotton dress, its skirt brushing the tops of her shoes, and held a floppy bonnet in one hand should the sun brake through the dense foliage overhead. Her white hair, combed neatly into thick braid, reached her waist. And she wore black boots, like something a man would wear to work a field. Margaret leaned on the neighbor’s arm, her body bent like the cane she held in her right hand. We had circled a few chairs in the gravel, trying to keep our feet off the rusting cat food cans and paper trash strewn everywhere. “You won’t want to go in the house,” the neighbor had explained when we arrived. “She’s a treasure, and you’ll love her from the first minute, but you need to be ready for the way she lives.”
The way Margaret lives is counter to everything I’ve ever known in my own life. Her home, a 10’ by 20’ building nearly hidden by the broken appliances and automobile shells piled around it, has electric power and running water — but just barely. Margaret lives alone, having no husband, children, or grandchildren with whom to share her days or her house.
“If folks see that tape you’re makin’, they’ll think I’m prideful,” she said, concerned that my sister was recording the interview. “They’ll come,” she shook her head, “and try to take what I got.” I assumed Margaret was afraid someone from the community would see evidence of neglect or depravity in her living conditions. I thought she was afraid someone would steal her independence or force her into a nursing home, away from her dogs and her freedom to live as she wanted. Erroneously, I assumed her concern grew out of embarrassment or shame. I was wrong. Margaret Faust feels no shame at all about the trash in her yard or the items heaped in stacks around her house. In her mind, every item has value, and every item is hers to claim and protect.
Being the victim of other people’s deception or ill-will is one of the themes that emerged during our conversation. As we talked, she turned repeatedly to her bitterness over the things that had been taken from her or the fear that her kin were planning to steal everything she had left. I had pursued this field research hoping Margaret would tell me about her experiences as a child of Cumberland Mountain. I hoped she would have interesting stories to share, details long stored like old toys and muslin dresses in the attic of her mind. I hoped to get what I had come for. Looking back on that conversation, I realize I was just another petty thief, greedy to carry off her treasures while she chattered unaware.
But Margaret was no easy mark. She answered my questions about her childhood and young adult years with rambling, passionate stories that made very little sense to me. She fixed her attention on the 1950s, even though I kept trying to nose her back toward the first three decades of the twentieth century when her parents were young adults and she was a child. But she ignored most of my questions, ranting instead about her outrage when the gas company came dug trenches across her yard and the electric company installed power lines, how they disregarded her rights and tore up her property like they owned it. She fumed about a nephew who stole her mother’s organ and spoke vaguely about missing jewelry and portions of land sold off by her siblings’ children without her consent.
But Margaret also reminisced about the years she spent making leather gloves and little purses. It really wasn’t clear whether this was a family business or a job in a textile mill, but she repeated again and again the skill with which she manufactured these items, the ache in her fingers, the fragrance and durability of the leather ... her words stitching sentences like thin leather laces along the straight seams.
An hour and half into the interview, the telephone started ringing. When she didn’t rise to answer it, the black dog pushed through our chairs and poked his head into her lap, clearly agitated. I touched her arm. “Margaret, you’re phone’s rung at least twenty times. Will someone be worried if you don’t answer it?”
With the aid of her cane, she went into the house, opening the door only wide enough for her slender frame. Clearly, she had no intention of letting us see the inside her home. Having taken an entire morning with her already, we began collecting our things. The chairs belonged to the neighbor, so we were in the process of stacking them for the return walk when Margaret came out of her house.
“Oh my, no! You ain’t leaving yet. You can’t leave already,” she cried. In her eagerness to keep us there, she was hurrying. I feared she would stumble, so I took her arm and promised to stay a while longer.
We stayed with Miss Margaret for two and a half hours. She laughed shyly throughout the conversation, covering her mouth when she was tickled by one of my questions or the memory it evoked, jabbing the ground with her cane when a memory stirred her outrage. When finally we ended the interview, I pressed two gifts into her hands: a jar of raspberry preserves and a bundle of peppermint sticks. If I had known about the dogs, I would have brought a box of Milkbones, too.
I had come to gather details for use in my novel, and I hoped to get a clearer impression of the Appalachian voices that for generations have articulated life, loss, and work for families in Tennessee and Virginia. Nothing Margaret told me about her life ended up in my story, but everything she said helped me hear more clearly the music of the dialect spoken by folks who live on Cumberland Mountain. And she gave me a glimpse of who my characters might become if they live long enough to be as old as she is.
On our way to the Museum of Appalachia, we stopped at the cemetery where she said her people are buried. We found the graves of her mother, father, grandparents, and a couple siblings. I photographed the grave markers and the church beside them. And I have them in an album with the photographs I took of Miss Margaret, her home, and her dogs. I did not get what I had come to collect, but my research was productive. Margaret Faust gave me narratives I hadn’t sought and artifacts would not have had the sense to steal.
Deborah Miller Fox teaches creative writing, composition, and literature at Anderson University. She is the author of several personal essays and a young adult novel. To read an excerpt from A Star for Robbins Chapel, visit www.deborahzarkamiller.com.
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