West Virginia Book Festival

“The Devil’s Son: Cap Hatfield and the End of the Hatfield and McCoy Feud”

Anne Black Gray: Foreword by G. Cameron Fuller

$21.95, Woodland Press

When I learned of “The Devil’s Son,” a 2012 novel regarding the Hatfield McCoy feud, I wasn’t keen on reading it. After all, just how many feud rehashes do we need? But I’m a Hatfield fan and so I read it. It was a relief to see it provides a unique and exciting slant on an important Appalachian topic. Author Anne Black Gray, a Parkersburg native and Hatfield descendant, did her homework.

This is the first fiction, to my knowledge, to address the effects of the feud on the children (both the grown and the toddler) of the feudists, as well as on neighbors, friends, and extended family members. In addition, it details the economic impact and the legal and political wrangling resulting from the feud.

The protagonist, William Anderson “Cap” Hatfield, the most military and capable son of Anderson “Devil Anse” Hatfield, is a rugged but  sensitive young man with a yen for a life of his own. Taught to kill when necessary, he respects his father and is loyal to his kin.  But Cap has talents and a dream. He wants to learn to cipher and read.  He realizes lawyers are having a major impact on what is happening in the mountains. He wants to be one so he can read and understand contracts his father is asked to sign.

 The novel’s cinematic opening depicts Cap astride his horse, Traveller, on New Year’s Day, 1888. Deep in a blustery winter snow, he scans the landscape for marauding McCoys and considers the option of leading an attack against them. Killing Randall McCoy might end the feud and finally win Cap his father’s approval. If he can end the feud, he will be the next in line to command.

The strong plot of the novel moves rapidly.  The events and settings are portrayed realistically and the characters are well drawn with understandable attributes and emotions. The sights and sounds in the mountains and the towns shimmer and crunch.

The story reflects folkways: the new found wonders of town life (soup in a can, store-bought bread, and houses with glass in their windows). The women are shown as strong but silent partners. Mothers, daughters, and daughters-in-law are all of child-bearing age and sometime pregnant at the same time. Frequent pregnancies lead to large families and interesting naming practices. The story shows the effects of the lack of early mountain schools, as well as the damage done by the onslaught of coal barons, land grabbers, and timber merchants.

The novel rings true and provides an interesting and more complete picture of the people and their era. “The Devil’s Son” adds a distinctly new dimension to feud literature.

Because of his stay on Blennerhassett Island, West Virginia will always have a small part in the story of Aaron Burr — third vice president of the United States, killer of Alexander Hamilton, accused traitor to the fledgling country. That remains true in a new book that takes a decidedly different viewpoint of Burr’s life.

“The Heartbreak of Aaron Burr” by H.W. Brands is centered around the relationship between Burr and his devoted daughter, Theodora. Their letters are Brands’ primary source. The book is short (176 pages) and written in the present tense, which I found pretty disconcerting during my short foray into the book so far. So did Julia Keller, Chicago Tribune critic (and Huntington native), who savaged the book in a review last month. Keller said the book “is so anemic, with such a stolid, unimaginative presentation, that not even an intriguing thesis — or copious quotations from the arch, peppery letters exchanged between Burr and his daughter — can save it.”

Other reviews have been much kinder to Brands, a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist for biographies of Benjamin Franklin and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Kirkus Reviews, for example, called it “a short but thrilling page-turner.”

But I digress. Back to the West Virginia connection: there are a few pages about Blennerhassett Island and its inhabitants. Brands calls the island “one of the most striving, most aspirational and most unlikely of the new settlements.” Marietta, Ohio, is referenced as the nearest town; Parkersburg had only been chartered a few years before — and it wasn’t even called Parkersburg until 1810. When Burr was at Blennerhassett, the town would have been known as Newport.

Brands also notes that, on a previous trip down the Ohio River, Burr walks around Wheeling (then in Virginia, of course). In a letter to Theodora, he calls it “a pretty, neat village, well situated on the south bank, containing sixty or eighty houses, some of brick, and some of a fine free stone found in the vicinity.”

If you want to know more about “The Heartbreak of Aaron Burr,” Brands will be on C-SPAN’s BookTV this weekend, talking about the book.

Christopher Wilkinson

Christopher Wilkinson mined census records, newspaper articles, personal interviews and many other sources in researching his new book, “Big Band Jazz in Black West Virginia, 1930-1942.” The book illustrates the relationship between the coal industry and the short-lived heyday of big band jazz that occurred in the Mountain State during the Great Depression and early World War II.

Wilkinson will speak at the West Virginia Book Festival at 1 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 13, at the Charleston Civic Center. He will autograph books immediately after his talk.

Wilkinson is a professor of music history at West Virginia University. A jazz historian, he teaches courses on that subject at the university and has presented talks to the general public on jazz. He also wrote “Jazz on the Road: Don Albert’s Musical Life,” published by University of California Press in 2001. “Big Band Jazz” is published by University Press of Mississippi.

The West Virginia Music Hall of Fame’s traveling museum will be stationed in the Festival Marketplace, featuring some of the musicians mentioned in the book. The Hall of Fame is a non-profit organization dedicated to documenting and preserving the rich and lasting contributions West Virginians have made to all genres of music.

The 12th annual West Virginia Book Festival will be held Oct. 13 and 14. The two-day event celebrates books and reading and offers something for all age groups. A variety of authors will attend, participating in book signings, readings, workshops and panel discussions. Activities for children include special programs and a section of the Marketplace filled with children’s activities. Admission to the festival is free.

The event is presented by The Library Foundation of Kanawha County, Inc., Kanawha County Public Library, the West Virginia Humanities Council, The Charleston Gazette and the Charleston Daily Mail and is sponsored by The Martha Gaines and Russell Wehrle Memorial Foundation, Pam Tarr and Gary Hart and Books-A-Million. For more information, visit www.wvbookfestival.org.

Writing about the Edgar Awards from the Mystery Writers of America last week (full list of winners and nominees here), I dwelled mostly on the nominees for Best Novel and shamefully ignored the eventual winner of the Best Critical/Biographical book award: “On Conan Doyle: or, The Whole Art of Storytelling,” by America’s best book critic, Michael Dirda.

Dirda — who won a Pulitzer Prize for The Washington Post and continues to write for them, as well as the New York Review of Books and the Barnes and Noble Review — has a Ph.D. in comparative literature and can talk about any kind of books and writing you want (although I remember him writing recently that he’s not as up on westerns as he might be). But when he talks about books, he doesn’t sound like some stuffy academic. He sounds (to use an analogy from the Gazette’s writing coach) like he’s talking to a friend on a stool at the neighborhood bar — something he knows about, growing up in the steel town of Lorain, Ohio.

“On Conan Doyle” is simultaneously a biography of Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a review of Doyle’s books (Sherlock and non) and a memoir of Dirda’s fascination with Sherlockiana, from his discovery of “The Hound of the Baskervilles” as a boy to his membership in the international Sherlock Holmes society, the Baker Street Irregulars. (The subtitle of Dirda’s book is a play on Holmes’ never-completed masterwork, “The Whole Art of Detection.”)

I thought I knew a fair amount about Doyle before reading this book. He was a medical doctor who based his most famous creation on one of his professors. He considered his Holmes stories far from his best work, killing off the great detective with relief and reluctantly bringing him back by popular demand. He became involved in spiritualism in his later years, after his son died toward the end of World War I.

And after all, everyone knows Sherlock Holmes. Lots of people still read the stories, as much for the description of gaslight, Victorian London as for the mysteries. The film and TV versions are legion: Basil Rathbone, Jeremy Brett, Robert Downey Jr., Benedict Cumberbatch (that last coming back to PBS this weekend).

But Dirda explains so much more. He talks about Doyle’s “crisp narrative economy” and says he may be the best storyteller of his age. He notes that some of Doyle’s other mysteries and science fiction, which many people relegate to the margins of literary history, have much to recommend them. And he relates Doyle to his time, showing the influence that others had on him — and the considerable influence that Doyle had on those around him, and those who would follow him.

For my money, though, the best parts of “On Conan Doyle” are Dirda harkening back to his early years, remembering how it felt to encounter Holmes and his compatriots for the first time.

In the lowering darkness I turned page after page, more than a little scared, gradually learning the origin of the dreaded curse of the Baskervilles. At the end of the book’s second chapter, you may recall, the tension escalates unbearably. … [Holmes and Watson’s informant] adds, hesitantly, that near the body he had spotted footprints on the damp ground. A man’s or a woman’s? eagerly inquires the great detective, to which question he receives the most thrilling answer in all of twentieth-century literature: “Mr. Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!” I shivered with fearful pleasure, scrunched further down under my thick blanket, and took another bite of my Baby Ruth candy bar, as happy as I will ever be.

“Robert and Ted” and the Senate

Robert C. Byrd, who died in 2010 after nearly 60 years in Congress, lives again (sort of) today at the University of Charleston.

As Doug Imbrogno reported in the Sunday Gazette-Mail, West Virginia author Denise Giardina has taken the relationship between Byrd and another lion of the Senate, Ted Kennedy, and fictionalized it in her play “Robert and Ted.” The play is still a work in progress, but Giardina will read from it at the UC Builders Luncheon today.

The first encounters between Kennedy and Byrd in the early ’60s did not go so well. Each was a young senator, but the different worlds they came from might as well have been Mars and Venus.

“Byrd was in his first term and Kennedy was elected in a special election not long after JFK was elected,” said Giardina. “Kennedy was from a wealthy family in Massachusetts and Byrd came up hard in the coalfields of West Virginia. He felt Kennedy was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and got all the committees handed to him. Byrd knew that was not going to be the case with him.”

If you’d like to go … too bad. Doug says registration is closed. But there will be a full reading of the play at this summer’s FestivALL event in Charleston.

A roundup of recent award-winning books

It’s awards season when it comes to books (actually, one thing I’ve learned since doing this blog is it never stops being awards season). We talked a couple of times about Newbery Medal winner (and former West Virginia Book Festival headliner) Jack Gantos, and here’s a few honors that we didn’t mention when they happened.

| Earlier this month, the National Book Critics Circle came out with their annual awards, and one of the winners was profiled on this blog last year. Dawn Miller wrote about “Liberty’s Exiles” by Maya Jasanoff (the NBCC non-fiction winner) as part of an Independence Day weekend look at those colonists who stayed loyal to the British crown during the American Revolution.

Other NBCC awards included fiction winner Edith Pearlman for her short-story collection, “Binocular Vision”; biography winner John Lewis Gaddis for “George F. Keenan: An American Life”; and poetry winner Laura Kasischke for “Space, In Chains.”

| Pearlman was also a finalist for The Story Prize, one of the nation’s foremost prizes for short fiction. On Wednesday, that award went to Steven Millhauser, a former Pulitzer Prize winner and one of the great writers living today, for his collection “We Others.” (You know how we hear about Herman Melville’s failure as a writer during his lifetime, or how Vincent van Gogh couldn’t sell a painting to anybody, and we wonder how contemporary people could have been so dumb? In 100 years, people are going to wonder how everyday audiences of the late 20th/early 21st century didn’t give a lot more recognition to Steven Millhauser.)

BTW, Millhauser is also a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award, to be announced next week. The other finalists include some literary heavyweights: Don DeLillo, Russell Banks, Kiran Desai and Julie Otsuka. Of course, we here at WVBF:TB have a soft spot for this award, as it was founded by Mary Lee Settle, the “grande dame” of West Virginia literature.

| Teju Cole, who was a finalist for the NBCC fiction award, won the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award, given to a debut novelist, for “Open City.” The book is an open-air rumination by a Nigerian medical student as he wanders around New York City.

| Two books of regional interest to West Virginians were named co-winners of the Gilder Lehmann Lincoln Prize, given each year for a book (or other work) about Abraham Lincoln or the Civil War. One of them, “Lincoln and the Border States: Preserving the Union” by William C. Harris, talks about Lincoln’s efforts to keep the border states, including Kentucky and Maryland, in the Union during the first three months of the war.

The other winner, “Lincoln’s Forgotten Ally” by Elizabeth D. Leonard, is a biography of Joseph Holt of Kentucky, who served as judge advocate general in Lincoln’s administration. Holt was, according to the book, a staunch Unionist surrounded by secessionists and a slave-owner who came to support emancipation.


Coming up: The Virginia Festival of the Book

The Virginia — that’s Virginia, not West Virginia — Festival of the Book is coming up later this month. A larger event than ours, it runs for five days and holds events all over the city of Charlottesville, home of the University of Virginia.

It’s mostly free, but there are a few sessions that you have to pay to get into; one of those features former West Virginia University basketball great Jerry West (who, I am compelled to mention, was presented free a few months ago at your West Virginia Book Festival).

Other presenters from past West Virginia Book Festivals include mystery writer Sharyn McCrumb (one of our early headliners) and Affrilachian poet Frank X Walker. There are several events that might be of interest to regional historians, including a couple of programs tied to Charlottesville’s 250th anniversary and one called “Moonshine, Mountaineers, and Motorcycles: On the Crooked Road Then and Now.” That last includes Charles Thompson, the author of “Spirits of Just Men,” a book that tells the story of moonshine in 1930s America through the lens of Franklin County, Va. — which is about 50 miles southeast of Monroe County, W.Va.

Unlike last year, I won’t be going to the Virginia event. If I were, the one event I would not miss is the one that includes Chad Harbach reading from his debut novel, “The Art of Fielding” (which I’m partway through now).

The Virginia Festival of the Book runs from March 21 to 25. If you love reading and writing and you’re looking to spend a day or two in a beautiful city with like-minded people. I highly recommend it — just like I’d recommend that denizens of the mother state take a day or two in October and come check out our event.

“Possession”: A romance, and much more

For the past two years, I’ve relied on my female colleagues here on the blog for a Valentine’s Day post. So I guess it’s my turn — but honestly, I’ve never read a lot of romance, and I wasn’t sure what to write about.

But while scanning our bookshelves for inspiration, I came across “Possession,” the Booker Prize-winning novel by A.S. Byatt. It’s a romance; it says so right on the cover: “Possession: A Romance.” It’s also a mystery, and a work of historical fiction, and an academic satire, and — well, it’s a fantastic book.

The novel opens with second-rate scholar Roland Mitchell in the library, finding heretofore unknown letters from the Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash. Mitchell figures out that the letters were written to proto-feminist poet Christabel LaMotte, so he enlists the aid of LaMotte scholar Maud Bailey in discovering the truth, which could rewrite everything the world knows about the eminent poet Ash.

The most remarkable part of “Possession” is the way Byatt creates two love affairs that are totally believable, and mirror each other in many ways, but are completely products of their age. The brief, passionate romance between Ash and LaMotte is Victorian in every respect: their conduct, their letters, and their adherence to the societal mores that eventually keep them apart. Bailey and Mitchell, meanwhile, fall haltingly into their own modern relationship. We know the first romance didn’t work; will the second?

When it came out in 1990, Washington Post book critic Michael Dirda gushed about “Possession” like he has few other books. He began his review, “Critics are paid to offer informed, careful judgments, full of erudition or good sense or both, but sometimes all we really want to say is ‘Wow!'” He ended his review by exclaiming, “What a love story! What a book!”

What better book to pick up for Valentine’s Day?

Zane Grey and his West Virginia roots

Today is the 140th birthday of the man who, with all due respect to Owen Wister and Louis L’Amour, might have more to do with the development of the western genre in American literature than anyone else.

But if it weren’t for his ancestors in what would become West Virginia — and one ancestor in particular — would Zane Grey have ever set pen to paper?

Well … probably, yes, he still would have. But there’s no denying that Grey’s first novel, “Betty Zane,” was the story of his aunt and her family, the first permanent white settlers in Wheeling, Virginia (later West Virginia). The story goes that in 1782, during the American Revolution, Fort Henry in Wheeling was besieged by American Indians (with some British soldiers and Tory colonists). The fort’s defenders ran out of gunpowder, and Betty Zane dashed out of the fort back to the Zanes’ cabin, where she gathered up a bunch of gunpowder before running back into the fort.

Did it really happen that way? As the West Virginia Encyclopedia notes, “Some historians are skeptical of the historical accuracy of Betty Zane’s deed, but the legend persists.”

As for Betty Zane’s descendant, he was born Jan. 31, 1872, in Zanesville, Ohio. He tried a few careers, including baseball player and dentist, before he finished “Betty Zane” in 1903. He had to self-publish it, and it wasn’t until his most famous book, “Riders of the Purple Sage,” nearly a decade later that his name as a writer was made.

I’ve never been a big Western fan, but a couple of years ago, I read “Riders of the Purple Sage.” I  wouldn’t call it great literature. It’s got a lot of stilted dialogue and two-dimensional characters. (And if you’re a Mormon, be warned; they are absolutely the villains of the book. Wow, he hates Mormons.) But the story is more nuanced that I expected, and the description of the sometimes beautiful, sometimes bleak landscape of the West is stirring. It’s not hard to see why it’s a landmark in the genre.

“Belle, the Last Mule at Gee’s Bend”

Authors: Calvin Alexander Ramsey and Bettye Stroud

Illustrator: John Holyfield

Publisher: Candlewick Press

“Belle, The Last Mule at Gee’s Bend” is a timely picture book related to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights era and Black History Month (coming up in February).

In this depiction of true historical events, Alex, a boy of elementary school age, is bored.  He sits and waits on the porch of a rural store in Gee’s Bend, Alabama, as his mother shops. There is nothing to do except watch a mule graze in a garden across the road.

When Miz Pettway, a native “Bender,” joins him on the bench, she tells him the mule, Belle, is hers. She adds, Belle is a hero and allowed to eat anything she wants in the garden.  Alex asks how a mule can be a hero and Miz Pettway explains: Belle had the honor of being one of two mules chosen to pull the farm wagon holding the casket of Martin Luther King Jr. And the story unfolds.

As unlikely as it seems, this picture book about the Civil Rights Era and the efforts to organize voter’s registration in Gee’s Bend, Alabama, tells the painful truth in a soft heartfelt way without being morbid or dwelling on the civil wrongs of the era.

West Virginians will be pleased to note the illustrator, John Holyfield, is a native of Clarksburg.  In addition to producing fine art in his Virginia studio, he illustrates picture books about the black experience.