“I won’t tell you what kind of man your daddy was. I’ll let my story do that and you be the judge.”

Brown Baggers book group met virtually on Thursday, April 15 at noon to discuss Go Down the Mountain by Meredith Battle. The novel promises to be a coming of age and love story, a story of family dysfunction and loss, and also the story of community: Virginia families displaced by the government as land is siphoned to create a National Park. Many of us have been intrigued by the chimneys scattered throughout Shenandoah National Park; these are the stately scars, all that remain of the countless houses taken and burned. Some of us have seen the resettlement house offerings in Madison county, still standing. The novel is close enough to home that we were eager to get started, and as we read, all of us enjoyed the local references littered throughout the narrative. And yet having the book set in our backyard was not enough to win us over. A majority of readers found this book disappointing, melodramatic, surface level, and at times, amateurish. 

That being said, we were disappointed for the best reason: we wanted to know more, and Battle’s story did not dredge deeply enough into the historical content promised to us as readers. We were not satisfied with the innumerable plot points meant to excite and shock us; we wanted to know more intimately about the experience of displacement, or the economic or social gains the state and nation had to gain from creating the park. We were fascinated by the Virginia Colony for the Feebleminded — just as we were intrigued by the snake charming, children begging in burlap, a state-abducted infant, shoot-outs and human-destroying dogs, and the love triangle to boot. There was plenty of intrigue here — but sadly, not enough deep-diving to quench our thirst for understanding, or our curiosity to know these characters on a human level.

While the sentimental among us enjoyed the loose structure of the novel — a mother writing to her daughter to finally reveal “the truth” of her lineage — we also agreed this strategy would have been more affecting if the daughter was old enough to find the box of letters herself. We could then get to know her as a character and witness the story twofold: as it happened to our narrator, and then how her daughter processed it. Not only would this have focused the story and brought more richness to the characters, as they thought about and interacted with one another, but it also would have introduced a generational element to the story, which many of our readers enjoyed recently in Red At The Bone

In the end, some of the Brown Baggers learned for the first time about the reality of families being forced off of their own land so that Shenandoah could be created. Some were not familiar at all with the devastating reality of being stripped of not only your land, but also your livelihood. Some were also introduced to the evil of eugenics and forced sterilization. We all agreed that this book — while not our favorite — is now driving us to pursue more information. As we continue to read as a group, a recurring comment is, “I never knew….” Month after month, we are unearthing truths that have always existed, but that are new to us. Whether we’ve contributed to the writing of history, or just ingested the often unilateral narrative, our reading is nudging us to find another version. Another version, and another, and another. We thank Battle for her story, full of twists, turns, and to her credit, one surprise after another. We also thank her for sparking us to read and learn more. 

The Brown Baggers will meet again virtually on Thursday, May 20 at noon to discuss The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead. Please email kfarrell@jmrl.org for details on how to participate from your computer or phone.

Books Mentioned:

Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia by Steven Stoll

“Answer At Once”: Letters of Mountain Families in Shenandoah National Park, 1934-1938 ed. Katrina Powell

The Anguish of Displacement: The Politics of Literacy in the Letters of Mountain Families in Shenandoah National Park by Katrina Powell

Writing Appalachia: An Anthology by Tess Lloyd 

Contrasted to books by Lee Smith

Links:

The Displaced People of Shenandoah National Park: a ArcGIS Story Map (sponsored by Greene Co. VA) – included history, photos, video, and modern interpretations

Oral Histories of the CCC in Shenandoah – collected by the NPS

Living In Virginia: The Iris Still Blooms (YouTube) – part of a video series by VA Public Media, this section covers the displacement

Shenandoah National Park Oral History Collection (solid state held at JMU) – part of an archival collection which includes oral history from folks living in the mountains before the creation of the park (materials accessible online)

Monument to Families Displaced by Shenandoah National Park Unveiled – Daily Progress

Blue Ridge Heritage Project Monument – Homepage (NPS)

Shenandoah Secrets: Pork, Propaganda, and the Creation of a COOL National Park – Lisa Provence, The Hook

Shenandoah National Park History and Culture – National Park Service

Shenandoah National Park: From Idea to Reality – National Park Service

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