Thursday, July 14, 2011


You can listen to my review of Chinaberry by James Still(edited by Silas House) on WVXU's Around Cincinnati archives.

New this spring from The University Press of Kentucky is James Still's final masterpiece, Chinaberry, edited by Silas House. Celebrated as the "Dean of Appalachian Literature," Still--a novelist, poet, short story writer and folklorist--spanned nearly two-thirds of the 20th Century in his career. At his death in 2001, he was actively working on Chinaberry which takes its title from a Texas ranch that is the backdrop for the story. Still's friends and family approached best-selling novelist. Silas House (who is also the current NEH Chair of Appalachian Studies at Berea College in Berea, KY) with the task of piecing together the papers and notes Still had stored for years in a broken leather briefcase. In a beautifully written introduction, House describes the process of editing the work while remaining true to the author's intention for plot, theme, tone and syntax. House addresses the musical craft contained in a particular sentence in this way:

"A reader could sing this line aloud if she took a notion and all the while feel the heat of the Texas sun on her neck, smell the corn baking in the fields, and see the limp leaves on the trees. A whole way of life packed into one rhythmic and lovely sentence."

The story itself, told by a small-for-his-age narrator, is both engaging and curious, and might--as the afterword by Carol Boggus notes--be at least partially autobiographical. A thirteen-year-old boy travels to Texas with his temporary guardian, Ernest, and a pair of pranksters dubbed "The Knuckleheads" for their endless mischief. It is the boy's father's wish that he experience Texas for the summer.

As the traveling companions seek employment picking cotton, the boy is quickly swept off to a cattle ranch where the owners live in the shadow of a child's death. The boy spends the next several months living with ranchers, Lurie and Anson Winters, trying to unravel the mysteries of Chinaberry's complex inhabitants and their longings.

In fact, while one of the major themes of the novel seems to be nature of memory, another important theme examines the idea of longing: the boy for his home, the Winters for a child, Lurie for a unique place in her husband's heart, Anson for his lost baby, and even the narrator's father for his beloved Texas. In their leaning toward these aching spaces in their lives, the characters cause the reader to consider the durable human spirit.

"Throughout my editing of this manuscript," says Silas House in the introduction, "it seemed very clear to me that Mr. Still wanted, more than anything, to tell the truth in this book while also leaving some mystery behind. The truth, of course is the human condition, and conveying it is a tall order for any writer. That's exactly what the haunting ending does."

Chinaberry renders the epic flavor of Texas in the early 20th Century with an artistry that places the reader in each savory second of the narrative. In the afterward, Carol Boggus weighs in on the autobiographical links to the work with this comment,:

"Whether Chinaberry is mostly fact or fiction, the result is indisputable,a beautiful, but haunting tale, a simple but complicated situation, an adventure taking a real Alabama boy into a fantasy world in Texas, then sending him back home again, changed forever."

The reader, too, is changed by these characters and their longings in their time and their place "where half the world was sky."

You can find a link to Chinaberry by James Still, edited by Silas House at

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