A pattern of traveling and returning can leave a man with a motley tongue. Jeremy B. Jones’s language is one of the many frustrating contradictions he faces when he returns to Bearwallow in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, where his family has resided for two centuries. When an older fellow in a grocery store parking lot asks Jones and his wife, "So ya’ll’s mountain folk?" Jones realizes, despite his family’s long history in the mountains, that he is unsure of his relationship to that identity, to that particular tongue. He wonders, “How am I mountain people—how am I my people?” This question of how the Blue Ridge Mountains have shaped him—and its complicated answer—are the subject of Jones's first book, Bearwallow: A Personal History of a Mountain Homeland, just out from John F. Blair Publishing. With his artful exploration of voice, place, and belonging, Jones, who earned his MFA from the University of Iowa and has twice been noted in Best American Essays, enters an ongoing discussion to expand and update what it signifies to be "mountain folk."
Going into the book, I prepared myself for an adamant rebuttal of the “toothless, gun toting, moonshine-drinking hillbillies” stereotype. But Jones doesn’t shy away from the image of banjo-playing mountain man; rather, he shows that it's an incomplete portrait of the region and aims to complicate it. While such stereotypes may have been true at one point, Jones shows us that the secluded Appalachia of the nineteenth century no longer exists. At the same time, though, he demonstrates—through subtle juxtaposition, image, and voice—that the blended culture of the present-day Blue Ridge Mountains is, in fact, distinctly Appalachian.
As the narrator wrestles to carve out his own identity as a third-generation Appalachian, he investigates his family’s ascent into Bearwallow two hundred years before as way into the history of the region. This trance-inducing thread takes the reader back to the Appalachia of the early nineteenth century, when Jones's great-great-grandfather Abraham and his love Bathsheba “packed everything up and lit out, deeper into the mountains, to an area labeled on the map only as 'the Wilderness.'” Jones digs deep into an Appalachian voice in this section, spinning into his family’s history the magic of folklore. He then contrasts this voice, this history, with the present-day narrative of his return to his childhood elementary school, where his “tongue first began to shed its Appalachian tics.” It’s in this thread that the reader encounters the surprising second focus of the book, the South American migrant workers and their families who live in Bearwallow, and for whom Jones teaches English classes in a trailer behind the school.
Finally, as the mountain his family occupies faces change from the outside, Jones works to update the language of Appalachia. Early in his return home, he learns that a residential development (ahem, sorry—community) is conquering the peak of Bearwallow, and he sets out to explore the Walmarts and tourist traps that now populate the region. At the same time, he searches for an essential “wide-reaching mountain-ness” that spans time and place, taking the reader through the cobbled streets of Gracias, a mountain town in Honduras where he once worked as an elementary school teacher. His students, he recalls, had been equally enamored with mountains. When given a blank sheet of paper to draw on, they drew “mountains spread as a green outline across the entire piece of paper—always mountains before houses, before mothers and fathers, before the students’ round-head-ed, long-armed representation of themselves.” Balancing profound and playful language, Jones explores Gracias's similarities to his own Bearwallow. In Honduras, he tells us, he saw more clearly how the “the harshness and isolation of wrinkled, towering land” can shape a person, and it was there he first experienced “the Pull,” or the mysterious force that draws former residents back to Bearwallow.
These three strands, tightly woven, form the springboard for the author's meditations. By crafting the narrative in a way that tangles these stories together, Jones strengthens the portrait of a motley mountain. A shredded memoir, braided into cohesion, becomes the perfect vehicle for exploring a crisis of identity.
Jones embraces his range of mountain tongues, working in sprawling, intermingled sentences that recall the wide-ranging peaks of the Blue Ridge Mountains, while celebrating its sundry pieces: “The road is speckled by double-wides and brick houses with broken-down cars and trucks outside; satellite dishes haphazardly attached to roofs aim above the rounded mountains, which peek through the thin veil of gray and reach above the forests, soft and rolling." Jones's vocabulary tells his story more completely than any conglomeration of anecdotes could muster. He folds poetic language and Spanish phrases into a world of oughts, rackets, and reckons—but he doesn’t assume the Appalachian tongue to please or to satisfy readers. In fact, he worries about wearing his grandparents’ vocabulary like “an enemy’s uniform” and describes the frustrating code-switching “of [his] tongue’s volition.” Jones remembers how, when teaching, “[my tongue] hit every diphthong and smatter of consonants clearly. Then the bell would ring again, and I’d walk into the street to buy homemade bread, my tongue again loosening."
With the few characters in the memoir, Jones utilizes the just-right detail to quickly expose their natures. Early in the book, we’re introduced to Willie, a bully with a thick accent and an Alabama shirt, who cries for days when he finds out the South lost the Civil War. Jones remembers how “the whites of his eyes turned pink, and the pinks of his face turned white.” It’s perhaps his nostalgia (even empathy) for mountain characters like Willie that stops the author from scorning his cultural heritage outright, prompting him instead to carve out a more inclusive Appalachian identity—one that can include both Willie and himself, a college-educated Blue Ridge emigrant, now a professor. In this way, Bearwallow bridges the early Appalachian narratives (in which an outsider comes in and reports on the "local color") and the more recent memoirs of those who've spent their lives in the mountains.
So, who qualifies as mountain folk in Jones's vision? Those with two hundred years of history on the mountain, yes, but also the Cherokee families who have lived there much longer. The migrant workers and their families, the college-educated, those who live in the ritzy new developments: mountain folk, all. In arguing for the inclusion of these voices in the chorus of Appalachian identity, Jones changes the way we talk about Appalachians, opening the field for new narratives to emerge: the Cherokee-Appalachian, the Latino-Appalachian, the Urban-Appalachian, narratives that, given the growing interest in Appalachian voices over the last decade, we may soon encounter.
Sometimes I crave nothing more than beauty from a memoir, while other times I need it to explain me to myself. As a woman who has lived in and out of Appalachia her whole life, I can say that Bearwallow: A Personal History of a Mountain Homeland satisfied both of these hankerings with ease.
Sadie Shorr-Parks is the nonfiction editor at Cheat River Review. Her essay “Homemade Robots and Other Ontological Concerns” recently appeared in Defunct Magazine. Her poetry's been featured in Blue Line and Line + Stars, among others.
Bearwallow: A Personal History of a Mountain Homeland
by Jeremy B. Jones
John F. Blair Publisher, 2014