Sunday, October 9, 2011

Mama's Wreaths

By Julia Taylor Ebel with M. Joann Moretz

Published by Canterbury House, $10.95,

Reviewed by Linda Goodman

            This enchanting story poem is a loving tribute to the knowledge, traditions, and stories that richly infuse the North Carolina Mountain culture.

            Using the character of Joanie, a young mountain girl who wants nothing more than to make Christmas wreaths as beautiful as her mother’s, Julia Taylor Ebel guides us through the autumn and early winter seasons of a people who value character above wealth.

Ruled by the “I’ll be beholden to nobody” attitude that she learned from her daddy, Joanie will not rest until she can pay back the nickel (milk money) that her teacher gave her to replace the one that she lost. Particularly moving is the Lost episode in which Joanie, given the responsibility of delivering one of her mother’s wreaths, loses the money that she collected for it. Her resulting distress is caused by her knowledge that the lost money was to have been used for necessaries: flour, sugar, and shoes. When she finds the money, she experiences not only relief, but true joy:
not joy about the money
but joy about a job seen through,
about a trust kept,
about the smile I expect
on Mama's face
Making Christmas wreaths, we learn, requires skill, teamwork, and sacrifice. Listening to instructions is essential. Joanie hangs her own wreaths around her home, declaring that:
We may not have much money
 to spend for Christmas,
 but this is a Christmas house.
            Ebel credits Joann Moretz, who shared her memories of making wreaths in Watauga County, North Carolina, as her information source for this book. As a native Appalachian, I particularly appreciated Ebel’s simple black and white illustrations, which took me back to a time when life moved at a slower pace and Christmas was magic.  No expensive presents required: family and friends sharing the holiday spirit was the ultimate and most sought-after prize
          After the story’s end, Ebel adds information about the history of wreath making in the North Carolina Mountains and instructions on how you can make your own evergreen wreath. A study guide and book discussion starters are available on Ebel’s website.
            This book, recommended for ages eight through adult, would make a wonderful Christmas present for both young and old.  The young will delight in the intimate peek at a culture often taken for granted.  Adults will garner sweet memories of a time when Christmas was neither rushed nor expensive.  The book is one that children and adults can read together and equally appreciate. What better way to spend precious time and revel in the Christmas spirit?

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Hidden Treasure at The Mountain Spirits Art Festival

            I have always preferred community theater productions to professional ones because I love being one of the favored few to witness a stellar performance given by an actor who is relatively unknown.  You know what I am talking about – that performance that is so convincing it consumes the stage and makes you forget that what you are watching is acting.

            This past weekend, I had that same experience at the first annual (hopefully) Mountain Spirits Art Festival at the Franklin County Library in Rocky Mount, Virginia.  In addition to painting, quilts, music, and regional authors, four storytelling performances were featured.

            I was one of the four storytellers.  The other three were Charlie Lytton, David Bass, and Linda Hartman.

            Of the other three tellers, the only one that I had heard before was Charlie Lytton.  I had the pleasure of hearing him share Appalachian tall tales at the Galax Book Festival, where he graciously invited me to share the stage at the end of his set. As a performer, I found him to be both charming and captivating.  As a person, I found him to be both a gentlemen and a generous colleague. I am truly enjoying my copy of his book, New River: bonnets, apple butter, and moonshine (The Raising of a Fat Little Boy). 

            I am happy to report that Charlie is not a one-story wonder. At Mountain Spirits, he shared a beautiful yet tragic true ghost story about the specters of two little girls haunting the Appalachian Trail.  I was left heartbroken by the image of these young giggling ghosts, seen by hikers on the trail from time to time. 

            David Bass, a dead ringer for Hal Holbrook, followed Charlie onstage to share a funny, endearing tale of Grandpa Hurt, who was so entranced with the new “horseless carriage” that he decided to get one of his own.  This well-researched and expertly constructed story made me appreciate modern times, where a simple twist of a key in an ignition will start a car. Bass certainly knows how to use movement, body language and facial expressions to enhance a story. I almost split my sides laughing at Grandpa Hurt unsuccessfully trying to crank his new car and get in the driver’s seat before he had to crank again.

            Linda Hartman was the only storyteller whose set I was able to watch in its entirety (I had customers wanting to buy my book during the others).  Linda actually became the characters in each of her stories, expertly changing her voice, body language, and facial expressions for each one. Watching her face progress from reluctance to surprise to downright delight as her character chewed a gooey substance from an unknown flower was pure magic. Her command of her voice was phenomenal. Amazed at her mastery of the stage whisper, I was so enraptured that I jumped several times when she pumped up the volume. Her stories were about the importance of listening and about courage in the face of dangerous odds.  The children attending were riveted to her performance.  Even the adults were captivated.

            Unfortunately, attendance at the festival was small, probably due to the unusually cold weather and competition from a Virginia Tech home football game. Library staff, though, seemed to enjoy the event and hope to have it again next year. Congratulations and thanks are due to the Franklin County Public Library for hosting this event.