Tuesday, March 3, 2009

"Forty acres of wood to burn if we need it, and food in the pantry."

Among the books on my bedside table right now, I have a library copy of Janice Holt Giles' first novel, These Enduring Hills (and a later novel, Miss Willie). Giles, as it turns out, sold millions of copies of her novels, most about Kentucky hill people, and lived not far from us over in Adair County. The second home that she shared with her husband, Henry, after they had to move to higher ground because of the Green River dam (one of the TVA projects of the New Deal), is preserved today and operated by the Giles Society.

Giles was born in Arkansas and met Henry during World War II and married him when he returned. They went to his family home place on Giles Ridge after a few years in Louisville. There, among other novels, she would write her first and most popular trilogy, including the above mentioned two novels and ending with Tara's Healing. She also wrote several non-fiction accounts of their lives in Adair County. Forty Acres and No Mule is a memoir of their coming back to Giles Ridge from Louisville and is a well-written back-to-the-land book. Giles' Kentucky novels were well received and it was especially high praise that the people she wrote about, although fictitious, were among her greatest fans. She is known for her accurate depictions of self-reliant hill people and many natives have told me that reading these novels goes a long way towards understanding the culture here. [Photo from Giles Society.]

I have a large collection of rural and back-to-the-land memoirs so was delighted to discover Giles last year after moving here ourselves. I can empathize with Giles and am intrigued to learn more about her. After all, while neither my husband or I came from Kentucky, we came to a ridge here, I'm a writer, and, like Henry and Janice Giles, we wanted to shed our former more urbane lifestyle for one more rural. We were rural before but, comparatively, we were far more suburban than I realized (with rural roots and farming in our DNA, more or less). Like Janice, I am, at times, a stranger in a strange land while my husband is more easily acclimated.

A few weeks ago I said I would post the occasional literary pantry reference. Here is a passage I came across last night in Forty Acres and No Mule and I found it relevant because we, too, have that elusive new house in mind. Also, the Giles' made do with very little and these kinds of books have so much relevance now. And can't we all relate to what she is writing here in some way? Simplify, simplify, simplify. I'm trying to make it a mantra as I sift through the detritus of stuff from our move last summer.

I have just taken a quick look around the living room to see. Henry's guns stand in one corner by the fireplace, and his fishing tackle is scattered over the mantel...A pair of gloves and Henry's boots are drying on the hearth, and Honey lies there with her paws stretched to the fire. In another corner two bags of cement are stacked. The house is the only place where Henry can be sure they will stay dry. The bookshelves ranging around two walls are full to cramming, not only with books but with the few pieces of ironstone I possess...On the table at the end of the couch is a stack of magazines, a dozen or so books, two reams of paper, three ash trays, a cup of coffee, and Henry's drawing instruments. He is at present working on plans for the barn.

But that's home. That's what makes it home, and when you evaluate happiness in terms of comfortable living, it takes remarkably few gadgets. For us it seems to take a chestnut log crackling on the fire, the popcorn popper handy nearby. It takes the wall of books, and the piano. It takes Henry on one side of the fire and me on the other and Honey in between. We've got a stout roof over our heads, tin though it be, and tight walls between us and the winter winds. We've got forty acres of wood to burn if we need it, and food in the pantry. We talk idly about building a new house someday. We may. But I wouldn't bet on it. We've lived ourselves into this little house now, and it gives us just about everything we want or need. What more could a new home do?

NOTE: The Giles' did eventually have to build a new house, in 1958, before the Green River was dammed and flooded their old property. Better Than Plumb is her account of that move and seismic shift, really, in their sense of place. All of Giles' books in print can be found at Cumberland Books, an on-line bookseller also based in south-central Kentucky, which bills itself as "helpful resources for folks pursuing the good life" and yes, they also carry The Pantry-Its History and Modern Uses, for which I'm grateful.

1 comment:

The Hen Pantry said...

Catherine,
Have you read about Harlan Hubbard, Kentucky writer, painter who lived a very simple life with his lovely wife in a home of their own making. The book I have was written by Wendell Berry and I think it was simply called Harlan Hubbard. Very good.