Mountain Culture and Worldview
The Songcatcher is an introduction to the culture and worldview of the people of the Southern Appalachian mountains at the beginning of the 21st Century. It does this by introducing the reader to some wonderful multidimensional characters who belong to that culture and share in that worldview. Episodes are described from various periods of the characters' lives, giving the reader insights into how their lives were developed by their culture and how their experiences slowly altered their worldview in turn. In this way we get to know the characters as real persons, not entirely good or evil, each with their own strengths and weaknesses following their own agendas within the framework of mountain culture, rather than the single dimensional stereotypical images that define most writing about the people of the mountains. Then, using family genealogy. we are givens descriptions of events from the lives of our character's ancestors for several generations, allowing the reader further insights into the development of the mountain worldview and how that worldview continues to guide the current character's attitudes and actions generations later.
There are questions we ask about other people all the time without ever receiving an answer or acquiring the insights into that person's personality or behavior that we imagine such answers could bring. We are generally left confused about them and thereby we lose any insight we might have gained about ourselves. "Why does he always seem so grouchy?" "Why does she close herself off from others so?" "Have they never gotten along?" "Can't they see what they are doing to each other?" In the Songcatcher, Author Sharyn McCrumb shows us where in the history of family interactions these attitudes, mannerisms and actions originated and how they go on to affect family dynamics for generations to come. It becomes fairly easy then to find in our own lives and relationships similar patterns of behavior and similar results.We can begin then to see how our own cultural perceptions can determine our worldview and how it then informs all our beliefs, actions, attitudes and behaviors. It is easy to see ourselves in Ms McCrumb's characters.
The catalyst for the story is an old folk song that entered the family a couple hundred years ago, accompanied several characters through the trials and adventures of their lives and was in turn passed on to a member or members of the next generation. You can follow the slight alterations in melody and words that contribute to the evolution of the song, just as the song chronicles and contributes to the evolution of the characters touched by it. The song takes on a life of its own as it winds its way into the present events and changes them, contributing once again to the culture of the people of the mountains.
In many ways it could be likened to Alex Hailey's book Roots. In that any understanding gained about the characters involved depends upon our gaining an understanding of the experiences and culture of the generations that went before them. We are all, for good or ill, the product of our past. Our lives are the result of other lives that preceded our own and is the tale of what they communicated to us about them, and what we then do with that tale.
Roots told us about the evolution and rise of African-American culture and it's worldview based upon the experiences of its participants represented by one family that went from being free in the old world to being enslaved in the new world and their struggle to regain, not only their personal liberty, but the sense of their reason for being amidst a hostile new environment. This all occurred over the course of generations.
What Roots did for the story of an African-American family, The Songcatcher does for the family of a Scottish boy, kidnapped, taken away from his homeland, enslaved, But rising above the adversity He become a lawyer in the New World, then a frontiersman. As in Roots, he and his family have to discover their reason for being on the wild frontier of this New World and allow it build them into the family they become over the course of generations.
My favorite scene was when Malcomb McCourrey, a man who came to this country as a kidnapped indentureed servant, with no family or friends, who had spent years building a life as a successful small town lawyer with which he provided for his family; when he found that he did not fit into the prevalent culture of his time and geographical location, found the courage in his later years to leave it all in capable hands and, taking little with him, go out to the Western Frontier and rebuild a new live from nothing. A life that did fit him and no other because it was custom made for him. A life of hardships and a life of satisfaction, without regard for what others might think of him for doing so. In that act he built the mountain family this story was about.
I grew up in the mountain culture of the Southern Appalachian Mountains, so it brought a lot back for me. Many times while listening I would burst into laughing out loud. I found it a delightful book.
Enjoying reading a book and enjoying the same book as an audio book are two different experiences. In both you must have a good story with good characters all held together by creative and engaging writing by an author who can entertain with words. But in addition to that, an audio book has to be well-performed, either by a reader or by several reading the various characters parts. It helps tremendously if the performer can make you believe they are the character they are portraying by the use of accents and vocal expressions. Many find this much more difficult for a Southern novel. The Southern accents (there are more than one and none have the Gone With the Wind sound that is so popular in Hollywood) have been derided as a form of expression denoting ignorance, suspicion and closed-mindedness. None of that was apparent in this novel. The accents were real and natural and the acting was good. All making for a very enjoyable and entertaining experience.
I have listened to several of the author's audio books, and I'm sure I am not yet done with them. However, this is not because I am enthralled with the writing or the performances, but because I am enthralled with the subject matter: the culture of the Southern Appalachian mountains. The paternal side of my family has inhabited those very mountains in NC in which the novel takes place since the late 1700s. My great grandfather fought for the Union in the 2nd NC Mounted Infantry which fought in the battle of Waynesville, the last battle of the Civil War as described in the novel. I generally find Ms. McCrumb's historical research to be quite good, and, in general, I like the way she writes. However, I grew up with the ghost stories and the supernatural lore of the Southern Appalachians, so I found the utter absence of any Christian references in the realm of the supernatural and the placing of so much New Age and Neopagan rhetoric in the mouths of the old people of the mountains to be quite disingenuous. I would give the book itself about 3.5 out of five possible points.
As for the performances, they did have their moments. Some of the accents were done flawlessly. The best of which was undoubtedly the character of Melinda Blalock. However, some of the characters have the faked Hollywood "Gone With the Wind" type Southern accents. They sound more like they came from a Georgia plantation than a NC mountain. About half the characters were very good and so, about half weren't and a few were just bad. I would give the performances a 3 out of five possible points.
The most memorable moment for me involved the Nora Bonesteel character. Nora (pronounced "Norie" in the hills just as Tom Dula is pronounced "Dooley") is one of my favorites of Ms McCrumb's characters. She also appeared in the Legend of Tom Dooley book. My favorite scene is the one that describes the adult Nora's caretaking of the Yankee soldier's grave, fulfilling a promise her ancestors had made to a dying young man and his family in New England more than 100 yrs ago. To her ancestors, Nora said, taking care of an enemy's grave was about proving to themselves that their word was true, and for her it was the tie between herself and them.
"way too gravelly" Even their children's characters sound like old men.
Actually, I could. However, it would probably be an overly sentimental made for TV movie or else a TV series based on the misadventures of Keith and Melinda Blalock during the Civil War.
While I enjoyed Ghost Riders and do not regret the time nor money spent, if it had been my first Sharyn McCrumb novel I don't think it would have inspired me to want to hear more of them. However, since I have heard a few others, this one does not deter me from wanting to hear more of them.
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