Almost all the letters I have gotten from readers of Gap Creek have said the book reminded them of their own grandmothers. Many of the letters have come from the South and Southern Appalachia, but even more have been mailed or emailed from California, Minnesota, and other parts of the country. The writers often mention that their grandmothers came to this country from Poland or Russia.
This suggests that Gap Creek connects readers to their own past. Much of the work Julie and Hank do in the novel, churning butter, boiling water to wash clothes, plucking chickens, was not done just in rural America and the Blue Ridge Mountains, but everywhere in 1899. Still, that way of life may have lasted longer in Appalachia. The Southern mountains have been called 'the living past' or 'a window on the past'.
At this moment in history we seem hungry to connect with our past, to get a firmer sense of ourselves through knowing what has gone before. Perhaps we feel cut off from our ancestors and our heritage in this digital world of Internet and shopping mall, where tv commercials seem more real than the sunrise or weeds along the creek.
When I was very young we lived in a house without plumbing, and we kept our milk and butter in the spring house. Many of those farther up the valley did not have electricity yet. We didn't have a car or truck or tractor, and plowed our land with a horse named Old Nell and gathered corn in the wagon. We lived mostly on what we grew: chickens, hogs, corn, vegetables, molasses. That world began to change rapidly in the 1950s, and was mostly gone when I left for college in 1961. The last day before I left home I plowed the late bean field with the horse.
It has been a great surprise to me that I have returned so often to the Green River valley in my stories and poems. After all, I went off to college in part to escape that world and the hard work of hog killing, pulp wood cutting, fodder pulling. The subject seems to have chosen me more than I chose it. And I was surprised even more to find how often I wrote about physical work, about digging, masonry, sweeping yards, chopping and sawing, even childbirth. I had escaped the actual work only to return to it in language, in the imagination, to study the poetry of work, the aesthetics of work, the catharsis of labor in the hot sun and cold wind.
As I wrote more and more about work on the small mountain farm, I came to see that our work defines us. It is our work that gets us through our days and our lives, and perhaps gives us our greatest satisfaction. In so far as we have any wisdom it is in our work, in the rituals of work and the job well done.
Looking at the Appalachian communities in the past, visitors often saw only poverty and backwardness. The mountain people did not view themselves that way. In fact, they often felt rich on their own land, with their families around them, with a cold poplar spring nearby, and inspired by their devotional life. We cannot understand the Appalachian lives of the past unless we know something of their intense spiritual lives, whether Baptist or Pentecostal Holiness or some independent sect. The lives of my ancestors were largely defined by their work and their worship.
In church and out they sang hymns, and they sang ballads and parlor songs of the 19th century such as "In the Shadow of the Pines." One of my grandpas was a notable banjo picker, and his grandpa had been a famous fiddler in Upper South Carolina in the 1850s. Through the music we can connect with their lives also.
In his novels Thomas Wolfe refers to the mountain people as gaunt and mournful, sitting on porches and besides chimneys, telling stories of misery and sickness and of somebody that died a long time ago. I have tried to get inside those people on porches and beside fireplaces, and let them tell their own stories in their own idiom, with the intimacy and complexity of contemporary fiction.
This is the moment when we want to catch in words an Appalachian world all but gone.. We tend to write best about cultures that have almost melted into the past. The blue valleys, the fog-haunted coves, the tireless milky waterfalls, are still there, but the people, the people with wisdom in their hands and humility in their hearts, have slipped away forever, unless we find them in our own words, and in our own hands and hearts.